The definition of insanity: to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.
Exhibit A: Mitchell Pearce.
Pearce has lost seven State of Origin series in the NSW halves. He has a win rate of 28 per cent, with just five victories from 18 games.
He averages a try assist every three games in Origin, a forced dropout every six games, a line break every nine games, on an average 52.5 possessions per game.
Pearce has played more Origins than Peter Sterling, Steve Mortimer, Ricky Stuart, Geoff Toovey and Brett Kimmorley; champion Blues halfbacks all.
History tells us, with a megaphone, that Pearce is an outstanding NRL No.7 who hasn’t been good enough at Origin level.
Yet here we are again, discussing Pearce for a NSW comeback, when it’s not even clear that he wants one.
Blues icon Andrew Johns has been on the phone to Pearce, reportedly telling him that he has the opportunity to rewrite his Origin story. That he can rescue NSW in this series.
“Leading the Dally Ms, leading the Knights around, career-best form, six or seven man-of-the-matches in a row,” Johns said on Wide World of Sports’ Freddy and the Eighth.
“I spoke to him during the week: he said the game has just slowed down for him. He’s in total control out there. Total control of the game, total control of his emotions and it’s great to see.
“He’s been through bits and pieces over his career where he’s been hammered in certain situations, but so pumped to see him go well; especially in Newcastle. He loves being up there, the town loves him up there.”
Newcastle coach Nathan Brown reckons that Pearce can excel for the Blues if he’s given the job as dominant playmaker, feeding Cody Walker.
Yet cast your mind back to 2017, when Pearce was handed the keys to what was touted as the best NSW team for 10 years. He was recalled after NSW unsuccessfully tried Adam Reynolds in 2016.
He was made the dominant playmaker, to the extent that Robbie Farah’s Origin career was ended to ensure no-frills service from dummy-half (Nathan Peats was the new hooker). Pearce was playing alongside his 2013 Roosters premiership halves partner James Maloney, who was coming off another grand final win with the Sharks.
Victory was there for the taking. Pearce couldn’t deliver, again.
NSW won the opening game 28-4 at Suncorp Stadium, with Pearce scoring a try before leaving the field concussed in the second half.
The Blues just had to win in Sydney to claim the series and when Queensland champion Johnathan Thurston busted his shoulder, they had a gift-wrapped opportunity. Yet with Pearce running the show, NSW produced a stinker.
Having led 16-6 at half-time, partly thanks to a Pearce try, they were rudderless and scoreless in the second stanza and lost 18-16. Thurston kicked the winning conversion, having been barely targeted by the NSW attack despite carrying a season-ending injury.
“It’s the dumbest half of football NSW have played,” Johns fumed at full-time, before cornering Pearce for an awkward Footy Show interview in which he essentially asked: “Mate … what the hell were you doing?”
Joey blasts the blues
There was still hope as NSW headed back to Brisbane for the decider. Only there wasn’t, really. The big opportunity was already lost.
The Blues trailed 12-0 at half-time and lost 22-6, barely firing a shot. There was another damning post-script for Pearce.
In Origin III, Peats didn’t run the ball. Not one single time. Zero runs for zero metres. The hooker gave every single attacking opportunity to Pearce and Maloney, who had 66 and 57 possessions respectively and produced precious little; albeit behind a badly-beaten forward pack.
Little had changed from two years earlier; another decider at Suncorp Stadium, though Pearce was wearing No.6 with Trent Hodkinson at halfback.
As Queensland finalised a 52-6 win, Thurston hit him with an all-time great sledge: “I just let Pearcey know he should probably get a photo with Wally [Lewis’] statue, because that’s the closest he was going to get to holding the shield.” So far, JT’s been spot on.
Pearce figured his time in Origin was over after the 2017 defeat. So did NSW fans. If fans had a tortured relationship with Pearce, the halfback certainly had a love-hate thing with Origin.
Pearce’s Origin debut was madness: he was chosen to play a decider at age 19, replacing an injured Peter Wallace in Craig Bellamy’s side. NSW lost 16-10 in Sydney.
“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.”
Yet again, we’ve hit rewind; another possible wildcard pick for Pearce, now at age 30. NSW coach Brad Fittler has kept the Knights No.7 in the selection mix throughout.
So has Johns, his biggest critic in 2017 but a key advocate amid his form spike this season. The eighth Immortal is part of Fittler’s coaching staff and worked with incumbent halfback Nathan Cleary ahead of Origin I.
So what of Cleary? He won last year’s series as halfback, an extraordinary achievement at age 20, and offered the same kind of performance when he retained his spot for Origin I this year.
The Panthers No.7 did nothing wrong, kicking and defending strongly, but he also did nothing to find the try-line for NSW. In four Origin games, Cleary is yet to register a single key playmaking stat (try assist, line break assist, line break or try).
And it’s not a problem exclusive to Origin. Cleary is tied-last for try assists among regular starting halfbacks in the NRL this season, with four from 11 games.
