NSW coach Brad Fittler has declared James Maloney the Blues’ best player this series, but revealed how close the five-eighth came to missing the team altogether.
Fittler wasn’t sold on Maloney prior to the series, largely because of his defensive deficiencies, but Greg Alexander is a huge admirer of the Panthers five-eighth and went in to bat for him.
"Brandy had a big say," Fittler said.
"One thing I’ve always understood is to be straight. The conversations are always quick. They either listen or they don’t. Whether they believe me or they don’t, it’s up to them to decide. [Maloney] was cool. He understood. He wasn’t going that good."
Alexander and Fittler, as well as assistant coach Danny Buderus, had several discussions around the make-up of the side over several months.
But the topic of greatest conjecture was the halves. But Alexander was strong on his desire to see Maloney in the No.6 jersey.
"Absolutely, because I knew how important he would be to the team," Alexander said.
"I said to Jimmy after game two, we don’t win those games without you, either game. His leadership has been outstanding. He’s a great player. I can see what Freddy was nervous about. Most of it was defensive decisions.
"Jimmy is a gutsy player. He’s only 80 kilos but he puts his body on the line. He’s a great player. He’s a winner. He’s been one of my favourite players for years. I’ve got a list of favourites, a little list that I love watching. And since Jimmy’s days at the Warriors, I’ve always loved watching him."
At the start of the year, when Maloney joined Penrith, he said he wasn’t coming from the Sharks to take over.
He insisted it would remain Nathan Cleary’s team. But since the pair have arrived in NSW camp, it’s been Maloney who has taken the driver’s seat both off the field and on game day.
Maloney has somewhat taken on the traditional No.7 duties and has been controlling the game and getting his hands on the ball in key moments.
That hasn’t been lost on Alexander.
"That’s nothing against Nathan. He’s 20 and never played Origin before. But it’s great to have Jimmy there. It takes a bit of pressure off Nathan. Hopefully, we’ll see Nathan develop into this role. He’s made for it and it’ll come. It’s just a massive learning curve for him and Jimmy has been the perfect foil for him."
Fittler has learnt more about Maloney than any other player throughout the series. But he also believes Maloney himself has taken more out of the camps and the series than anyone else.
"During the series, he has been our best player," Fittler said.
"Without a doubt he has got the results. I learned more from Jimmy out of it than anyone - just to take a breath and relax. If anyone has learned more out of camp it is Jimmy. There are a few players that are most probably going to add things to their life. If anything, Jimmy will improve out of it.
"[Being 30] is the best time to learn because you are wiser. As a young bloke it is most probably harder to learn because you don’t listen as much. He is most probably a bit like I was. Just watching him around the team, I think this year he’s been talking about being a leader and I think now he’s really becoming one.
"Just watching, he seems to be doing the same stuff, but I don’t know what it is … he looks a bit different."