When Nathan Cleary went down with a knee injury last month, you could have been forgiven for thinking James Maloney’s NSW jumper went with him.
Because by the five-eighth’s own admission, combinations are key in State of Origin football. And he and the seemingly Blues-bound Cleary had already appeared to strike up up a winning one.
Maloney of all people knows about the positives and pitfalls of club combinations in Origin.
He made his NSW debut next to then-Sydney Roosters teammate Mitchell Pearce in 2013, but lost his spot in 2014 when Pearce found himself in off-field trouble.
Cleary, for what it’s worth, is still hoping to return for Penrith slightly before the Origin side is named.
Whether that’s enough for him to get his first Blues jersey remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt the injury has highlighted Maloney’s prowess in his preferred role of chief playmaker again.
“We’ve simplified things a fair bit to make that nice and easy,” Maloney said.
“I think it just makes it easier. I’m in control, I know what’s going on because everything is going where I want it to.
“There’s no doubt we’re a better side when Nathan and everyone is in there and we can build that combination but that takes a little bit longer.
“We want to set up a real foundation and base that Nathan just falls into and can build off the back of that and add what he brings.”
Maloney has been in everything for the Panthers since replacing Cleary at No.7 after a relatively quiet opening three rounds.
He set up two tries and scored another to beat North Queensland last week and followed it up by kicking for their only try in Sunday’s win over Parramatta.
Just as valuable has been his defence. A week after taking it to Coen Hess, he crunched the far-bigger Tony Williams on Sunday to force the ball loose.
He also provided a key 40-metre dash to bat back a kick in his own in-goal to maintain Penrith’s lead and their 4-1 start to the season.
It’s the kind of football you can’t help but think Maloney is talking about when he reveals his other Origin selection philosophy aside from club combinations.
“If you’re going to be picked you need to be playing good footy at that point,” he said.
“Because there’s no point getting picked if you’re not going to play good footy at State of Origin – that’s a waste of time.
“I hope I’m there – there’s no doubt about that. I want to be there and I can play the footy that can get me there.
“But at the moment it’s about controlling this side and making sure I’m doing what I need to here.”