By Dan Walsh
Even amid the helter-skelter of his first Origin outing, Matt Burton found the time to aim his booming left foot bombs at the wires that strung ‘spider cam’ across Optus Stadium as everything the Blues rookie touched turned to gold.
And in a nod to the welcome selection headache now facing coach Brad Fittler, returning NSW star Latrell Mitchell declared on social media that “Burton can have the number 4” in the wake of the 21-year-old’s game-turning debut.
Burton was surrounded by his old Panthers teammates at left centre in Sunday’s 44-12 trouncing of Queensland and was as influential as any NSW player during a tense first half.
His combination with Nathan Cleary for the Blues’ eye-catching first try and then a rapid-fire catch and pass to send Brian To’o over – and NSW into the lead – were two of the biggest moments in the win.
Burton’s renowned kicking game also went to new heights on the Origin stage, with one bomb soaring high above the Optus Stadium roof and leaving Murray Taulagi unable to get a hand on it when it did eventually come back to earth.
“I hit that first one pretty sweet,” Burton grinned after his storybook debut.
“I could see the wire for the cam there so I was trying to just hit that and I’d end up hitting them pretty sweet.
“You can’t tell when you’re out there (if he did manage to hit the camera wire) there’s too much going on. I was lucky enough to pull it off.”
More than once during the week’s NSW training runs, the call of “skyrocket” rang out before a game scenario that saw play set up for Burton to cannon the ball 60 metres and more downfield.
The Bulldogs star handled the added kicking responsibility on his ear despite being “more nervous than I’ve ever been” leading into kick-off.
But left-edge partner and one-time Panthers teammate Jarome Luai said a strong debut was never in doubt given Burton’s temperament.
“I don’t think he feels the nerves at all – if he does, it doesn’t show,” Luai said.
“He’s played in a few big games now and he’s killed it. I had no doubt, there was no worry about him before the game and whether he was ready or not.
“Those skills he’s got, they’re pretty rare and it’s only the best of the best that can do it. His boot is crazy and everyone talks about it, but it probably overshadows some of his other skills that are really quality.
“He’s a footy player, he stepped up and he was one of our best tonight.”
Mitchell had been sized up by many as an automatic recall once his return from a hamstring injury, already once delayed by a bout of COVID-19.
But Burton’s impressive debut has raised the prospect of Mitchell being kept on ice for the July 13 decider, the Rabbitohs gun endorsing Burton’s incumbency in an Instagram comment after full-time.
Jack Wighton’s return from his own COVID-19 diagnosis as well only thickens the selection plot after he was NSW’s best at left centre in Origin I.
The old Panthers connection with Luai, Cleary, To’o and Liam Martin helped put Burton at ease in the Origin arena and is another consideration for Fittler and his coaching staff.
“They’re freakish talents – Jarome, Bizza and Marto,” Burton said.
“They do everything at 100 per cent and made my job pretty easy to just slot in there.
“It’s a privilege to put this jersey on and I’ll just keep working hard, and hopefully get the call up next game.”
News, results and expert analysis from the weekend of sport sent every Monday. Sign up for our Sport newsletter.