New South Wales coach Brad Fittler has rolled the dice on his biggest selection gamble to date and fans have been left stunned and confused ahead of the State of Origin opener on May 31.
The eccentric Blues coach is no stranger to controversy, relegating Damien Cook to the bench and hauling in Daniel Saifiti from the Origin wilderness in the past.
But his call to bring in Bulldogs enforcer Tevita Pangai Junior has left many scratching their heads – including the forward himself.
‘I feel shocked, just as much as you guys. It’s a big dream of mine to play Origin and hopefully I get to play,’ Pangai Junior said this morning.
We [Canterbury] are building a strong team and hopefully this attracts more players to come to the Bulldogs.
Amazingly, Pangai Junior has actually grown up supporting Queensland and turned down an opportunity to play for NSW in 2018 when it clashed with a mid-season Test involving Tonga.
‘As a kid I just went for Queensland. I loved Sam Thaiday, Justin Hodges and Greg Inglis. They were all my favourite players,’ he said at the time.
‘There was a time there where I was living in Newcastle and my brother [Mosese Pangai] was at the Cowboys and I was trying to tell my parents, ‘let’s move to Queensland’ so I could try and play for Queensland.’
He repeated his admiration for Queensland in 2019, saying: ‘I’m going for Queensland, I’m a Queensland supporter, if ‘[then-coach] Kevvie’ [Walters] needs anyone to run against me (at Maroons training), I’m available’.’
Pangai Junior was stunned to learn of his selection – and he was far from alone
Fittler, pictured with former Maroons champion Johnathan Thurston, has taken some big risks in a bid to beat a strong Queensland side
Some fans thought the selection of Pangai Junior was a case of mistaken identity and that South Sydney prop Tevita Tatola should have been called up
Many New South Wales fans were shocked at the decision, with several saying that Pangai Junior is not even the best prop in his team.
They may have a point, with Bulldog Max King averaging 123 metres a game including almost 42 post-contact metres, along with 38 tackles per match at a 94.8 per cent efficiency rate.
Pangai Junior is averaging 129 metres per game, 42 post-contact metres and 25 tackles per game at an efficiency rate of 90.0 per cent.
Others joked that Fittler had called the wrong Tevita, saying South Sydney prop Tevita Tatola should have got the call-up.
“When Freddy goes to the bench with Tevita, something will happen. Whether its good or otherwise, who knows.¿
– Matty Johns on Tevita Pangai Jr’s NSW Blues selection@SENLeague #NRL
— Mornings with Matty White (@MattyWhiteSEN) May 21, 2023
Tevita Pangai Jr to play for the Blues guess our injury crisis is bad.
Have we tried cloning Payne Haas yet?
— William Wood (@TheWilliamWood) May 21, 2023
Rampaging Parramatta forward Reagan Campbell-Gillard was unavailable with a groin injury while the likes of Daniel Saifiti, former Kangaroos representative Jordan McLean and former Blues players David Klemmer and Jack de Belin were overlooked.
Second-rowers controversially omitted include rampaging Sea Eagles forward Haumole Olakau’atu and Roosters star Angus Crichton, while South Sydney firebrand Keaon Koloamatangi remains injured.
Former Blues and Newcastle star Matthew Johns said how Pangai was used off the bench would be a lottery.
‘When Freddy goes to the bench with Tevita, something will happen. Whether it’s good or otherwise, who knows?’ he said on SEN.
It could be a career-defining risk by the Blues coach, who is under pressure after his star-studded Blues lost to Queensland last series.
Fittler said he felt that squad was bullied by the Queensland pack in 2022 and he needed to make changes.
‘We had to make big calls,’ Fittler told Channel Nine.
Newcastle prop Daniel Saifiti, centre, was unlucky not have been called up by Blues coach Brad Fittler
North Queensland Cowboys and former Australian forward Jordan McLean, centre, was picked by the Blues last year but injury ruled him out. This time he wasn’t so lucky
‘We had a few back rowers — Angus [Crichton] and Liam Martin — who hadn’t played most of the year. I have been a fan of Tevita for a long time — very skilful, tough bloke.
‘I like what they are doing at Canterbury at the moment. They are not winning every game but what they are doing is they are not giving up.
‘Watching what he is doing off the ball excites me that he is becoming a much better player. If Tevita can fix up those parts of his game, the talent part is already there.’
Fittler also admitted it was a tough phone call when he told Cook he had not made the cut because he preferred Wests rake Apisai Koroisau.
‘Going down to the last couple of weeks I think Api’s form, his relationship with a few of the players in our team – there has been long relationships though big games,’ Fittler said.
‘Cooky has been in such good form. I gave him a phone call last night talking about footy … and reassured me that if anything happened, he is our man if things go wrong.’