‘Sorry Mum, it’s the grub hat again’: It’s bait or be baited in clash of the Origin nigglers

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Sorry, Ms Martin.

“I’m gonna have to put the grub hat on again,” NSW back-rower Liam Martin laughs as he prepares to face the Maroons.

Both sides for this year’s Origin series feature plenty of players known for their niggle, with Blues debutants Tevita Pangai jnr and Hudson Young especially pointed selections after Queensland bashed and bullied their way to a game three upset last year.

Martin and his NSW teammates are well aware of the impact a sin bin or timely penalty can have in an Origin match, with the Penrith star predicting plenty of baiting given the disciplinary records accompanying some of the players onto the Adelaide Oval pitch next Wednesday.

Liam Martin and his mum Maxine.

Martin is ready for his close-up with the Queensland media, too, after being crowned the Sunshine State’s new “Blues player to hate” last year.

“Mum’s still adamant I’m not a grub,” he says, relishing once more the tag that prompted him to ban schoolteacher Maxine Martin from social media during the 2022 series after the coverage upset her.

“She’s kidding herself though, and I’ve told her that. I learnt it all off her anyway, she was the most competitive bloody person I’ve ever seen. She played basketball and tennis, but whatever she played, she got stuck in.

“She’s not overly tall but she’s pretty solid. She didn’t mind a few elbows and she broke a few ribs a couple of years ago going quite hard in basketball. She was a bit mad in her day and I loved watching her play too.”

The selection of enforcers like Pangai and Hudson Young has raised anticipation for the series opener, with plenty made of the new duo’s propensity for brain explosions.

Champion Data analysis reveals, however, that recalled Queensland prop Tom Flegler’s five sin bins and 11 citations since the start of 2020 are by far the most of any player involved in Origin I.

Like Pangai, though, Flegler has been on his best behaviour this season while rediscovering his best form. After six weeks of suspensions in 2021 and 2022, Flegler has been a choirboy for Brisbane by comparison this season.

A late sin-binning for a push-and-shove against Melbourne this month is Fleger’s only one in 2023, and he has conceded just one other penalty.

Pangai has also infringed just once this season, and hasn’t been sin-binned since leaving the Broncos in 2021, although he did lose his cool in a pre-season dust-up with Cronulla’s Royce Hunt last year.

“[Pangai] does have that aggression, but he’s done a pretty good job this year of owning it and using it in different ways,” front-row partner and mate Payne Haas says, having worked at close quarters with Flegler as well at Red Hill.

Tino Fa’asuamaleaui got stuck into Matt Burton in last year’s Origin decider.

“In his game this year, we haven’t seen that red rag to the bull we usually see from him. He is just doing his own game.”

Origin has always been a different beast with different rules to boot, though. Young told this masthead on Monday that Queensland were welcome to revisit the eye-gouging and prohibited substance sledges others have thrown his way over the years.

When he and Manly’s Sean Keppie tangled on Sunday, soon-to-be NSW teammate Tom Trbojevic separated the pair.

“I wasn’t thinking Origin, I was just hoping [Young] wouldn’t hurt me,” Trbojevic says.

But Martin is happy to see how far he can push things come kick-off.

“Obviously, there is a line though, and a sin bin can change a game,” he says. “I think we’ve got a smart team here that knows where the boundaries can be pushed and when they can be dragged back in.

“I reckon there’ll be a bit of baiting. It happens in normal footy half the time as well. I think we’re smart enough not to fall into anything. But we’ll be trying to do the same thing to them. It’ll be interesting and worth watching as always.”

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