05/03/2024

Jack Wighton retires from representative rugby league. (Image: NSWRL)

Last week Canberra Raiders five-eighth Jack Wighton announced his retirement from representative rugby league.

At the of age 30 years of old, Wighton has done almost anything anyone can do playing rugby league at the highest level.

Recognised as one of the premier State of Origins players for his toughness, physicality and versatility, replacing Wighton won’t be an easy feat.

The Inner Sanctum will break down the gaps that New South Wales will have to cover ahead of the 25-men selection for game 1 of the series with Wighton’s confirmed absence.

Ability to play off-the-ball

Wighton is considered one of the most versatile players in the current game. He is able to play almost every position and is the type of player that can be involved in any aspect of the game.

One of Wighton’s best skills is his ability to operate without the ball in a stacked New South Wales side.

In this clip from Game 3 of the 2021 State of Origin side, the Blues move the ball right to left near Queensland’s try line.

Damien Cook from the dummy half shifts to Isaah Yeo who uses Angus Crichton on his left as a runner at the line to pull the Queensland defensive line up off the line.

The cue from this leads Wighton to position himself in the right spot when Yeo continues the ball movement to Mitch Moses. Moses notices a gap between Dane Gagai and Daly Cherry-Evans, who move towards Moses to cover his pass to Wighton.

Wighton’s ability to run his line leads him to catch the ball with open space to take it himself and score a try in what was a tight contest.

In Origin, coach Brad Fittler has continued to rely on the spine added on with a ball-playing lock to create the ball movement and engage the defensive line to make them disoriented from proceeding to defend the backline when they receive the ball out the back or in the line.

With Gagai shifting outside and Cherry-Evans not timing their shifts along the defensive line, Wighton’s ball running overpowered a Queensland defence on the back foot.

Despite New South Wales going down in game one of last year’s series, Wighton was one of the stand-out players in that game.

Scoring a try in a similar fashion to when he scored in game 3 of the 2021 series, Wighton continued to be aggressive at the line when the Blues were in the red zone.

New South Wales shifted to Queensland’s right edge and created the space for Wighton to attack a new Queensland edge combination head-on.

Running game

Wighton is one of the best ball runners in the competition and it’s a pivotal part of his game that has transferred to all levels of rugby league.

Outside of attacking in the red zone, Wighton managed to add another part of his game on the origin stage.

Since being selected to play Origin, Wighton improved his yardage game, gaining 184 running metres in his one appearance last year.

In the 2-1 series victory over Queensland in 2021, Wighton only averaged 62 running metres per game, which is the lowest running average in his 10 appearances since the 2019 season.

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Defence

Wighton offered strong defensive pressure and great coverage of Queensland’s ball movement offence.

As a defender, Wighton had the tendency to rush the Queensland offence coming up out of their own half. His timing defensively could be an aspect of the game New South Wales won’t find in another player, as the margin for error is small.

Timely hits on opposing players can make a lot of difference in the rhythm and flow of the game, which is an element of the game Wighton manifested for the Blues.

New South Wales had great defensive stretches in last year’s series and Wighton was able to set the tone in the singular game he played in.

Potential Replacements

Now that Wighton is only eligible for club level, New South Wales needs to find a replacement for the 30-year-old.

There is a lot of talent that the Blues could select, especially players that have yet to put on the New South Wales jersey.

Campbell Graham

Campbell Graham is a name always thrown around during the selection process and still has not played a State of Origin game yet.

Already represented Australia in the World Cup in November last year, Graham showcased his versatility on both sides of the ball, playing as a centre and winger which he has also done for the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

Playing without the ball, and being able to finish from the playmaker’s kicks across the field, is a valuable skill as a winger if Fittler decides to put him in that position.

Graham has helped the Rabbitohs get to third place eight weeks into the season and has an incredible try-scoring run, scoring one try per game on average. He scored a hat-trick against the Bulldogs on Good Friday and a double against The Dolphins.

Graham also has averaged 145 running metres per game, and has collected 1160 running metres in total in his eight appearances, which places him in the top 20 of all players in the competition.

With 86 per cent tackling efficiency, Graham continues to be regarded as arguably the best defensive centre in the game and has proven many times he is worthy of representing the Blues.

Nicho Hynes

Nicho Hynes is a name being thrown around in possibly running out on the field for New South Wales come game one.

Last season’s Dally M Medalist has continued his impressive week in week out performances and continues to remind fans why he is considered one of the best half-backs in the competition.

If is selected as a utility, he can cover any one of the backline spots if needed and offers immense playmaking that could open up the game if offence becomes an issue like it has become since Brad Fittler stepped in as the coach for the Blues.

Hynes’ kicking game and control around the field have been a big reason behind the Cronulla Sharks’ success last season after a shocking 2021 rebuilding period.

Since Hynes return in Round Four this season, the Sharks have gone 2-1, after starting the first three games 1-2, losing to the Rabbitohs and Raiders in that span.

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