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McGregor keeping keen eye on front row stocks

Newly-appointed Brydens Lawyers NSW Blues assistant coach Paul McGregor will be keeping a keen eye on the talent pool of the state’s best prop forwards for the 2022 Origin campaign.

McGregor, who was appointed by head coach Brad Fittler in September, says he doesn’t see any areas in the NSW positional ranks needing more depth – apart from the front row as NSW seeks to defend its 2021 Ampol State of Origin shield.

“It’s a bit early to tell really but if you look at this year’s series, the NSW front row didn’t stay the same in any of the three games,” he said.

Newcastle Knights’ Daniel Saifiti and Manly Warringah Sea Eagles’ Jake Trbojevic were the starting props in Origin Game One; Saifiti and Parramatta Eels’ Junior Paulo in Game Two; and Paulo and Melbourne Storm’s Dale Finucane in Game Three.

Fittler brought in Wests Tigers prop Stefano Utoikamanu to the extended squad for Game Three this year, while Penrith Panthers’ Moses Leota and Spencer Leniu could be other options.

“They’ve got good depth in fullback and other spine positions that’s for sure but front rowers could be one area we need to look at,” McGregor said.

“But injuries are part of our game so they will impact next year, and you’ll get two or three that really rise and play exceptional footy in the first 10 weeks with their club, so they become important considerations.

“Brad has already got a real good balance between what he’s achieved in the past and the players that helped him with that. That will also come into the conversation about continuing that loyalty.

“But he will also show respect and some trust in the next generation coming through too.”

The Fittler-McGregor combination is a good fit. The pair were NSW’s centre partners in the winning 1992, 1993 and 1994 Origin sides.

McGregor, who was named earlier this year as the Under 19s Origin coach, will not be lost to NSWRL’s pathway for budding Origin players because of his new role with the Brydens Lawyers NSW Blues.

The impact of Covid in 2021 meant McGregor only managed to stage a few training sessions with the Under 19s. The game – set to be the curtain-raiser to Game Three in Sydney – was cancelled.

But the 53-year-old will still play a part with Fittler in sourcing talent for the Under 17s, Under 19s and Emerging Blues in 2022. He will run a few clinics and training sessions.

“But I won’t be able to take them to that Origin game – that will be handed to someone else,” McGregor said. “But I still want to work in that space with the kids and their development.”

That process has already started.

“Now that the season has finished, we’ve got together to begin setting plans on what we need to do between now and the first Origin game next year,” McGregor said.

“Basically, I’ll do whatever needs to be done. I’ll be watching games next season, commenting and giving my opinion on players when Brad asks me.

“I’ll also be looking at different playing and training strategies, and any other technical stuff. Whatever Brad needs or asks for, I’m just going to have input into those decisions – that’s my job.”

It is not a straight swap with former NSW assistant coach Craig Fitzgibbon – Fittler’s right-hand man during 2021, who has begun his NRL head coaching role at Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.

“Brad didn’t talk of any specific role when he asked me,” McGregor said.

“He just said ‘Are you comfortable with doing anything?’ and I said I am.

“This is about giving something back to the state and the game that gave everything to me.”

McGregor was also assistant Origin coach to Laurie Daley (2013-17) and Graham Murray (2006-07).

“I used all these coaches and experiences to develop my own philosophies and methods,” he said.

“In my Origin playing days my first coach was Phil Gould, who was really successful, and then I had Tommy (Raudonikis). You couldn’t find two more contrasting people but they both had really good attributes in their own way,” McGregor said.

“Gus was very mentoring, motivational and technically sound. Then Tommy was just this ball of passion – you’d do anything for him because he made you feel like a winner. You’d do anything for him not to let him down.

“I also played a lot of football with Laurie and he coached how he played – very focused and thorough in what he does.

“Graham was a person who built a really good team environment together. He got families and involved and was big on creating a good culture.

“I’ve gained some great experiences through both winning and losing Origin. I’ve seen both ends of the scale.

“I also told Brad that from being a (NRL) head coach myself, a decision and an opinion are two vastly different things so if he asks for my opinion I’ll definitely give it, but the decision is up to him.”