Infotainment Factory: How the Pearce Origin mistake happened

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Tuesday, 9 July 2019

How the Pearce Origin mistake happened


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"He's only 19 - and he's a young 19. You just worry about what could happen to him in that [mental] respect."

Mitchell Pearce’s Roosters teammate Craig Fitzgibbon was, and is, a wise man. Those were his words shortly after the halfback’s selection to debut in the 2008 State of Origin decider.

Pearce went into camp with Roosters halves partner Braith Anasta at his side and despite carrying what Blues prop Willie Mason called a “boy’s body”, he dazzled his teammates. Doubts eased, even for old hard heads like Fitzgibbon.

One of Pearce’s key backers for Origin selection was Brad Fittler, his Roosters coach. Pearce was in just his second NRL season, but the Roosters were top-four bound with their teenage No.7. Fittler strongly endorsed him for NSW duty before the series began.

The cocky young halfback was pipped by Peter Wallace for Origin I and II but when Wallace was injured, Pearce booked his debut in the decider with a tough, match-winning performance against his future club, Newcastle. The Knights targeted Pearce, roughed him up, but he played a key hand in reversing an 8-6 half-time deficit for the Roosters to win 16-14.

“If you’re tough enough you’re good enough. He is tougher than most players playing at the moment,” Fittler said.

NSW’s coach was the most pragmatic man in the game, Craig Bellamy. Even his doubts were assuaged, with the Blues staring down the barrel of a third consecutive series loss (which would become eight in a row).

“Mitchell is obviously a wonderfully talented player … just without that experience,” Bellamy said.

At 19 years and 86 days, Pearce became the second-youngest Origin debutant for NSW. He trailed only Fittler, at 18 years and 114 days. His selection was just a year removed from Jarrod Mullen’s brutal one-and-done NSW pick, where he was dumped forever after Origin I.

Pearce’s selection was a mistake, compounding the burning of Mullen. Fittler debuted off the bench in Origin II, 1990, with NSW 1-0 up. They won the series in game two, with greats Des Hasler and Ricky Stuart in the halves.

Pearce was pitchforked into the job for Origin III, 2008. He was alongside an unproven Origin player in Anasta, against Johnathan Thurston and a prime Scott Prince. Anasta-Pearce followed NSW's recent Maloney-Cleary model, the elder club teammate alongside the rookie, but it proved ill-fated.

NSW lost 16-10 in Sydney. Pearce tried hard, but he wasn’t ready. He was dropped for Wallace for Origin I of next season and his love-hate relationship with Origin was born. He next donned the sky blue jersey in game two of 2010, with NSW down 1-0. They were hammered 34-6 to lose the series, then lost Origin III to suffer a clean sweep.

“In hindsight I wish I never played that early when I was 19 to 22. I definitely wasn’t ready," Pearce told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2015.

“As a halfback in Origin at 19, it was way too early. I probably developed some bad doubts from that period in those first few games. It’s a daunting thing.”

It only got worse. Pearce has played 18 Origins for just five wins. He’s never won a series in seven attempts. Thurston once told him, mid-match, to get a picture with Wally Lewis’ statue because that was the only way he’d ever hold an Origin shield. He’s lost six deciders.

Having become NSW coach, Fittler just chose Pearce to contest another one. Fitzgibbon and the captain/hooker from Pearce’s debut, Danny Buderus, are Blues assistant coaches. James Maloney, Pearce’s 2013 Roosters premiership halves partner, is at five-eighth.

Everything is set up as well as it possibly can be for Pearce, 30, to finally win.

“He’s had an interesting State of Origin career,” Fittler said on the TODAY Show on Wednesday.

“I was involved with Mitchell when he first started playing at the Roosters and he’s been a bit of the whipping boy for the NRL. Sometimes he’s brought a bit of it on himself, but he’s copped plenty along the way.

