NSW coach Brad Fittler has revealed that Jordan McLean had been on his radar for more than five years after he asked to assess him by former Blues mentor Laurie Daley and urged aging players never to give up on their Origin dreams.
Fittler, who chose McLean to make his Origin debut in next Wednesday night’s series decider at 30 year of age, recalled a discussion with Daley and his Blues advisor Peter Sterling about the merits of the Cowboys prop at a hotel near Sydney airport.
A number of other forwards were under consideration and Daley sought the opinions of Fittler and another former NSW captain and coach, Wayne Pearce, as well as Sterling.
“A long time ago I remember talking to some people in a room and he was one of those young players about to make his debut, but he never quite got there,” Fittler said.
“Without a doubt I think his form over the last couple of years wasn’t that great, most probably because along with the North Queensland team, and they were finishing near the bottom end of the ladder.”
McLean was included in a 20-man NSW squad in 2017 under Daley but that was as close as he had come to pulling on a Blues jersey until Fittler chose him in an extended squad for Origin II.
When Broncos front-rower Payne Haas succumbed to shoulder and ankle injuries, Fittler didn't hesitate to hand McLean his Origin debut.
After being a member of the Kangaroos squad for the 2017 World Cup, McLean joins a select group of players to have represented Australia before playing Origin.
The Young Cherry Pickers junior, who won a premiership with the Storm in 2017, is the fifth oldest Blues debutant after Tony Butterfield, Max Krillich, Hazem El Masri and Matt Prior.
“I know Tony Butterfield was older and I had a lot of time with Tony, so hopefully he has as big an impact as Tony,” Fittler said.
“I think there is a lot of messages there for different players – if you are getting to 30 it is never too late, if you are a young person then playing in a successful team is the best way to go forward.
“With what he has been doing for the Cowboys, he is a bit of an unsung hero for them. Their whole club has been unbelievable this year, not only are they winning games but the spirit they are showing - and he has been a big part of that.”
However, replacing Haas is going to be a big ask and Fittler admitted he would need to review his interchange rotation as the injured Bronco plays long minutes and has a high work-rate.
The loss of Haas may have been in a factor in Fittler’s decision to stick with Siosifa Talakai on the interchange ahead of Jack Wighton, who had been NSW’s best player in the series opening 16-10 loss at Accor Stadium.
Wighton missed the 44-12 triumph in Perth due to COVID and was expected to come back into the team but Fittler was loathe to drop Matt Burton from the left centre role and Talakai offers the ability to play as a middle or edge forward, as well as centre if needed.
“That was a tough one but I think the versatility that Sifa gives us on the bench is most probably the reason we went with Sifa instead of Jack,” Fittler said. “If he is our 18th player then the other 17 are obviously playing well.”
Asked if he was playing mind games and would consider a late change, Fittler said: “I don’t want to outsmart myself”.
He also said Latrell Mitchell’s decision to rule himself out of contention after his comeback from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for 12 weeks had saved another tough decision.
“At the end of the day when I think about it that was most probably the smartest thing to happen,” Fittler said. “He was out for a couple of months at least and I thought he played really well. Like Payne I will look forward to seeing how he goes at the back end of the year.”
Mitchell felt it would be unfair on his Rabbitohs team-mates or Blues centres Matt Burton and Stephen Crichton if he had played Origin after just one match in three months.
“It is good that he was really positive about the team and those two guys in particular,” Fittler said. “You have got two real young centres there, it is a tough position to play and we have most probably been a little bit vulnerable there.
“We considered Jack but I think Matt offered a little but more . What Jack brings is different to what Matt brings so we went with Matt.”