As a child, Mitchell Pearce was once given a pair of Andrew Johns’ football shorts as a keepsake. On Wednesday night at the MCG, he has the chance to finally fill them.
NSW have been searching for a dominant playmaker since the representative retirement of rugby league Immortal Johns in 2005. Over that period, the Maroons have won more State of Origin series than even the most lukewarm Blues’ fan cares to remember.
Last year, NSW finally broke Queensland’s stranglehold on the interstate series to claim the Origin Shield for the first time since 2005 with Canterbury pair Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds in the halves.
Pearce wasn’t there then, cynics were keen to point out about arguably Origin’s most-maligned player.
Much like Paul Gallen, Pearce cops more than his fair share of criticism but it is not without reason: he has won just three of his 13 Origin matches.
The Sydney Roosters’ playmaker enjoyed one of his best Origin performances in game one, evidence of that has been in the lack of criticism that has come his way in the wake of the Blues’ loss.
That blowtorch has since been applied on his NSW halves partner Trent Hodkinson after the Blues’ failure to opt for field goal late in game one and his dragging in Canterbury’s win over St George Illawarra two weeks ago. It is a position Pearce knows only too well.
“He’s a really calm guy and that’s the biggest thing I noticed with him from the start is how calm and clear he is,” Pearce says of Hodkinson.
“He doesn’t try and be a player he’s not or try and play outside of his square. That’s why he’s an Origin halfback; that’s why the boys love him and trust him in the team.
“He plays to his strengths and knows his game. It’s a real quality of his so I don’t think that (the criticism) will affect him too much and that’s why I enjoy playing with him.”
The best way Pearce and Hodkinson can respond to the sceptics, they know, is to force the Origin series to a decider. In regards to dealing with that Origin pressure, Pearce believes it is a state of mind.
“It’s as much as you want to take it on, I suppose. If you’re in a vulnerable state, you’re going to take it on more than if you’re secure in yourself,” the 2013 premiership winner said.
“It’s just a matter of believing in yourself. If you believe in what you can do, it’s not going to affect you.
“It’s part and parcel – if you lose a game of footy that’s high pressure, there’s going to be questions. That’s just what it is.
“As a team, we all stick together. I’d like to see NSW behind us, though. That’s what State of Origin’s about. It’s about everyone getting behind their state. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was see NSW win. I’m sure everyone will get behind us again.”
Which comes back to Joey’s shorts.
“I actually remember when Andrew Johns was my favourite player. I remember him giving me his footy shorts after a game. I was about 10 – that always stuck with me,” Pearce explained at a school visit at Coffs Harbour in the lead-up to Origin II.
“They were at home for ages. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Chances are a win at the MCG will be even better.