“He’s come into camp, you could tell he was pretty nervous. I was that happy when I rang him, the way he answered the phone. I said, ‘Are you ready to play?’, and he was, [‘Yes’]. You could just see there was a bit of a change in attitude.

“We’re going out to win, there’s no doubt about that. We’re praying we do win.

“To watch his face if we do would just be priceless. I just hope, the boys, we can all work hard enough and get the result and he can sort of put a few demons to bed.”

Gould defends Pearce's Origin career

Fittler had tried to pick Pearce for Origin I and II, only to be denied by injury. A twisted ankle for Nathan Cleary finally opened the door for Pearce to return as NSW halfback.

Fittler reckons the phone call to Pearce informing him of his selection was a career highlight. It will be even better if he can watch him triumph. Fittler hinted that Pearce had not been asked to take a dominant playmaking role with Maloney in the side.

“I just came from the Nathan Cleary conversation, which was unbelievably tough; really emotional. And then to be able to do that…” Fittler said.

“Mitchell’s been a bit injured over the last month, so I was sort of a bit apprehensive [about] how it was all going to go, and if he was going to be nervous and edgy. He just sort of jumped straight down the phone and said, ‘I’m ready to go. What do you need me to do?’

“It was a great moment in coaching. You have these sort of moments of clarity every now and then, and that was one of them. The phone call was just what you needed at the time.

“I can’t wait to see how he goes tonight. He’s a better player, he’s improving all the time and he knows it’s going to be his work ethic, not setting up tries, that’s going to help us tonight. I look forward to watching him. He’s a tough kid. I think he’ll do a good job.”

Pearce has been working with NSW’s greatest halfback, Andrew Johns; a Blues assistant coach who has taken even greater interest in Pearce’s career since his switch to Newcastle. ‘Joey’ is convinced that he’s ready to fulfill his destiny.

“I won’t give Mitchell too much advice before he runs out. He’s ready to go. He knows what’s expected of him,” Johns wrote in his Sydney Morning Herald column.

“Whether he knows it or not, he’s been working his whole life towards this moment.”

Champion NSW halfback Peter Sterling echoed Johns’ assertion that Pearce was ready to finally “nail it” at Origin level.

“I was confident anyway but knowing that Joey has been alongside Mitchell and knows him so well during the lead-up to this game, I think that augers really well for us,” Sterling told Wide World of Sports.

“Mitchell doesn’t have to do anything different to what he’s done for Newcastle. And he won’t do anything different, because he’s a great competitor. He’s all effort on every play.

“His combination with James Maloney, despite the fact they’ve only had a short time to work together, they’ve been together a lot in the past and not that long ago. They know each other’s game really well. You do not win a premiership unless you understand your halves partner and you complement them. I see it all as an upside for Mitchell Pearce and I think it will be for the Blues.”

Legendary NSW coach Phil Gould said that Origin III was a chance for Pearce to finally emerge from his unjust typecasting as Origin failure; all tracing back to that premature selection.

“He wasn’t ready. No 19-year-old is really ready for it, as talented as they are or even as well as they might play,” Gould said on his Six Tackle with Gus podcast, who has interviewed Pearce for tonight’s Origin pre-game on Nine.

“He said he felt he was ready and he tried his hardest, but looking back on it now, there were things in his game that he lacked. There were times throughout his Origin tenure where he doubted himself a little; he thought he should have been going better, but he wasn’t.

“But he said, ‘I couldn’t try any harder. I was always trying’. Which I can relate to. He always was trying.

“But at this stage of his career, he’s in great form, he’s playing with a good young team. He likes the team, he likes the players. I think they’ve had a good preparation, so he’s ready to go.”

Pearce told Gould that he was not haunted by past Origins.

“They say to be a great professional golfer, you’ve got to have a bad memory; you’ve got to put the bad shots out of your mind straight away, because if the bad shots are still in the back of your head when you go to the next shot, that’s when it gets hard,” Gould said.

