Sharks captain Paul Gallen is in doubt for Origin I after going off injured and being reported against the Rabbitohs. Photo: Steve Christo
NSW's horrendous State of Origin I preparations may have been dealt a fatal blow with injury and suspension threatening Blues skipper Paul Gallen's involvement in the series opener following South Sydney's drama-charged 34-28 NRL win over Cronulla last night.
As if the sight of a rampant Souths and Queensland star Greg Inglis scoring a brilliant hat-trick wasn't enough to ensure a sleepless night for NSW coach Ricky Stuart, then Gallen's shocking night out would have done the trick.
Gallen hobbled off in the 57th minute, telling Sharks medical staff he ''felt something go'' in his right knee as he surrendered in a tackle.
That came after he was placed on report for a fourth-minute knee to the head of Dave Taylor when they were both getting to their feet after a tackle, Souths skipper Michael Crocker saying, ''you can't knee a bloke in the head'' as Gallen protested his innocence following the penalty.
Already without certain selections Kurt Gidley, Danny Buderus and Michael Jennings due to injury, the loss of Stuart's inspirational captain Gallen could be the setback from which the Blues fail to recover.
The one bright spot for NSW would have been the performance of likely five-eighth Todd Carney - who scored one breathtaking solo try from a scrum, played a leading role in three other four-pointers and nailed four of five conversions.
But his heroics were no match for Inglis, who almost single-handedly stopped Cronulla's winning streak at six to re-affirm that his NRL future is most definitely in the No. 1 jumper.
His hat-trick of tries - which started with a powerful fifth-minute effort when he charged through a host of defenders from short range - was just the start of it.
He also set up another for Nathan Merritt - who scored a double to open his account this season - while two try-saving tackles in defence completed a standout all-round game for the representative star.
After Inglis and Carney traded early tries, Merritt got going with a 65-metre intercept off a Gallen pass before Inglis' second try had the home side in charge.
South Sydney's momentum was halted by what appeared to be a harsh penalty against Issac Luke when he was ruled to be third man into a fight in his own in-goal while in possession, with Jeff Robson scoring from the ensuing set.
Carney's night could have been even better if not for winger John Williams botching two try-scoring chances set up by the crafty pivot, his opposite Stewart Mills doing better to cut the margin to 20-16 before Inglis and Merritt crossed again to ensure South Sydney's second-straight win.