Gould’s shock solution to Blues’ Origin halves puzzle
THE most successful Blues coach in Origin history has hinted that the missing piece to the New South Wales halves puzzle is an untried 20-year-old who hasn't played footy for a month.
Confirmation of Mitchell Pearce's long-term pectoral injury last weekend and James Maloney's outstanding form for the Panthers leaves new Blues coach Brad Fittler with a hole to fill in his halves.
There are a number of contenders putting their names forward but according to Gould the solution is not a simple one.
Luke Brooks has blossomed into the talent NSW fans hoped he could be to lead the Wests Tigers' superb start to 2018 and put himself back in the Origin frame.
Ipswich-born Luke Keary has in many ways outshone Cooper Cronk in the Roosters halves and Broncos half Jack Bird has the support of influential figures such as Andrew Johns.
But Gould has raised serious doubts about Maloney partnering with either Brooks or Keary while former Blues hooker Michael Ennis believes Bird has not shown the type of form that warrants a starting spot in such a critical position.
Prior to suffering a medial ligament knee injury in Round 3 that was initially predicted to sideline him for 10 weeks and rule him out of contention, Panthers No.7 Nathan Cleary was being talked about in the vein of 'old enough if good enough'.
Cleary said on Sunday that he was hopeful of making an earlier than expected return - possibly as soon as Round 10 - which would give him as many as three games in which to prove his worth before Fittler names his first Origin 17.
According to Gould, he represents the right fit to partner Maloney but has to be selected on one condition.
"I think Maloney's a lock," Gould said.
"One thing I would be looking to do to partner Maloney is someone who has got a really good attacking kicking game.
"In Origin where it's going to be tight, if you aren't able to produce points or pressure and line dropouts from restarts you need someone with a really smart and adept kicking game.
"The problem with a Brooks-Maloney combination is that they both play on the left; the problem with a Keary-Maloney combination is that they both play on the left.
"That's where they defend so you've got to ask one of them to move and get out of their comfort zone.
"The combinations aren't really working for me at the moment but they're all talented players.
"Nathan's still got a long way to go in his career, a long way to go in his career.
"But he's such a talented kid and he would learn so quickly and having Maloney with him, having spent the last four or five months training with him, would be tremendous for him.
"My only concern with Cleary is that if they go for a Cleary this year they must lock in to keep him there for a long time."
Cleary was ranked ninth in the NRL for forced line dropouts last season with 19 with Luke Brooks (10), Blake Green (seven), Adam Reynolds and Aidan Sezer (both five) the leading NSW-eligible players in that stat through seven games this season.
Sezer is best of the Blues contenders for try assists from kicks this season, one ahead of Eels five-eighth Mitchell Moses.
Ennis played eight Origins for NSW and won a premiership with Bird at the Sharks in 2016 but doesn't share the view of Johns that he should line up in the Blues' No.6 jersey for Game One in Melbourne on June 2.
"I love Jack as a player, I share a close connection with him, we won a premiership together but his form's not near where it was," Ennis said on NRL Tonight.
"I know Andrew Johns and guys like that have spoken publicly about him being a big-game player - and he certainly is that, I don't deny that.
"But in terms of him starting in the halves? I don't think on current form you could put him in front of Luke Keary.
"Luke Keary for me has got Origin written all over him.
"He's a little warrior. He's in everything, he's fast, he's direct, he loves to play through and run the football."