If you went back six weeks and told people that Jordan McLean would be the most talked-about roster for the Origin decider, no one would believe you’re from the future.
Having his best season in a good few years, McLean remains an honest, uncompromising and consistent frontrunner, but most fans would have had a long list for the North Queensland prop.
So at first glance, McLean’s roster seems to stem from a classic Origin tradition – the unannounced player, selected out of the blue because the time has come when his state needs him.
In the happy ending version of the story, the player has a blinder and joins the ranks of Origins cult heroes even if he only plays once or twice. Think Adam Mogg, or Brenko and Edrick Lee, or Corey Allan, or the 1995 side of Paul Vautin.
Sure, there are times when it fails, but Origin is built on such a mythology, dating back to Arthur Beetson in 1980, when the future Immortal was chosen to command his state from reserve class.
Only, McLean doesn’t quite fit this mold: he’s not well known enough (he’s played for Australia and won a grand final, and would debut in Origin in 2018 or 2019 if it weren’t for an injury) and this isn’t a classic State or Origin story – it’s more of a Queensland story.
All of the above players are Queenslanders who have played a part in Queensland’s famous victories. McLean’s selection is a Maroon-esque move, only he will wear a blue jersey.
Over 42 seasons of Origin football, New South Wales has proven time and again that there isn’t much room for cult heroes.
Picking from a larger pool of players, the Blues are rarely forced into a corner like Queensland. New South Wales almost never turns to someone like Mogg, or the Lee cousins, or McLean, because they almost never have the need.
The reaction to McLean’s roster is more about the other players available – players such as Reagan Campbell-Gillard, who was selected for Origin I before disappearing from the roster, or Daniel Saifiti, one of the Blues’ best in the past two series and now seemingly left out, or David Klemmer, another tried and true artist at the interstate level whose exile over the past three years has been hard to comprehend.
The Blues can be so spoiled for choice that only the best of the best is good enough, and in a team of champions there is rarely a place for anything less. They don’t really do cult classics, just bestsellers.
They almost never have to pick someone out of the blue and hope for the best because there is almost always another star to choose from.
If a player is selected out of the blue and it doesn’t work they become a punch line – just ask Jarrod Mullen or Jamie Buhrer or Steve Turner – or even if they do, they aren’t celebrated like the Queensland bolters.
No one in New South Wales is talking about someone like Matt Prior, who did a good job in Origin II in 2018 when the Blues wrapped up the series in what turned out to be his only interstate appearance, or Trent Hodkinson, the hero of the 2014 series, like Queensland does with Ethan Lowe, or John Buttigieg or John Doyle.
Their stories are remembered and retold and celebrated as an example of New South Welshmen answering the call when the time was right and getting the job done against the odds.
If Hodkinson was from Queensland, and if he had broken a streak of eight wins in New South Wales, there would be a framed photo of him above the mantle in every house north of the Tweed. But in its own state, it’s considered something closer to a historical footnote.
Where Queensland has successfully weaponized their mythology to the point of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Blues have rarely needed inspiration from an underdog roster.
They will go into next Wednesday’s decider as popular favorites to complete a fourth streak in five years, mainly by taking the best side possible as often as possible. What’s the point of having Thoroughbreds if you don’t let them run?
That’s what makes McLean’s roster so fascinating, and so characterless – even picking him to debut in a decider is a very good Queensland move. The last New South Wales player to start in a decider was Boyd Cordner in 2013. The last New South Wales debutants to start in a decider were Joel Monaghan and Mitchell Pearce in 2008.
To find the latest New South Wales debutant to start in a Brisbane decider, we have to go all the way back to Cliff Lyons and Phil Daley in 1987.
It’s just not how New South Wales does things when they can avoid it, and most of the time they can because there are so many options.
However, Queensland cannot afford to be so cautious. They had four debutants in the 2020 decider alone, and another three the year before. If his state needs him, the player must be ready. There is no other option.
It is unlikely that next week’s decider will land on McLean. He’s too solid and experienced to succumb to the pressure, and probably won’t get enough minutes to really push himself into the game.
Junior Paulo had his best Origin performance after coming off the bench after the first 20 minutes and staying on the field for the duration of the game – if the Blues follow the same pattern, McLean will be entrusted with the early hard yards before Paulo is deployed once the game opens. It’s a job that the Cowboys veteran can and does more than well.
But questions will still be asked right up to the kickoff at Lang Park, and those questions will continue in louder, angrier voices if the Blues lose.
If they win, it’s more than likely that McLean will become the answer to an obscure trivia question, an unfair outcome for a player fulfilling a lifelong dream, but in New South Wales the best is remembered much, much more vividly than the rest.
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