Melbourne’s humiliating Origin black eye
THE NRL is bracing for a State of Origin black eye at the series opener in Melbourne.
Despite the representative retirements of Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith making the 2018 series completely up for grabs - Melbourne fans are reportedly set to give Origin Game 1 the snub.
The Daily Telegraph reports the NRL is resigned to an embarrassing crowd of just 50,000 turning up at the cavernous MCG when the Maroons and Blues face off on June 6.
The report claims ticket sales for Origin I are yet to break past 20,000 - just 11 days before the big game.
Sales are expected to pick up in the final 10 days with promotions, free give-aways and membership interest expected to push sales past 40,000.
The 100,000 MCG would still appear mostly empty if less than 50,000 fail to turn up.
Pictures of empty sections at the MCG during the biggest game of the year would be a black eye for the NRL's commitment to taking games outside of New South Wales and Queensland.
The looming Melbourne disaster comes after 91,513 turned up to watch Origin at the MCG in 2015.
The Daily Telegraph reports Melbourne supporters have turned their back on Origin at the MCG because of a rise in ticket prices, a promise of future Origin matches in Melbourne in 2021 and 2025 and ongoing fan anxiety around the NRL's referee crackdown which has drastically escalated the rate of penalties in the game.
The 2018 series will also be played without Melbourne favourites Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston.
Only Billy Slater remains of Queensland's big veteran stars alongside Greg Inglis.
Meanwhile, rumblings about poor form haven't swayed NSW coach Brad Fittler, who says Boyd Cordner is a guaranteed starter for the Blues in the opening State of Origin clash.
The Roosters second rower and incumbent Blues captain had been criticised by the likes of former NSW coach Phil Gould, who claimed Cordner shouldn't be picked in the June 6 clash because his game had stagnated.
But on a night where Fittler skirted other selection quandaries for the Melbourne opener, he gave Cordner a thorough endorsement.
"Boyd will be in the team," Fittler told the Nine Network.
"If I could pen anyone in at the moment barring injury it would be Boyd Cordner. "Obviously Gus (Gould) and I have got a great relationship - he does things in different ways.
"He (Gould) knows the way I'm thinking and he'd be trying to get the players to be at their best so if he thinks Boyd can go up another gear then he is most probably giving Boyd a prod." Other selections appeared to be open.
Fittler didn't back down about his concerns over potential pivot James Maloney's defence but spoke highly of him in other ways and gave every indication he was still a strong show of getting picked.
Saturday's anticipated Penrith-St George Illawarra NRL could yet determine the fate of a number of players including Maloney, his halves partner Nathan Cleary and Dragons hooker Cameron McInnes and centre Euan Aitken.
Aitken is battling for centre spots with Brisbane's James Roberts and the Roosters' Latrell Mitchell.
Fittler conceded the latter two exhilarated in attack but had some work to do in defence.
"The thing we've got to hope though is that they learned from letting them (tries) in," he said of Roberts and Mitchell, who both allowed four-pointers to be scored when the Broncos played the Roosters last round.
Fittler, who took over from Laurie Daley this season, felt there'd been a "selfish culture" at NSW in the recent past - something he was determined to eliminate as the Blues sought just a second win from the past 13 series. "I am going to pick players who are going to think about their teammates," Fittler said.
- with AAP