Centre nervous system: Specialists better suited to crucial spot with Turbo out – but could Tedesco make Blues switch?


Attacking prowess is no longer the defining feature of a top-class centre and especially in Origin, powerful hit-ups and defensive clout are now the must-have requirements for the role. 

The ability to hit a hole or create one out of nothing is still an essential ingredient of a top-class centre but they have to also be able to marshal the edge defensive lines. 

Defending either side of wingers and halves, they are now the secondary second-rower out wide who has to make split-second decisions to rush up or hold back when confronted with the modern sweep play where multiple bodies are hurtling towards them to be a decoy, a hole runner or a distributor with a lightning quick catch and pass to the flank. 

Now that Tom Trbojevic has been hamstrung for at least the first two matches of the 2024 State of Origin series, new coach Michae Maguire has a chance to do something NSW have done just twice in the past 15 matches – pick two specialists in the centres. 

The last time they ran out with two regular centres in a live Origin rubber was when Josh Morris and Latrell Mitchell, when he was a Rooster before switching to fullback at Souths, lined up for the 2019 series opener.

Brad Fittler gave it a whirl in last year’s dead rubber Origin III with Bradman Best starting on debut alongside another specialist in Stephen Crichton. 

Maguire was all but certain to select Trbojevic as one of his two centres until the Manly star fullback limped off Suncorp Stadium on Thursday night during the loss to the Dolphins. 

With Panthers star Dylan Edwards mounting yet another strong case for inclusion in the NSW side and pressure mounting on James Tedesco following two straight series losses, a left-field solution could be to switch the veteran Rooster to centre. 

Unlike Edwards, the 31-year-old skipper has the size to muscle up on an edge in defence while the attacking skills required at centre are similar to those that Tedesco is used to providing from the back, however they are usually restricted to one side of the field.

James Tedesco and Tom Trbojevic. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

He has precisely zero matches at centre in his 235-game NRL career but Tedesco actually has some representative experience in the role – three matches for Italy at the 2017 World Cup to accommodate his childhood role model Anthony Minichiello in the No.1 jersey. 

It would be a bold move if the Blues went down that path but after using Trbojevic, Jack Wighton, Clint Gutherson and Matt Burton at centre in recent years, they have hardly been averse to selecting players who don’t line up there regularly.

Mitchell makes his return from a three-game striking suspension on Saturday for South Sydney against St George Illawarra and after a month out and just three matches to prove he’s worthy of a Blues recall, picking him would also be a major gamble. 

Wighton has been playing out wide regularly for the Bunnies but with 10 line breaks conceded, he trails only Parramatta’s Morgan Harper (13) among centres in the NRL this season in that category.

Burton has shown in his two Origins in 2022 at centre that he does not look out of place – he did after all play there for the Panthers the previous year in the first of their premiership hat-trick.

Despite the fact that he is a strong hole runner, using him there is not maximising his strengths and the Blues would be better served by reuniting him with Nathan Cleary, assuming his hamstring is OK, in the halves to unleash his booming left boot as a secondary playmaker or as a bench utility if Nicho Hynes gets the five-eighth’s gig ahead of him.

If the Blues go with specialists, there are five standout contenders for the two spots. Zac Lomax is not one of them – he’s still rocks and diamonds when the Dragons use him there and his only chance of an Origin debut is on the wing.

Crichton, with six Origins under his belt and an accomplished performer on either side of the field, is the frontrunner for NSW with former Panthers teammate Izack Tago, Cronulla’s Jesse Ramien, Newcastle’s Bradman Best and Brisbane speedster Kotoni Staggs his main rivals.

Tago represented Samoa at the 2022 World Cup but has stated his desire to also turn out in the sky-blue of NSW.

His defence has improved out of sight this season, conceding only three line breaks in eight appearances to go with the nine he’s made at the attacking end. 

Bradman Best celebrates scoring a try. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

However, he is still not quite the finished product – no other centre has made more handling errors than his 14 at Penrith and he’s also the most penalised in his position with 10. 

Ramien is in career-best form at Cronulla – he has always had the power to sting opponents in defence but he has improved his ability to read the play, involved in only three try causes out wide in eight appearances. 

Staggs has also matured at the Broncos into a more adept all-round player and like Ramien, has only been part of three try causes this season. 

He was cast aside in typical Blues fashion after an underwhelming debut was curtailed by injury in Origin I two years ago and is undoubtedly a better player now but is probably unlikely to get a recall such is the high-quality competition for centre berths.

Best was brilliant in his Blues debut last year – he stormed over for two tries and produced a couple of line break assists to rise to the occasion. 

His form with the Knights has been patchy at times, strong at others, in 2024 – it’s the kind of resume that traditionally causes Blues selectors to drop a candidate while the Maroons have history of sticking by players like Best’s Knights centre partner Dane Gagai to perform at Origin level even if their performances at club level aren’t consistently high.

Now that Turbo’s injury has created an unexpected vacancy on an edge, Best probably deserves another crack at left centre with Crichton on the right. 

There is no such thing as an unimportant selection at Origin level but Maguire needs to ensure he pulls the right rein with his centres to solve the Blues’ edge defence problems which have been a costly problem that’s brought them undone on several occasions in their back-to-back series defeats.

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