The Maroons’ squad virtually picks itself besides a couple of interchange berths which are still up for grabs, but the Blues still have several selection headaches as they aim to avoid nine straight series defeats, with injury, suspension, form and a nightclub peccadillo throwing coach Laurie Daley’s preparations into disarray.
After fielding an extraordinary 15 different combinations during the previous eight unsuccessful campaigns (compared to Queensland’s three), NSW’s halves picture is as muddy as ever – seven players are right in contention for the No.6 and 7 jumpers.
So who’ll make the cut? Read on for The New Daily’s comprehensive Origin selection preview.
The Incumbent: Josh Dugan was one of NSW’s best in games two and three last season after replacing the injured Jarryd Hayne. Superb for a faltering St George Illawarra outfit since returning from injury in Round 5, Dugan has a bit of support to retain the No.1 but is likely to be ousted by Hayne. Possessing the off-field decision-making qualities of 1990s-era Robert Downey Jr hasn’t helped his chances.
The Challengers: Hayne is producing his best club form since his fabled charge to the 2009 Dally M Medal and has the inside running to be picked as the Blues’ fullback. He has starred at wing and centre at rep level, but there is an increasing push for Hayne to play in his best position. Brett Stewart, who would have played far than eight Origins if his legs didn’t have the resilience of papier mâché, is another blue-chip contender, while Matt Moylan and David Mead were two of the best afield debuting opposite one another in the City-Country clash.
The Bolter: Currently injured, Wests Tigers sensation James Tedesco shapes as a future Blues star.
Likely Choice: Jarryd Hayne
The Incumbent: Battling a rare form slump to start the season after recovering from knee surgery, the pressure has mounted on Billy Slater, with Greg Inglis now widely recognised as the best fullback in the world. But barring a complete disaster, the Maroons will stick solid with Slater, who produced a timely man-of-the-match performance in Melbourne’s recent win over Manly.
The Challengers: Inglis’ white-hot form in the South Sydney No.1 shirt is a moot point when it comes to Queensland fullback discussions, because the Maroons’ centre stocks are extremely thin and Inglis has scored an Origin record 15 tries playing in the three-quarter line.
The Bolter: Canberra whippet Anthony Milford is being groomed as a future Origin rep as part of Mal Meninga’s vaunted succession plan, and he can be expected to serve as 18th man during the series.
Likely Choice: Billy Slater
The Incumbents: St George Illawarra flyer Brett Morris will be one of the first NSW players picked – despite a record of just one win in nine Origin appearances. Newcastle’s reliable flanker James McManus scored a try in last year’s decider, but is locked in a dog-fight to retain his spot.
The Challengers: Freakish aerial specialist Daniel Tupou has rocketed into favouritism after a stellar debut for City and another couple of tries for the Roosters against the Tigers, but Manly nugget Jorge Taufua is also a bona fide tryscoring machine and possesses an X-factor the Blues desperately need. Penrith powerhouse Josh Mansour is another who provides those qualities, while McManus, Akuila Uate and Will Hopoate boast previous Origin experience. Tupou’s devastating club combination with Michael Jennings may give him the edge.
The Bolter: A potential goalkicking crisis has seen 32-year-old Tiger Pat Richards’ name bandied about with disturbing regularity. His swirling restarts have also been pinpointed as another valuable weapon, but planning for the likelihood of taking frequent kick-offs would be slightly pessimistic of the Blues.
Likely Choice: Brett Morris and Daniel Tupou
The Incumbents: In poor form as Newcastle’s fullback, Darius Boyd has scored 12 tries in 17 Origins on the Queensland flank and rarely produces a subpar game at rep level. The courageous Brent Tate, 32, will extend his Origin career span to 13 seasons after deciding against retiring from rep footy; he has been one of the Maroons’ best in the past two series.
The Challengers: The Maroons would struggle to cope with a major hit to their backline stocks. Brisbane duo Daniel Vidot and Dale Copley are the only other realistic choices, while Melbourne speedster Justin O’Neill is currently injured. There are no Adam Mogg-like options lurking in the background.