“I think it’s the same with really great [rugby league] players. I think they just tend to gloss over the bad part.

“Because he [Pearce] has had so many wonderful parts to his career. He’s had so many great games, Mitchell Pearce.

“But in this Origin arena, I think he was unfairly treated. I think he was unfairly criticised. There might have been some games he’d have liked to have played better, but 18 times, he’s been adjudged to be the best NSW halfback available. That in itself is a badge of honour.

“And if it wasn’t Mitchell Pearce, there was no one else that was going to get it done. It’s not as though they were leaving people out who could have got the job done. If Mitchell Pearce couldn’t get it done, they probably couldn’t get it done either.”

Yet Gould said that NSW’s dismal record in Origin deciders, where Pearce has played no small part part, was a glaring failure.

“We can go back over old ground and talk about Origin teams and whether or not they’ve been prepared, up against a quality Queensland side. I maintain there’s been seven deciders. The last seven deciders, if you can beat them once, you can beat them twice. They should have won one of those deciders at least,” Gould said.

“If you’ve got yourself into a decider, it means the opposition is beatable, as good as they might be. But they just couldn’t do it, so it’s a big test for them on Wednesday night. And I still think, mentally, the advantage is with Queensland; because they’re right where they want to be. This is where they’re at their best.

“They (NSW) have got to come down from the victory in game two and get it done. I think Mitchell Pearce will be really good for them. I think he’s just in a good space, he’s ready to go and he’s got some players there with which he’s familiar and he’s got some young fellas there that he’s very excited to be playing with.”

Tonight is Pearce’s shot at a measure of redemption. There is no more Thurston, Lockyer, Cronk, Slater or Smith. The opposition is mortal. A Kangaroos jumper may even be there for the taking, if he can add a starring Blues performance to his brilliant Knights form.

Having come into a team that won Origin II 38-6, an expected NSW victory wouldn’t wash away all of Pearce’s past sins; if indeed that’s the right word for them. But it would be a deserved reward for perseverance, 11 long years after that 19-year-old kid was thrown into the cauldron before his time.

"He's only 19 - and he's a young 19. You just worry about what could happen to him in that [mental] respect."

Mitchell Pearce’s Roosters teammate Craig Fitzgibbon was, and is, a wise man. Those were his words shortly after the halfback’s selection to debut in the 2008 State of Origin decider.

Pearce went into camp with Roosters halves partner Braith Anasta at his side and despite carrying what Blues prop Willie Mason called a “boy’s body”, he dazzled his teammates. Doubts eased, even for old hard heads like Fitzgibbon.

One of Pearce’s key backers for Origin selection was Brad Fittler, his Roosters coach. Pearce was in just his second NRL season, but the Roosters were top-four bound with their teenage No.7. Fittler strongly endorsed him for NSW duty before the series began.

The cocky young halfback was pipped by Peter Wallace for Origin I and II but when Wallace was injured, Pearce booked his debut in the decider with a tough, match-winning performance against his future club, Newcastle. The Knights targeted Pearce, roughed him up, but he played a key hand in reversing an 8-6 half-time deficit for the Roosters to win 16-14.

“If you’re tough enough you’re good enough. He is tougher than most players playing at the moment,” Fittler said.

NSW’s coach was the most pragmatic man in the game, Craig Bellamy. Even his doubts were assuaged, with the Blues staring down the barrel of a third consecutive series loss (which would become eight in a row).

“Mitchell is obviously a wonderfully talented player … just without that experience,” Bellamy said.

At 19 years and 86 days, Pearce became the second-youngest Origin debutant for NSW. He trailed only Fittler, at 18 years and 114 days. His selection was just a year removed from Jarrod Mullen’s brutal one-and-done NSW pick, where he was dumped forever after Origin I.

Pearce’s selection was a mistake, compounding the burning of Mullen. Fittler debuted off the bench in Origin II, 1990, with NSW 1-0 up. They won the series in game two, with greats Des Hasler and Ricky Stuart in the halves.

