Walker feared he’d never be NSW No.6 again

Cody Walker admits it took him some time to get over last year’s State of Origin axe as he feared he’d finish his NSW career a one-game player.

Walker will on Wednesday night get his reprieve in the Blues’ No.6 jersey, after Brad Fittler’s decision to cull Luke Keary and call up Walker from the bench for the must-win clash.

With the idea of completing unfinished business after that Game I loss last year firmly implanted in his mind.

One of the form players of the competition over the opening months last year, Walker was hooked after just 56 minutes of his Origin debut last season.

He returned for the final 10 minutes and played with more impetus but was still discarded and had his form fade away as South Sydney went into a mid-season freefall.

“Last year I didn’t really think I would get another shot at it,” Walker said.

“It was obviously quite tough. You don’t know how to react to that stuff until you get put in that situation.

“I probably took a little bit of time to regain my confidence and started to play my best footy at the back end of last year.”

Walker entered this season with the objective of getting his hands on the ball more.

It helped him to a magical 12-week run at the end of the campaign, where he set up 17 tries and scored seven of his own in Souths’ greatest ever attacking streak.

It’s the opposite to the way he played in his first 56 minutes of Origin last year, where he remained stuck on the left edge and not letting himself search for the ball.

The Rabbitohs five-eighth spoke extensively in recent weeks about learning from that disappointment, a lesson he showed during his limited minutes from the bench in last week’s Origin defeat in Adelaide.

“I was hoping to get another crack last year and that wasn’t the case … I have to get my hands on the footy a little bit earlier than I did last year,” Walker said.

“I just can’t wait to get out there. I am buzzing, I’m ready to go and am pretty excited.”

Key to that will be how he combines with his halves partner Nathan Cleary.

No.7 Cleary spoke about the need for him to be the dominant voice, allowing Walker to roam the field after more than half his tries at the end of the year came on the right.

“It probably suits my game a little bit more (that he is a dominant half),” Walker said.

“It allows me to float both sides of the field, which I like to do.

“Communication is the biggest thing there, letting Nath know where I am and just connecting with each other is the key.”

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Luai puts defence back in Penrith’s No.6

When James Maloney swapped the Australian shores for the French Riviera late last year, he did so with the unflattering reputation of being arguably the worst tackler in the NRL.

According to NRL’s stats, the former Penrith five-eighth topped the missed tackle count in four of his last five seasons in the competition.

So as Jarome Luai spent last season as understudy to one of the most successful players of the past decade, defence wasn’t high on the list of questions.

“That’s probably something I didn’t talk to him about much, defence,” Luai told AAP, with tongue in cheek.

A year on and headed into Sunday’s grand final against Melbourne, Luai is the one doing all the talking.

Particularly when the young livewire playmaker knows he’s been targeted in defence as the smallest member of Penrith’s team and is repelling the opposition.

“Then when I start to get cheeky as well, it adds onto that a bit,” Luai said.

“It gives me confidence, you know, seeing them like that.

“(That confidence is) really big, especially leading into next week against a team like Melbourne.

“You can never let off for the whole 80 minutes.”

While Maloney averaged 6.4 misses a game over his two years at Penrith, Luai’s figure is less than half of that at 2.8 in 2020.

But it hasn’t been an overnight success.

While his left-edge attack has been deadly all year and he improves in picking his time to run, he has had his moments in defence.

He missed nine tackles in his first two games this year, and 23 in his first six before a steady improvement.

A fortnight ago coach Ivan Cleary was critical of Luai’s defence, as he missed five tackles which resulted in two tries for the Sydney Roosters on that edge.

Luai responded.

Assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo put a heavy emphasis on stopping South Sydney’s Cody Walker in the preliminary final, spending hours on his run-around play with Adam Reynolds.

And when the Rabbitohs tried to pull it off in a crunch moment late in the game it was Luai that stopped Walker.

“That was definitely my focus for the week,” Luai said.

Now a similar challenge awaits against Melbourne.

Cameron Munster is another five-eighth who is dangerous on both sides of the field and was easily the Storm’s best in their round-six loss to Penrith.

The ever-dangerous Felise Kaufusi and in-form halfback Jahrome Hughes are also on Luai’s edge.

“I’ve met Munster a few times. He’s awesome off the field but on the field, he’s crazy,” Luai said.

“I idolised him a bit as I was coming into the league. Seeing the way he plays the game, it’s really instinctive.

“Can step off both feet and I love that he can run the ball really well.

“It’s a big job for me again, like it was against Cody.”


James Maloney missed tackles:

2019 – 122 (most in NRL)

2018 – 161 (most)

2017 – 121 (second most)

2016 – 103 (most)

2015 – 109 (most)

Jarome Luai missed tackles:

2020 – 61 (eighth most)

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