Between the naming of a Kangaroos merit team that indicates a major shake-up for Australia and the fallout from this year’s State of Origin series, the NRL’s Round 18 was largely overshadowed.
Much of the post-Origin discussion has centred on the controversial decision to crown retiring rugby league legend Billy Slater as the Wally Lewis Medallist for player of the series.
Queensland fullback Slater played in just two of three Origin matches in 2018 and could not help his side from succumbing to a rare series defeat to New South Wales.
So fans were left surprised when Slater was crowned winner and then shocked when one of the three judges, Darren Lockyer, claimed he won the medal by a long way.
New South Wales coach Brad Fittler, also an employee of the Nine Network, was on the station’s Sunday Footy Show alongside Lockyer on Sunday and expressed his surprise at the announcement.
“I couldn’t understand why Billy was so far ahead [in the votes],” Fittler said, sitting at the same desk as Lockyer, who judges the award with Australia selectors Mal Meninga and Laurie Daley.
“Considering Billy is an attacking player and what he does to a team is create numbers … in the second game they had the opportunity with 12 [New South Wales] players in the last 10 minutes to win the game.
“That’s what Billy does. Billy should have taken control then.
“To be the best player, to be that far ahead on points, that’s why I couldn’t understand why [James] Tedesco, [Damien] Cook, maybe Tom Trbojevic, James Maloney … Billy had that opportunity in game two and didn’t take it. That’s why I couldn’t understand how he had so many points.”
While Fittler acknowledged it was “good debate” to question the discussion, he added: “To not nail the end [in game two], I couldn’t understand how he got so many points in game two that had him so far in front of everyone else.”
Lockyer acknowledged the decision was “very controversial” but said the panel had to “own the decision”.
That discussion came just hours after the ‘merit team’ from Origin was named – essentially an All-Star team comprised of players who performed to a high standard in this year’s series.
The 17-man team was dominated by New South Wales players, with 12 picked, while seven members of the squad are yet to play for Australia.
Slater was picked as fullback but has retired from representative football, opening the door for Tedesco to potentially make his Australia debut.
The international retirements of Slater, Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk mean Origin performances will have a strong bearing on national selection, Australia coach Meninga said.
“I think this year more than ever, Origin plays its part because we have had such a big turnover of players in key positions,” he told the NRL’s official website.
The merit team comprised of: Billy Slater (fullback), Tom Trbojevic (winger), Greg Inglis (centre), Latrell Mitchell (centre), Josh Addo-Carr (winger), Cameron Munster (five-eighth), James Maloney (halfback), David Klemmer (prop), Damien Cook (hooker), Josh McGuire (prop), Boyd Cordner (second rower), Tyson Frizell (second rower), Jake Trbojevic (lock), James Tedesco, Jack de Belin, Josh Papalii and Paul Vaughan (all interchange).
To the footy …
St George-Illawarra lost ground on table-toppers South Sydney after suffering a surprise 20-16 loss at the hands of Wests Tigers.
Converted tries early in the second half from Corey Thompson and David Nofoaluma, and a Esan Marsters penalty, gave the Tigers a 20-6 lead.
But the Dragons rallied, late tries to Gareth Widdop and Matthew Dufty setting up a grandstand finish, only for the Tigers to hold their nerve.
South Sydney is now a game clear of the Dragons after making it nine straight wins with a 24-6 triumph over Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs on Saturday.
Winger Robert Jennings scored a hat-trick to take him to the top of the NRL’s try-scoring list.
Melbourne Storm is second, points differential ahead of the Dragons, after edging past arch rivals Manly 14-13 in a Saturday night thriller.
Also on Saturday night, Michael Oldfield had a night to remember, crossing for three tries in Canberra’s 38-12 win over North Queensland Cowboys.
In other results, Matt Moylan performed strongly against his old club as Cronulla upset Penrith 24-12, while Newcastle scraped past Parramatta 18-16.
And on Sunday, New Zealand Warriors upset Brisbane Broncos to win 26-6 at Suncorp Stadium, while the Sydney Roosters moved fourth following a 20-12 win over the Gold Coast Titans.