Pearce was pitchforked into the job for Origin III, 2008. He was alongside an unproven Origin player in Anasta, against Johnathan Thurston and a prime Scott Prince. Anasta-Pearce followed NSW's recent Maloney-Cleary model, the elder club teammate alongside the rookie, but it proved ill-fated.

NSW lost 16-10 in Sydney. Pearce tried hard, but he wasn’t ready. He was dropped for Wallace for Origin I of next season and his love-hate relationship with Origin was born. He next donned the sky blue jersey in game two of 2010, with NSW down 1-0. They were hammered 34-6 to lose the series, then lost Origin III to suffer a clean sweep.

“In hindsight I wish I never played that early when I was 19 to 22. I definitely wasn’t ready," Pearce told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2015.

“As a halfback in Origin at 19, it was way too early. I probably developed some bad doubts from that period in those first few games. It’s a daunting thing.”

It only got worse. Pearce has played 18 Origins for just five wins. He’s never won a series in seven attempts. Thurston once told him, mid-match, to get a picture with Wally Lewis’ statue because that was the only way he’d ever hold an Origin shield. He’s lost six deciders.

Having become NSW coach, Fittler just chose Pearce to contest another one. Fitzgibbon and the captain/hooker from Pearce’s debut, Danny Buderus, are Blues assistant coaches. James Maloney, Pearce’s 2013 Roosters premiership halves partner, is at five-eighth.

Everything is set up as well as it possibly can be for Pearce, 30, to finally win.

“He’s had an interesting State of Origin career,” Fittler said on the TODAY Show on Wednesday.

“I was involved with Mitchell when he first started playing at the Roosters and he’s been a bit of the whipping boy for the NRL. Sometimes he’s brought a bit of it on himself, but he’s copped plenty along the way.

“He’s come into camp, you could tell he was pretty nervous. I was that happy when I rang him, the way he answered the phone. I said, ‘Are you ready to play?’, and he was, [‘Yes’]. You could just see there was a bit of a change in attitude.

“We’re going out to win, there’s no doubt about that. We’re praying we do win.

“To watch his face if we do would just be priceless. I just hope, the boys, we can all work hard enough and get the result and he can sort of put a few demons to bed.”

Gould defends Pearce's Origin career

Fittler had tried to pick Pearce for Origin I and II, only to be denied by injury. A twisted ankle for Nathan Cleary finally opened the door for Pearce to return as NSW halfback.

Fittler reckons the phone call to Pearce informing him of his selection was a career highlight. It will be even better if he can watch him triumph. Fittler hinted that Pearce had not been asked to take a dominant playmaking role with Maloney in the side.

“I just came from the Nathan Cleary conversation, which was unbelievably tough; really emotional. And then to be able to do that…” Fittler said.

“Mitchell’s been a bit injured over the last month, so I was sort of a bit apprehensive [about] how it was all going to go, and if he was going to be nervous and edgy. He just sort of jumped straight down the phone and said, ‘I’m ready to go. What do you need me to do?’

“It was a great moment in coaching. You have these sort of moments of clarity every now and then, and that was one of them. The phone call was just what you needed at the time.

“I can’t wait to see how he goes tonight. He’s a better player, he’s improving all the time and he knows it’s going to be his work ethic, not setting up tries, that’s going to help us tonight. I look forward to watching him. He’s a tough kid. I think he’ll do a good job.”

Pearce has been working with NSW’s greatest halfback, Andrew Johns; a Blues assistant coach who has taken even greater interest in Pearce’s career since his switch to Newcastle. ‘Joey’ is convinced that he’s ready to fulfill his destiny.

“I won’t give Mitchell too much advice before he runs out. He’s ready to go. He knows what’s expected of him,” Johns wrote in his Sydney Morning Herald column.

“Whether he knows it or not, he’s been working his whole life towards this moment.”

