Legendary Blues halfback Andrew Johns has added fuel to the growing speculation that Mitchell Pearce will be given his shot at State of Origin redemption, playing down the return to form of another strong contender to make a return for NSW.
Fox Sports' chief NRL reporter James Hooper yesterday reported that Blues selectors Brad Fittler and Greg Alexander had settled on a Game Two combination of Pearce and Nathan Cleary after the Cleary-Cody Walker combination failed in the series opener.
While that report will not be confirmed until the team is announced on Sunday, Johns, who is part of the NSW coaching set-up, called Pearce earlier this week to fire him up for a return and gave an interesting insight into his thoughts on the Blues' halves for Game Two when questioned on James Maloney's stunning form resurgence by Wide World of Sports.
"He played really well, I thought his kicking game was outstanding and he played great (in Origin) last year, but just on that one performance you cannot just lock him in, Johns said on Immortal Behaviour.
"I think this weekend's performance, they play Souths and he's up against Cody Walker so it's a big game for all the players, especially those two players but I wouldn't say he's a certainty to be picked on just one game."
According to the Fox Sports report, Pearce has earned his sky blue No.7 jersey back thanks to an extraordinary run of games for the Knights which has catapulted him to the top of the Dally M leaderboard thanks to six consecutive Man of the Match performances.
The 30-year-old is one of the most maligned players in Origin history having played 18 games for NSW with a win rate of just 28 per cent. He has been on the winning side of an Origin match just five times and has never won a series yet he has rocketed into the frame for a recall due to his red hot form and the concerning output of the Blues halves picked for Game One.
While Maloney also has strong backing for a return due to his reputation as an all-star performer in big games and his club combination with Cleary, Johns' tepid view of last year's series winning five-eighth could be telling.
Earlier this week Johns was adamant that Pearce was in the best shape of his career, hinting he was finally ready to banish his demons at Origin level.
"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."
While the NSW halves combination is the biggest talking point ahead of Sunday's Origin selection announcement, injuries to star prop David Klemmer and rookie winger Nick Cotric are set to force a further two changes.
Catch Andrew Johns' opinion all of rugby league's biggest talking points in Immortal Behaviour!
Having finally returned from a hamstring injury for Manly in last weekend's win over the Cowboys, Tom Trbojevic was unsurprisingly Johns' pick to return for NSW on the right wing, while Sharks front-rower Matt Prior is his first choice to fill Klemmer's role, potentially from the bench.
"Me personally I'd probably star Payne Haas, start him and put him out there, but there is an argument that says Jake Trbojevic and Cameron Murray have to be on the field together for as long as possible, so whether they start with Jake in the front-row?" Johns said.
"But Payne Haas I think maybe (to start) and you know who I like? I like Matt Prior, he played last year and didn't do anything wrong, he didn't sort of set it alight.
"But where he's great he's mobile, he's fit, defensively he cleans up a lot of the mess around the ruck, yeah I think he'd be handy coming off the bench."