Nathan Cleary walks off the field in 26-18 win over the St George Dragons. (Image: Penrith Panthers)

During Penrith Panthers’ win over the Dragons at BlueBet Stadium on Sunday, Nathan Cleary went off the field with a hamstring injury and it was confirmed that he will be ruled out for six weeks, which includes the remaining two games of State of Origin this year.

This is a massive blow for the Penrith Panthers and the NSW Blues, creating the biggest question in the rugby league world.

Who replaces Nathan Cleary for the remainder of the series, being down 1-0 heading to Suncorp Stadium with the series on the line?

The Inner Sanctum will break down the most likely candidates ahead of the selection process for Game 2 of the series.

Adam Reynolds

The Broncos after their disappointing 2022 campaign, have turned it around, currently in second place tied with the Penrith Panthers.

The 32-year-old halfback is leading a top-ten attack, with the Broncos averaging 23.7 points.

Reynolds is scoring seven points per game in the 13 games out of 14 games the club has played, only not scoring in the loss to the Storm as he had to leave the field early.

With his experience in big games, playing in two grand final games and years of going deep into the finals, as well as appearances in Origin back in 2016, Reynolds has been on the biggest stage for most of his career.

The kicking game, leadership and maturity in high stake games, on top of the fact that he has played at Suncorp Stadium many times since joining the Broncos in 2022, would be a selection that would make the kicking game more meaningful and gives the Blues a transparent identity when they have possession.

What makes this a viable selection also is the feel for the game Reynolds has, knowing what type of kick he needs anywhere on the field and putting his powerful talented teammates in open space positions.

Having played with Latrell Mitchell and Cameron Murray, Reynolds already has chemistry with those players and would open up the attack in the middle, something which the Blues lacked significantly in the first game with Nathan Cleary as the halfback and Jarome Luai as the five-eighth.

Reece Walsh being the fullback for the Maroons also allows Reynolds to attack his weaknesses and have a legitimate game plan against one of the best performers from Game 1.

Mitchell Moses

The 28-year-old Eels halfback is currently having one of the best seasons of his career, fine-tuning his game at a higher level and making the game look slow at times with what he sees on the field.

Parramatta plays grit and grind, up and down for 80 minutes, which is how a lot of Origin games are played.

The Blues having a halfback that plays the way Origin operates is a massive advantage and helps even out Queensland playmakers Daly Cherry-Evans, Ben Hunt and Cameron Munster.

One of the best running halfbacks in the competition, Moses can take over a game with the ball in his hands and has plenty of speed at his will.

With a short side game, Moses can help engage players like Tom Trbojevic who didn’t see much ball in Game 1 and Latrell Mitchell.

The friendship and chemistry with James Tedesco as the fullback and playing with teammate Junior Paulo in the middle could speed up the around-the-ruck game and create more offload and ball-playing opportunities.

With a ball-running, feel for the game six, whether that is Jarome Luai, Nicho Hynes or Cody Walker, would embrace the utilisation of space in the game.

The Eels are also one of the best teams in the league when the offence becomes all about half-field sets, generating points when the game shrinks and slows down.

Currently, a top-three offence averaging 24.9 points per game, Moses generates a lot of the points with his cross-field or short grubber kicks when they are close to the try line.

Against the Rabbitohs and Tigers this season, Moses put on a clinic with multiple try assists just off kicks alone, putting the defence on their back foot.

The NSW and Lebanon representative also showcased his ability for the Blues in the 2021 series, creating 12 of the 18 points in Game 3, replacing Nathan Cleary on the Gold Coast.

Compared to Nicho Hynes, Moses has a better percentage winning against top eight sides, with a 53 per cent winning rate in the last 18 months, showing recently he can play down the stretch of games, having made a grand final appearance last year against the Panthers.

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Nicho Hynes

The recent Dally M medalist will definitely be high up in the selection process as the halfback for the remainder of the series.

The franchise playmaker has helped the Sharks generate the number-one offence in the competition this season, with the club scoring 25.9 points per game.

Although his 12 minutes in Adelaide for the Blues led to a comeback by the Maroons, Hynes was out of position and out of the flow and rhythm of the game.

Being able to play in his preferred position from start to finish would open doors for him to be selected.0

Heading into Game 1, there was debate about Hynes being ahead of Luai for the six jersey, statistically outperforming the two-time premiership winner.

Hynes’ short ball and take-over ability have been vital in the success he’s had with the Sharks, creating more opportunities when he is the main decision-maker.

The Sharks play a left-to-right, right-to-left offence, which is similar to how coach Brad Fittler likes the Blues to play, creating a seamless transition for Hynes for Game 2.

There’s also a possibility he could play five-eighth, especially in a spine shake-up. However, expect Hynes to be high up on the list for the halfback position, being younger and previously being in the camp for Game 1.

There is a concern with Hynes’ record playing in high-pressure games, being under 50 per cent in win rate against top eight teams.

In the finals last year, the Sharks went out in straight sets, losing to the Cowboys and Rabbitohs. The Sharks couldn’t execute down the stretch at home against the Cowboys and struggled to spark offence outside of Hynes against the Rabbitohs.

Should there be a new halves combination?

There’s a slim chance that an entirely new halves combination could be created.

However, it is possible, and with no Cleary, there’s a possibility that Luai could not be selected because he does not have his halfback.

The former Rabbitohs combination of Cody Walker and Adam Reynolds could open up bringing back Damien Cook to have the previous Rabbitohs core that has previously brought success to South Sydney.

The free-flowing ball movement and game management approach halves combination could keep Queensland on its toes and make the edge defenders more aggressive and blitz the side-to-side offence.

Cody Walker and Mitch Moses playing together is another possibility, having a highly entertaining short-side offence on either side and a kicking game that allows New South Wales to play defensively off the back of floating kicks to the back three of Queensland.

Picking Moses over Reynolds would also remove concerns over whether the Broncos halfback’s body can hold up, considering he has played almost every game this season.

Jarome Luai and Nicho Hynes could pair up, with Luai expressing publicly he would be open to playing together in the halves.

Game 2 of State of Origin will take place June 21 at Suncorp at 8:05 pm AEST

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