Mitchell Pearce gets another chance in the Origin arena.
Mitchell Pearce gets another chance in the Origin arena. DAN HIMBRECHTS

Pearce gets shot at redemption

MITCHELL Pearce was up against it from the moment he set foot in State of Origin.

He had just turned 19 when thrown into the 2008 decider against what was to become the greatest Queensland team ever assembled, already on track to their third consecutive series victory.

With just a tick over 13 minutes remaining and the scores locked at 10-all, Johnathan Thurston gave his rookie rival his first taste of what it was like to own an Origin moment.

Pearce's right centre Joel Monaghan was at marker after the fourth tackle when Thurston seized his chance.

Rushing from the open to the short side, Thurston charged at the line with the ball in two hands and a menacing look in his eyes.

Pearce had a tiring prop in Brett White defending on his inside and Greg Inglis coming straight at him when Thurston let rip with his trademark show-and-go.

Everyone will tell you, don't fall for Thurston's dummy.

But in one mesmerising blink, Thurston was through. White was unable to shut the gate and Pearce was left clutching at air.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 04: Mitchell Pearce of the Blues and team mates listen to instructions during a New South Wales Blues State of Origin training session at the NSWRL Centre of Excellence on July 04, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Pearce listens to instructions at training. Cameron Spencer

All Thurston then had to do was draw fullback Kurt Gidley and moments later a flying Billy Slater was celebrating the series-clinching try.

In the years that followed, Pearce conceded he entered the game's toughest arena too early.

In truth, it was never his choice. He just had to deal with it the best he could.

Yet his best was never good enough for his many critics as he became the most-maligned halfback in NSW Origin history.

While the now 30-year-old didn't get to choose how his Origin journey started, tonight on the same ground at ANZ Stadium he will have the chance to write his own closing chapter.

Pearce has already had two false starts this series, having to tell coach Brad Fittler he was unavailable because of injury.

 

Pearce was still a teenager when thrown into the Origin fire. Image: Sam Mooy
Pearce was still a teenager when thrown into the Origin fire. Image: Sam Mooy

However, when he returned a missed call from Fittler last Wednesday after Nathan Cleary was ruled out with an ankle injury, Pearce didn't hesitate to declare he was ready to go in the decider.

With that, arguably Origin's greatest redemption story took flight. Laurie Daley is no headline hunter but when questioned on radio last Thursday about Pearce's Origin call-up, the former NSW coach gave an honest assessment.

Daley was always one of Pearce's greatest supporters and one of the first things he did as Blues coach was back Pearce to be his No.7.

But while Daley didn't doubt Fittler had made the right call to recall Pearce, he conceded the choice was not without danger.

"I think the only time he will feel under pressure is if the game is in the balance with 10 to eight minutes to go, it is tight, or NSW are behind," Daley said.

"I think he then may have some demons and maybe think, 'Well, I'm not the player here that can get the job done'. Subconsciously, he may think that.

"Or he might be thinking, 'This is my moment, this is my time, this is to shut everyone up'."

Laurie Daley was one of Mitchell Pearce’s greatest supporters.
Laurie Daley was one of Mitchell Pearce’s greatest supporters.

In 19 Origins Pearce has won just five times, never played in a series victory and lost all seven of his game-three encounters.

In 1411 minutes of Origin footy, he has just three tries, six try assists, two linebreaks and three forced dropouts.

Peter Sterling had four best-on-ground awards in 13 appearances, as did Andrew Johns in 16 games, while Ricky Stuart won three in 14 matches.

For a long-serving halfback, you just can't smother the reality. And while you can't single him out for all the losses, it is also indisputable that Pearce has had forgettable periods in some of those games.

But he is also no longer up against the likes of Thurston, Darren Lockyer and Cooper Cronk.

Pearce has been described as a very good halfback but not in that champion category.

Queensland's halves tonight will be Daly Cherry-Evans and Corey Norman. With all due respect, they are also in the very good bracket.

So this is finally a fair fight.

Having steered Newcastle into fifth spot - including a run of five consecutive man-of-the-match awards - Pearce has his tail up.

"I'm comfortable. I'm confident in my footy," he said.

"I don't get too nervous these days. I'm feeling relaxed. I know what job I need to do for my team.

"It's a big night. I haven't been reading too much. I'm enjoying the week.

"It's great to be back."