Jarrod Croker watches Jack Wighton leave the field against the Storm. The pair are battling for a berth in the centres of the Country Origin team.
They work side-by-side in combination for the Raiders, but NSW Country coach Trent Barrett admits Canberra teammates Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker could be battling for the same centre position when representative teams are finalised this weekend.
Barrett said NSW selectors still viewed Wighton primarily as a centre, despite his move to five-eighth for the Raiders, and he all but confirmed 21-year-old Wighton would be in the 17 for NSW Country when the squad is selected on Sunday.
It could cost Croker, who is in the best form of his NRL career, given Wighton made his representative debut for NSW Country at centre last year and both play on the same side of the field for Canberra.
Jarrod Croker has been in career best form in 2014. Photo: melissa Adams
Raiders utility Josh McCrone is also in the frame to retain his Country jersey, despite shifting to hooker and playing off the bench for Canberra this season, while Paul Vaughan, Shaun Fensom and Joel Edwards are among other Raiders players on a preliminary list of more than 30 Country contenders.
Country are leaning towards playing NSW Origin incumbent James Maloney at five-eighth, with Newcastle's Jarrod Mullen and Cronulla's Todd Carney in the mix for the halves against City, in Dubbo, on May 3. Barrett, who played 11 Origins for NSW in the halves, said Wighton was already a representative-class player, but not at six.
"Down the track I certainly think he could handle five-eighth at a representative level,'' Barrett said.
"I'd be taking him along pretty slowly ... it's still a role he's learning. He's a left-foot kick which helps, he's got good skill, good hands, he's big, tough and a good defender.
"It's all there for him, but there's a lot of things to learn to become a good five-eighth and we can't rush him along or throw him in the deep end. He'll do a job for any team in any position. That's where his value is.
"He's one of those players that could play anywhere, I'd have no trouble picking Jack anywhere from the wing to the backrow. I had him last year in the Country side and he was terrific, he did a really good job on Michael Jennings and he'll be in there somewhere."
Croker, still only 23, has already played 122 NRL matches and has been one of Canberra's best this season. While NSW selectors are urging Bulldogs centre Josh Morris to rest up before Origin, Barrett said there were still plenty of centre contenders.
"Jarrod's one of them, Jamal Idris [Penrith] is another, we'll probably consider Jack Wighton in the centres, so there's a few options – Kane Linnett at the Cowboys. He [Jarrod] is right in the mix."
Two-time Raiders player of the year, Fensom, has been overlooked for rep duties and the 25-year-old again faces strong competition in the backrow for a spot.
The bolter from the Raiders could be Vaughan, who turns 23 on Wednesday. Canberra's rookie of the year last season, Vaughan impressed for Italy at last year's World Cup and Barrett said he had been on the radar well before his match-winning try against the Storm last Sunday.
"One of our staff members at Penrith, Cameron Ciraldo, played with Vaughany at the World Cup and gave him a big rap,'' Barrett said. "I think we need to blood some young blokes in that area and see if they can handle it, to see how they are in camp and around better players. He's pretty mobile, he's got a good motor and he's going well."
McCrone has played a utility role for Country in the past two years and Barrett said shifting to hooker – and the Canberra bench – hadn't harmed his chances.
"I'm a big fan of Josh's, he can play in a lot of positions. He was one of our best in the City-Country game last year, him not starting [for Canberra] won't hinder his chances because I know what he can do.
"From a utility perspective, there's probably him and [Gold Coast's] Albert Kelly going head-to-head for that position and if there is an injury in the halves I certainly know Josh could handle that."