If you went back in time six weeks and told people the most discussed selection for the Origin decider would be Jordan McLean, nobody would believe you were from the future.
McLean is having his best season in a good few years, and remains an honest, uncompromising and consistent front-rower, but most fans would have had a long list ahead of the North Queensland prop.
So, on the surface, McLean’s selection seems to come from a classic Origin tradition – the unheralded player, selected from nowhere 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 of Adam Mogg, or Brenko and Edrick Lee, or Corey Allan, or Paul Vautin’s 1995 side.
Sure, there are times it doesn’t work out, but Origin is built on such mythology, dating back to Arthur Beetson in 1980, when the future Immortal was picked to captain his state from reserve grade.
Except, McLean doesn’t quite fit this mould: he isn’t sufficiently unheralded (he’s played for Australia and won a grand final, and might have debuted in Origin in 2018 or 2019 were it not for injury) and this isn’t a classic State of Origin story — it’s more a Queensland story.
All those players named above are Queenslanders who played a role in Queensland’s famous victories. McLean’s selection is a Maroons-style move, only he’ll be wearing a Blue jersey.
Through 42 seasons of Origin football, New South Wales has proven again and again it doesn’t really have room for cult heroes.
Because they’re choosing from a larger pool of players, the Blues are rarely forced into a corner like Queensland. New South Wales almost never turns to somebody like Mogg, or the Lee cousins, or McLean, because they almost never have the need.
The reaction to McLean’s selection is more about the other players available – players like Reagan Campbell-Gillard, who was selected for Origin I before disappearing from the squad, or Daniel Saifiti, one of the Blues’ best over the past two series and now seemingly locked out, or David Klemmer, another proven performer at interstate level whose exile over the past three years is difficult to understand.
The Blues can be so spoiled for choice that only the best of the best will do, and in a team of champions there is rarely a spot for anything less. They don’t really do cult classics, only bestsellers.
They almost never have to pick someone from nowhere and hope for the best because there’s almost always another star who can be chosen.
If a player is selected from nowhere and it doesn’t work, they become a punchline – just ask Jarrod Mullen or Jamie Buhrer or Steve Turner – or even if it does, they aren’t celebrated like Queensland’s bolters.
Nobody in New South Wales talks about somebody like Matt Prior, who did a solid job in Origin II back 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, the way Queensland do about Ethan Lowe, or John Buttigieg or John Doyle.
Their stories are not remembered and retold and celebrated as an example of New South Welshmen answering the call when the time came and getting the job done against the odds.
If Hodkinson was from Queensland, and if he’d broken a New South Wales streak of eight series wins, there’d be a framed picture of him above the mantle in every house north of the Tweed. But in his own state, he’s counted as something closer to a historical footnote.
Where Queensland have successfully weaponised their mythology to the point it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Blues have rarely wanted or needed inspiration from an underdog selection.
They’ll enter next Wednesday’s decider as hot favourites to wrap up a fourth series in five years, mainly on the back of picking the best side possible as often as they could. What’s the point of having thoroughbreds if you’re not going to let them run?
That’s what makes McLean’s selection so fascinating, and so out of character — even picking him to debut in a decider is a very Queensland move. The last New South Wales player to debut 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 last New South Wales debutant to start in a decider in Brisbane, we must go all the way back to Cliff Lyons and Phil Daley in 1987.
It’s just not how New South Wales do things if they can avoid it, and most of the time they can because there’s so many options.
Queensland, however, 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’s unlikely that next week’s decider will swing on McLean. He’s too solid and too experienced to collapse under the pressure, and likely won’t get enough minutes to really impose himself on the match.
Junior Paulo had his best Origin performance after coming off the bench following the first 20 minutes and remaining on the field for the duration of the game – if the Blues follow that same pattern, McLean will be entrusted with the early hard yards before Paulo is deployed once the game opens up. It’s a job the Cowboys veteran is more than capable of doing and doing well.
But there will still be questions asked right up until kick-off 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 becomes the answer to an obscure trivia question, an unfair outcome for a player who is fulfilling a lifelong dream but in New South Wales the best is remembered far, far more vividly than the rest.
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