They are already a premiership-winning halves pairing – now Chad Townsend and James Maloney want to prove their partnership is ready for the representative stage.
Townsend and Maloney will look to steer their Cronulla side to a win in their derby with bitter rivals St George Illawarra tonight not only for the two competition points and bragging rights south of the Captain Cook Bridge, but to also make State of Origin selectors take notice.
Maloney, already the incumbent NSW five-eighth, produced arguably the best form of his career alongside Townsend to help lead Cronulla to their historic first premiership last season. Not a bad effort for two players who had never played together before until Maloney arrived from the Roosters and Townsend returned to the shire after a stint with the Warriors.
The pair have put in countless extra hours to make their combination work. Video sessions and extras after training became the norm. And Townsend believes the experience of playing alongside Maloney has taken his game to the next level.
“There was plenty of speculation at the start of the year about how we’d go,” Townsend said.
“Overall last year for me personally I look at it as the best form I’ve been in in my career.
“The amount of hard work we put in together, we both bought into what was happening here and we really worked hard. I still think Jimmy and myself can go to another level.”
Incumbent Blues halfback Adam Reynolds, who led NSW in the first two games of their series defeat last season, and the returning Mitchell Pearce may be in front of Townsend for the sky blue No.7 jersey but the Yarrawarrah Tigers junior ticks a lot of boxes.
Premiership winner? Tick.
Played rep football? Tick.
And the big one – combinations. Tick. Tick.
With fellow Sharks Wade Graham and Jack Bird almost certainties to be chosen alongside him, Maloney believes Townsend wouldn’t look out of place trading in the black, white and blue jersey for a sky blue one.
“100 per cent [he could handle it]. He’s played consistent footy over time now. There’s a lot of guys there but he definitely wouldn’t let anyone down if he got the opportunity,” Maloney said.
“I suppose that’s out of his hands but as long as he can keep playing good footy here I’d love to see a guy like Chaddy get rewarded for what he does. I’m enjoying playing with him and I think he helps my game a little bit so I’d love to see it if it happened.
“I think [our combination is] going well. It’s still something that we’re working on. We talk regularly about different things about what we can do and what we can mix up. I think it’ll still get better over time. We’ll have a look at a few different things this year because obviously the more you do things the more sides negate that so you need to change. We’re always talking about that.”
Maloney describes Townsend as a modest, level-headed bloke off the field. Townsend says Maloney is a “genuine dude”. There is a contrast in their relationship that seems to work.
“For myself he’s easily the best halves partner I’ve ever had and I’ve had the most fun playing alongside him,” Townsend said.
“For us to be able to attack really well and score some points... the Sharks weren’t really known for that before. For Jimmy and myself to come in and get this team scoring some points is a real positive for us.”
Townsend has grown up. No longer a young kid trying to find his way, the 26-year-old has learnt to become more vocal, pull senior players into line and steer his side around the park. He was rewarded with his first senior representative appearance for City Origin last season.
While the crowd at Southern Cross Group Stadium tonight won’t be as big as that of a State of Origin clash, the atmosphere will still be comparable given the feeling between the two local rivals.
As a local junior Townsend understands the rivalry as well as anyone. And he is ready to show his ability to handle the cauldron of the local derby – like he handled the grand final in October – has him ready to handle State of Origin football.
“You always have one eye on that sort of stuff and ambitions. You always want to play at a higher level. That’s just the nature of playing rugby league,” Townsend said.
“When I got that first taste of rep footy with City last year I felt really comfortable.
“I was brought up playing in a few rep teams for the Blues when I was younger and that NSW Origin culture was bled into me. I was a really passionate fan when I was growing up.
“Obviously I’d love to play there one day but it’s not anything that I’m really focusing on. If I’m playing well enough and our team is playing well enough I know that stuff will take care of itself and that’s all that I can control.”