After nine months out, Cronulla Sharks co-captain Wade Graham has chance to become State of Origin champion with NSW

Picture: Darren England/AAP Image
Picture: Darren England/AAP Image

It was only a month ago that Wade Graham was still hesitant about returning to play rugby league.

After nine months out following a knee reconstruction, the Sharks co-captain hadn't even started playing with Cronulla.

Despite hours, days, weeks and months of arduous rehabilitation, Graham was still unsure how his knee would hold up under the rigours of NRL football.

Now, he is 80 minutes away from being a State of Origin series winner.

Graham will come off the bench for NSW at ANZ Stadium on Wednesday night as the Blues look to defend their Origin crown against Queensland in the series decider.

The 28-year-old was a surprise selection for game two in Perth given he had played just 86 minutes for the Sharks since his return from injury.

But Graham was at his classy best, putting in a masterclass performance that showed exactly why NSW coach Brad Fittler selected him.

Star: Wade Graham was outstanding for NSW playing in the halves in Origin II. Picture: AAP Image

Star: Wade Graham was outstanding for NSW playing in the halves in Origin II. Picture: AAP Image

After coming on as a left-sided back-rower to replace captain Boyd Cordner, who went off for a head-injury assessment in the opening 10 minutes, Graham returned in the second half as a five-eighth after Nathan Cleary suffered an ankle injury.

It was a strong, mature performance from Graham whose quality and versatility will again be a weapon for the Blues in the decider.

Some had called for Graham to start game three at five-eighth given his performance in game two. But Fittler opted to select Newcastle halfback Mitchell Pearce, with Graham remaining on the bench.

"The people we've had come in, Mitchell is obviously very experienced," Fittler said.

"He knows a lot of the players. He's played in grand finals with a lot of the team. His experience will help us a lot.

"It's more the fact him and James Maloney have worked together. That's the key. The fact is they've played grand finals together and a lot of big games together. So that will help unbelievably going into a big game.

"They just know each other's voice. They know the people around them. Obviously for Mitchell there's some Newcastle players there with him, they've been going so well together. That brings confidence when you hear those voices and see those people."

Graham is Cronulla's only representative playing in Origin III.

St George Illawarra will have four of their stars featuring. Along with Queensland's Ben Hunt and debutant Corey Norman, Paul Vaughan and Tyson Frizell will also run out for NSW.

David Klemmer is likely to start in the front-row for NSW after he was called into the Blues squad following Dragons forward Tariq Sims' suspension.

Queensland will be buoyed by their record in Origin deciders. The Blues have lost their last seven straight deciders, having won just four of a total of 19 matches with the series on the line.

Pearce has also lost all seven Origin III matches he has played in, with plenty of pressure on the Knights No.7 to deliver on the big stage after replacing the injured Cleary.

Fittler said he expected a vastly improved Queensland side on Wednesday night.

"They'll definitely be different," Fittler said.

"Corey Norman, not a lot of people play like him. He's got a style of his own.

"Most of the blokes playing week in, week out will have had a good look at him. And we're pretty confident we can shut it down.

"They do a lot of research on these fellas week in, week out [with their clubs]. They know a lot of their mannerisms and their habits and their traits they go back to. We obviously go through their team and look at what we think could happen.

"But I'm very confident in what we're doing in our training sessions can stop what they want to throw at us."

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