He trails Mitchell Moses (17) and Pearce (14) as the stat leaders, while Luke Keary – who would have been chosen as NSW five-eighth but for a concussion – has notched five try assists in three games as a fill-in halfback for the Roosters. Cleary is level for try assists with Storm prop Kenny Bromwich and rookie Manly five-eighth Cade Cust (from four games).
To be fair, Cleary was not chosen to be an attacking dynamo. He was asked to provide rock-solid organisation and kicking, which he’s done.
As iconic NSW coach Phil Gould pointed out – and as Wide World of Sports explored before Origin I – not even the all-time greats did what Cleary has done as such a young age.
Gould is convinced that Cleary still needs a veteran five-eighth alongside him to win; which means Penrith halves partner Maloney, not 29-year-old rookie Cody Walker.
“They’ll bear the fruits of Nathan Cleary in two, three, four, five years’ time, of all this experience he’s gaining at the moment,” Gould said on his Six Tackles with Gus podcast.
“But so far as winning the Origin games, I still believe he needs that older, experienced person with him. Someone that can come in and take the reins at vital times.
“And if you look back on last year’s series, it was Maloney who stepped-up to the plate when it was needed most and took pressure away from Nathan, with some kicking game and some direction stuff.
“And that’s what he’s there to do. We saw it again on the weekend with the Panthers, who are starting to find some form at the moment, but it’s on the back of Maloney and his ability to calmly direct that team around the paddock and push Nathan into the right positions and be of great support to him.
“If they want the best out of Nathan Cleary, I believe Maloney’s got to be with him. It doesn’t matter what [jersey] numbers.”
But there’s another question to be asked. Do you pick Maloney at halfback, if he’s a dominant playmaker whose job is largely to babysit Cleary, and keep either Walker or Jack Wighton at five-eighth? Is NSW, down 1-0 and starting at defeat, better off with constant attacking threats in both halves jumpers?
Cleary is unlikely to be dropped, after Fittler made a pact with Gould to keep faith in the young No.7, but Maloney was the match-winner for NSW in last year’s series. He threw two try assists in Origin II alone as the Blues went 2-0 up with a win in Sydney. He’s also played halfback for NSW before: 2016’s Origin III dead rubber, which NSW won 18-14.
And Gould says that even at Penrith, there have been glaring signs that Maloney remains the No.1 playmaker; the halfback in jersey No.6.
“[Last season] Nathan Cleary was out for eight weeks. James Maloney played halfback and we won six of those games. If you reverse it, if Maloney had have been out and we had Nathan Cleary playing, we wouldn’t have won those six games. That’s a fact,” Gould said.
“Maloney is a very good dominant, experienced playmaker and game-manager. I said [last year] that there is a rising thought process here that Maloney directing the team, and Nathan Cleary just playing his attacking football and support play and all the things that he does good, might be the right combination at the moment.
“I think you see a little bit of that at Panthers at times: Maloney steps-up to the plate and does those things. He’ll kick his field goal, he’ll kick his 40/20, he’ll put his little grubbers in behind the line, he had three try assists on the weekend and the team certainly looks more solid in its approach than if Maloney only takes a back seat.
“Nathan’s game is built around effort. He’s all effort at the moment. He’ll run the ball, he’ll support play, he’s a great support player through the middle of the field. He’s not scared to run and have contact as a halfback, which is a great trait.
“He’s a terrific defender, he’s a fierce competitor, he’s a great goal-kicker, he’s got the high bombs which he’s working on really well. His short kicking game is not as good as Maloney’s, but nor should it be at the stages their careers are [at].
“And sometimes the [way that] team functions … it’s just the difference between a 30-year-old halfback and a 20-year-old halfback. It doesn’t matter who it is.
“You go and ask [Queensland halfback] Daly Cherry-Evans now whether he knows more than when he was 20 years of age. They’re all the same. Cooper Cronks, Johnathan Thurstons.
“I used to say to Nathan, ‘Be kind to yourself. Give yourself time. These other blokes weren’t doing this at 21 years of age.
“He’s 21. He’s had 70 NRL games and four Origins. None of those blokes were doing that at the time. None of them.
“This experience is valuable but for the sake of the team, I believe he needs that older head with him.”
But does the older head need the younger head? Does NSW need Cleary in this do-or-die situation, honour-bound though Fittler is?
The Blues will name their Origin II team on Sunday night. The combination will be something from Cleary, Walker, Wighton, Pearce and Maloney. If Fittler wants to keep Cleary and pick Pearce, the Knights star could simply play in jersey No.6, as he did in 2015.
NSW may be the defending champions, but like every year since Johns ruled the roost in 2005, the Blues halves remain a maddening problem.
The fact that Pearce is some chance of making a comeback shows just how mad things have somehow gotten, right when NSW was tipped to win consecutive series for the first time since 2003-05.
But if he’s picked and it somehow comes off, what an insane story. Players to make a surprise Origin comeback and triumphantly win a series: Allan Langer, Fittler, Johns … Pearce.