Since his debut for New South Wales in 2008 at the tender age of 19, Pearce has been the subject of intense scrutiny and, as the team’s halfback, has shouldered what some would consider an unfair portion of blame for the Blues continued struggles during Queensland’s decade long reign of terror. Pearce is a premiership winning halfback and an outstanding player at club level, anyone who attempts to argue otherwise is clearly operating under a cloud of manufactured dislike and probably gets their quota of news from the Daily Telegraph. I will concede that he has, on occasion, struggled in the representative arena and while, as halfback, his role is to be heavily involved, at the end of the day he is only one of seventeen players in blue and cannot make the forwards run straight or Blake “Butterfingers” Ferguson hold onto the ball. Critics are continually asking for Pearce to be replaced, I question with who? The sad reality is that New South Wales has no players of the calibre of Johnathan Thurston or Cooper Cronk. Trent Hodkinson, the Blues halfback for their 2014 streak ending win, cannot even hold down a starting spot for the bottom of the ladder Newcastle Knights.
This State of Origin series has been Pearce’s best. I’ve always argued that he’s more of a running halfback than a skilled kicker and he’s demonstrated that, scoring a try in each Origin game so far with his speed, step and support play. In game one, before leaving the field with a concussion Pearce made 20 tackles in 55 minutes, more than his halves partner across the whole game and almost as many as the Queensland pairing combined (23). He repeated this strong performance in game two with 24 tackles in 80 minutes, leaving Queensland for dust, 19 tackles combined and 8 missed tackles. I’m not attempting to claim for a moment that Pearce is faultless and I have in previous years called for his omission from the side, but he is not only the best option New South Wales has available to them, he is the option that has been selected and will be pulling on the number 7 jersey on Wednesday night despite his overly vocal and strangely passionate opposition.
If you’ve stuck around this long I commend you, this was initially just going to be a post extolling the virtues of Mitchell Pearce and declaring this Wednesday night as his opportunity for a redemption which I don’t necessarily think he requires. But following Queensland’s zany team announcement containing what can only be described as questionable selections, there are now two sides to this coin. Two men will enter Suncorp Stadium on Wednesday night facing almost as many hostile faces from their own state as they do from the opposition. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Ben Hunt.
Slated to make his debut on the bench for the Maroons in the upcoming State of Origin decider, it is almost impossible to mention Ben Hunt (at least in the circles I run in) without bringing up his capitulation in the 2015 grand final, culminating in an extra time knock on that all but gifted the Cowboys a field goal and their maiden premiership. Completely discounting the fact that Hunt and his halves partner Anthony Milford had only spent one season playing together and were among the least experienced halves in the competition, yet still guided their side all the way to the grand final, Hunt’s season, and his ensuing career will be remembered for that 5 minutes, and that dropped ball. I don’t think I’m wrong in suggesting that Hunt’s career has stuttered from this moment on resulting in him leaving (being shouldered out) of the Broncos at the end of this season and finding himself playing for the Ipswitch Jets as little as a month ago. Still, Ben Hunt finds himself with an opportunity to silence his doubters and perhaps return some self confidence as he settles onto the pine for Queensland on Wednesday night as they (unsuccessfully) attempt to stage one of the bigger comebacks in modern rugby league.
While a loss will undoubtedly see either player further vilified in the eyes of the “fans”, I can’t imagine a win will completely negate the negative energy and perception generated by their selections. Still, both men enter Suncorp on Wednesday with something to prove, to the rugby league public and more importantly, themselves. May the Bluest man win.