Penrith young gun Bryce Cartwright has all but played himself into a NSW Origin jumper after leading City to a 44-30 upset win over Country in Tamworth on Sunday.
While South Sydney winger Aaron Gray stole the limelight with four tries, he reaped the rewards of the devastating form of Cartwright who proved a handful all day.
Despite playing at back-row, the Panthers forward often slotted into first receiver and was the architect of City’s first-half onslaught as they jumped out to a 18-6 lead at the break.
With Blues coach Laurie Daley among the 8317-strong crowd at Scully Park, Cartwright carved up the Country defence with his offloads, kicking and ball-playing.
Country took a 6-0 lead through a Boyd Cordner try but City soon after went on a scoring blitz, piling on 34 unanswered points to take the game away from Country.
For City coach Brad Fittler, Cartwright’s attacking arsenal is undoubted for the next step to the State of Origin arena, but he’s got to prove he’s reliable enough in defence.
“The big thing about Bryce Cartwright is, we had a goal before the game that if he was part of a tackle, he had to finish it,” Fittler said.
“It was all about defence – I didn’t say anything all week to Bryce about attack. Other than the first one where Shannon Boyd pretty much ran over the top of him – that was pretty much the third tackle of the game – he never missed another one.
“His defence was outstanding and if he fine-tunes that part of the game, he’s got it.”
Country coach Craig Fitzgibbon admitted his side struggled to control City’s second-phase play on the back of Cartwright’s brilliance.
“They got themselves into the game with their kicking game and their second phase, which we knew was going to be coming, we just couldn’t stop it,” Fitzgibbon said.
“They were fearless, they had nothing to lose there and Freddy brings out the best in those players and he had them well connected.”
While Gray is not even in the frame for Origin selection, he only enhanced his name with the first four-try performance in the fixture since Graham Eadie in 1980.
He did well to create several of his tries but was the beneficiary of some brilliant play by City’s right edge combination of Cartwright and Tyrone Peachey.
Country halves Jack Bird and James Maloney started strongly but had a mixed afternoon in a beaten side.
Despite still being on the comeback trail from a pectoral injury, Boyd Cordner did enough to demand a Blues spot while Country prop Jack de Belin was outstanding, making 165 metres and 17 tackles.