Champion NSW halfback Peter Sterling echoed Johns’ assertion that Pearce was ready to finally “nail it” at Origin level.

“I was confident anyway but knowing that Joey has been alongside Mitchell and knows him so well during the lead-up to this game, I think that augers really well for us,” Sterling told Wide World of Sports.

“Mitchell doesn’t have to do anything different to what he’s done for Newcastle. And he won’t do anything different, because he’s a great competitor. He’s all effort on every play.

“His combination with James Maloney, despite the fact they’ve only had a short time to work together, they’ve been together a lot in the past and not that long ago. They know each other’s game really well. You do not win a premiership unless you understand your halves partner and you complement them. I see it all as an upside for Mitchell Pearce and I think it will be for the Blues.”

Legendary NSW coach Phil Gould said that Origin III was a chance for Pearce to finally emerge from his unjust typecasting as Origin failure; all tracing back to that premature selection.

“He wasn’t ready. No 19-year-old is really ready for it, as talented as they are or even as well as they might play,” Gould said on his Six Tackle with Gus podcast, who has interviewed Pearce for tonight’s Origin pre-game on Nine.

“He said he felt he was ready and he tried his hardest, but looking back on it now, there were things in his game that he lacked. There were times throughout his Origin tenure where he doubted himself a little; he thought he should have been going better, but he wasn’t.

“But he said, ‘I couldn’t try any harder. I was always trying’. Which I can relate to. He always was trying.

“But at this stage of his career, he’s in great form, he’s playing with a good young team. He likes the team, he likes the players. I think they’ve had a good preparation, so he’s ready to go.”

Pearce told Gould that he was not haunted by past Origins.

“They say to be a great professional golfer, you’ve got to have a bad memory; you’ve got to put the bad shots out of your mind straight away, because if the bad shots are still in the back of your head when you go to the next shot, that’s when it gets hard,” Gould said.

“I think it’s the same with really great [rugby league] players. I think they just tend to gloss over the bad part.

“Because he [Pearce] has had so many wonderful parts to his career. He’s had so many great games, Mitchell Pearce.

“But in this Origin arena, I think he was unfairly treated. I think he was unfairly criticised. There might have been some games he’d have liked to have played better, but 18 times, he’s been adjudged to be the best NSW halfback available. That in itself is a badge of honour.

“And if it wasn’t Mitchell Pearce, there was no one else that was going to get it done. It’s not as though they were leaving people out who could have got the job done. If Mitchell Pearce couldn’t get it done, they probably couldn’t get it done either.”

Yet Gould said that NSW’s dismal record in Origin deciders, where Pearce has played no small part part, was a glaring failure.

“We can go back over old ground and talk about Origin teams and whether or not they’ve been prepared, up against a quality Queensland side. I maintain there’s been seven deciders. The last seven deciders, if you can beat them once, you can beat them twice. They should have won one of those deciders at least,” Gould said.

“If you’ve got yourself into a decider, it means the opposition is beatable, as good as they might be. But they just couldn’t do it, so it’s a big test for them on Wednesday night. And I still think, mentally, the advantage is with Queensland; because they’re right where they want to be. This is where they’re at their best.

“They (NSW) have got to come down from the victory in game two and get it done. I think Mitchell Pearce will be really good for them. I think he’s just in a good space, he’s ready to go and he’s got some players there with which he’s familiar and he’s got some young fellas there that he’s very excited to be playing with.”

Tonight is Pearce’s shot at a measure of redemption. There is no more Thurston, Lockyer, Cronk, Slater or Smith. The opposition is mortal. A Kangaroos jumper may even be there for the taking, if he can add a starring Blues performance to his brilliant Knights form.

Having come into a team that won Origin II 38-6, an expected NSW victory wouldn’t wash away all of Pearce’s past sins; if indeed that’s the right word for them. But it would be a deserved reward for perseverance, 11 long years after that 19-year-old kid was thrown into the cauldron before his time.

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