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Blue Panthers: Why Fittler had to make changes for Origin II

NSW coach Brad Fittler insists he was forced into wholesale changes for Origin II as the Blues seek to keep the series alive in Perth with a team dominated by eight members of last year’s premiership winning Penrith Panthers outfit.

The Blues flew to Perth on Monday aware that after losing the series opening in Sydney they must now win both remaining games away from home to retain the Origin Shield and Fittler said he couldn’t afford to stick with the same team given the stakes.

“I was confident with the first team, but I have got to pick a team we can go over there and win with and this is it,” Fittler said.

“When you get beaten, you need to reassess. We have no safety net at the moment. We went into the first game thinking a certain way about how the game would go and what we could do but it didn’t happen.”

Panthers team-mate Brian To'o, Api Koroisau and Jarome Luai celebrate during last year's Origin
Panthers team-mate Brian To'o, Api Koroisau and Jarome Luai celebrate during last year's Origin ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

Fittler has made six changes to the team which lost 16-10 at Accor Stadium on June 8 and NSW will now have an even great Penrith influence, with hooker Api Koroisau and Stephen Crichton in the starting line-up.

Matt Burton, who is now playing five-eighth for Canterbury, will be re-united with his grand final winning team-mates - Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Isaah Yeo, Brian To’o, Liam Martin, Crichton and Koroisau.

It will be Burton's Origin debut, while Koroisau played off the bench in last year's final game and Crichton received his first NSW jersey as the interchange utility in this season's series opener.

With Jack Wighton ruled out due to COVID-19 and Kotoni Staggs among the seven players dropped from the 22-man squad, Crichton and Burton will be the starting centres, while Koroisau’s selection has forced Damien Cook to the bench.

Martin has also been promoted from the interchange to the second-row in place of Tariq Sims, who was dropped along with Staggs and Eels forwards Reagan Campbell Gillard and Ryan Matterson.

Jake Trbojevic and Angus Crichton have been recalled after being overlooked for Origin I, while Cronulla’s Siosifa Talakai will also make his Origin debut from the interchange.

“Jack Wighton obviously can’t play and I just thought of Matt Burton, with the way he’s playing [for the Bulldogs],” Fittler said. “What Crichton does with Penrith, he’s a great defender.

“[Talakai] started the season in the middle, played on an edge and also has played centre. He was unlucky not to make the first game. He’s someone we’ve been watching, and we’ve been very excited watching.”

Talakai’s versatility allows NSW to select Koroisau and Cook to operate in a dual hooker rotation like Queensland used in Origin I with Ben Hunt and Harry Grant as he can play in the forwards but cover any injury in the backline.

Crichton can play fullback or wing, while Burton would move to five-eighth if needed, with Talakai to move to the centres.

“That’ll be a tactical change, going in with two hookers,” Fittler said. “Between [Cook] and [South Sydney teammate] Cam Murray, we’ve got a lot of confidence in them. They’ve been part of this group for a while now.”

Acknowledgement of Country

Penrith Panthers players and staff respect and honour the traditional custodians of the land and pay our respects to their elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.