MANLY mentor Geoff Toovey has allayed the fears of NSW coach Ricky Stuart, declaring fullback Brett Stewart fully fit to take part in all the Blues' training sessions if selected.
The Herald understands Stuart, who was at Brookvale Oval yesterday running his eye over Stewart and Canberra's Josh Dugan, is reluctant to pick players who are unable to train midweek because of injury.
Daniel Harrison of the Sea Eagles is tackled during the round nine NRL match between the Manly Sea Eagles and the Canberra Raiders at Brookvale Oval. Photo: Getty Images
However, Toovey has given the Blues coach assurance that Stewart won't have to sit out any sessions because of a chronic knee injury that has plagued the latter stages of his career.
Stewart has firmed as the favourite to wear the NSW No. 1 jersey for game one in Melbourne on May 23, doing his chances no harm with another solid performance against the Raiders in Manly's 18-12 win yesterday afternoon.
The Sea Eagles have learnt to tread with caution when it comes to Stewart and his knee, often resting the 27-year-old from midweek sessions to ensure he's right for game day.
Shaun Fensom of the Raiders offloads the ball as he is tackled by the Sea Eagles. Photo: Getty Images
But Toovey insists Stewart's fit enough to take part in all Blues sessions, declaring the fullback ready for a recall after four years in the Origin wilderness.
''I think he's ready,'' Toovey said. ''His injuries are OK at the moment, they're travelling nicely, he just needs to be handled correctly and he'll be fine. We rest him when we can, but he gets involved a lot behind the scenes as well. There's no dramas with him being able to do all the [Blues] sessions, we just like to rest him up if there's no reason for him to run. That's just the way it is.''
While Stewart was good in attack, without being exceptional, it was his defence that stood out yesterday.
He made a vital cover defensive tackle on the stroke of half-time to take Blake Ferguson into touch, before stopping Tom Learoyd-Lahrs in his tracks on the try line midway through the second half.
His opposite number, Dugan, who was Stuart's first-choice fullback last year, warmed into the match but didn't really stake his claim for a second crack at the Maroons.
The Raiders No. 1, who showed his strength to roll over the top of the Manly defence to score a try in the second half, is resigned to missing out on selection when the NSW team is named on Sunday afternoon, holding out little hope of hearing his name read out.
He is still not back to 100 per cent fitness after his shoulder injury earlier in the year, and believes there are other candidates in front of him in the pecking order.
''I've only played two games since I've been back,'' Dugan said. ''When you think about it, Jarryd Hayne has been there for the last four or five weeks playing some pretty good footy in a beaten side for Parramatta. Brett Stewart has played a few games now and he's been in good form. I'm a little bit behind the eight ball, but if I have a good game next week, and I warrant being picked, I'll grab it with both hands and go.''
Dugan had a good opportunity to press his claims going up against Stewart yesterday, and will get another chance next week against Hayne when the Raiders host the Eels at Canberra Stadium on Sunday. But it's likely to be too late, despite Stuart contacting Dugan a month ago.
''He rang me about two weeks before I was due to be back and just seeing how I was and seeing how recovery was coming along,'' Dugan said. ''That was as far as that went. It gave me a little bit of a boost and it made me want to come back even quicker.''
MANLY 18 (D Whare 2 J Lyon tries J Lyon 3 goals) bt RAIDERS 12 (J Dugan J Papalii tries J Croker 2 goals) at Brookvale Oval. Referee: Jared Maxwell, Tony De Las Heras. Crowd: 15,033.