Nathan Cleary has leapt to the defence of Queensland’s teenage whiz kid Reece Walsh, insisting the horrific conditions which bamboozled him before his State of Origin debut would have brought most experienced fullbacks undone.
As senior Blues players distanced themselves from the hype attached to the 18-year-old fullback, Walsh received an endorsement from the man who could make his first Maroons appearance a nightmare at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday night.
Maroons coach Paul Green and selectors have shown a massive leap of faith choosing Walsh, who has played just seven NRL games, for the must-win game two in Brisbane. With Kalyn Ponga still unavailable through injury, Queensland moved Valentine Holmes back to the wing.
And the selection of Walsh has been queried after he struggled to defuse a number of Jake Clifford kicks as the Knights edged past the Warriors in dreadful conditions at McDonald Jones Stadium last weekend.
Asked whether they would pepper Walsh with an aerial assault, Cleary smiled and said: “We’ll see”.
But he said Walsh’s pre-Origin wobbles in Newcastle wouldn’t be the sole factor in determining how to take advantage of the No.1’s inexperience.
“Honestly, I think most fullbacks would have struggled on that afternoon but we’ll try to test him out,” Cleary said. “He’s come on the scene very quickly and he’s killing it. Good on him. It will obviously be a big test and he’s a confident kid who won’t be scared of the challenge.”
The selection of Walsh was branded “disgraceful” by NSW’s most successful coach Phil Gould after the Warriors said in the lead-up to the squad naming he should be kept in check for future years.
Warriors coach Nathan Brown said his concerns were allayed when he spoke to Green on Sunday.
But the Blues have tried not to immerse themselves in the controversy surrounding Walsh, who will become the the second least experienced player to debut in Origin. Ben Ikin was called into the Queensland side in 1995 after only four top grade games.
“I know a lot of people are going to talk about [Walsh], but he’s playing really good footy,” NSW captain James Tedesco said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to be nervous playing this game. It’s up to us to put a bit of pressure on him through our kicking game and I know Nath will do that.
“Again, we’re not going to put too much focus on him. Our main focus is ourselves. We know there’s going to be a lot of talk about their team, but we don’t want to buy into that too much.”
The Blues have been forced to make just one change to the team which routed the Maroons 50-6 in Townsville, Angus Crichton coming into the 17 for the injured Jake Trbojevic (glute). Melbourne’s Dale Finucane has been added to the extended squad as cover.
The Blues enjoyed a rare day off in Kingscliff on Wednesday as former captain Boyd Cordner joined camp.
The two-time Origin-winning skipper was invited to help the NSW preparations after an emotional retirement last week due to ongoing concussion concerns.
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