The Bolter: Cowboys tyro Kyle Feldt shaped as a future superstar after dominating the Auckland Nines, but currently finds himself out of favour with his club.
Likely Choice: Darius Boyd and Brent Tate
The Incumbents: Michael Jennings and current Test centre Josh Morris have paired up in six straight Origins and are almost certain to be retained after starting 2014 in strong form, unless Dugan gets the fullback nod and Hayne is shifted to centre, where he was unstoppable during the World Cup.
The Challengers: An area of rare depth and quality for the Blues, Jamal Idris and Will Hopoate are beating on the selectors’ door. Both players made solitary appearances for NSW as teenagers in 2010 and ’11 respectively and have been in superlative form for their new clubs this season.
The Bolter: Dylan Walker, a four-try hero for Souths against the Gold Coast last weekend, is viewed as a future Blues mainstay.
Likely Choice: Josh Morris and Michael Jennings
The Incumbents: Greg Inglis and Justin Hodges have teamed up in the Maroons’ centres on nine occasions and are virtually the only viable option again this year, despite the latter’s patchy return from an Achilles injury.
The Challengers: Tate is an outstanding centre option but is needed on the wing and Willie Tonga boasts plenty of experience but little form. Melbourne’s Will Chambers has been on the fringes for some time and Dane Gagai could come into contention post-attitude readjustment. The only player other than Inglis and Hodges to play in the centres for Queensland in the past three seasons, Dane Nielsen, is currently languishing in the Warriors’ NSW Cup side. It ranks among the code’s great modern-day curiosities that Nielsen will retire with three appearances for the greatest dynasty in Origin history to his name.
The Bolter: Copley, formerly a butter-fingered prospect of considerable notoriety, produced a string of impressive performances at centre for Brisbane prior to Hodges’ return.
Likely Choice: Greg Inglis and Justin Hodges
The Incumbents: Bewilderingly anointed as NSW’s No.7 by coach Laurie Daley at the beginning of the season for the second year running, Mitchell Pearce – the Blues’ (largely under-performing) halfback in the last 11 Origin clashes – has given his rivals a clear run this weekend after his highly-publicised nightclub indiscretion last Saturday night. Pearce’s grab at a yellow dress may have loosened his seemingly ironclad grip on a sky blue jumper, suspended by his club and fined $20,000. His place in the series opener will be dictated by Daley’s view of the incident rather than the Roosters linchpin’s form, which has been serviceable so far in 2014. James Maloney is grimly hanging onto his NSW No.6 spot, producing his best game of the year last week against the Tigers after a patchy start to the season. His goalkicking acumen and familiarity with Pearce are the biggest factors in his corner.
The Challengers: Josh Reynolds is the form five-eighth in the state and has his nose in front, although his versatility may see him used off the bench as he was – albeit briefly – in the first two games of 2013. Newcastle’s go-to man Jarrod Mullen is also well in the mix, a custom-made solution to the Blues’ C-grade kicking game in recent series. Souths’ Adam Reynolds has put his hand up in recent weeks for the position many thought should have been his last season, while Canterbury’s Trent Hodkinson has been the form No.7 in the NRL and his club combination with Josh Reynolds could weigh in his favour. Maloney and Mullen are potential halfback options if not chosen in the No.6. The dead-eye goalkicking of Adam Reynolds and Hodkinson could prove a selection factor if the Blues don’t go with Maloney. Daley’s penchant for club combinations could also see John Sutton get the nod alongside Adam Reynolds.
The Bolter: Teenage wunderkind Luke Brooks could get thrown into the role for an early taste if NSW loses the first two games, but exposing the young Tiger to the brutal Maroons machine may do more harm than good.
Likely Choice: Adam Reynolds and Josh Reynolds
The Incumbents: Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston have combined in the halves at Origin and Test level since Darren Lockyer’s retirement at the end of 2011. Cronk served a long apprenticeship off the bench, while Queensland has barely skipped a beat since he took over in the No.7. The consummate match-winner and big-game performer, Thurston has played a record 27 consecutive Origin matches. Both started the NRL season in subpar form, but are warming up nicely at club level and starred together in the Test.
The Challengers: There is only one challenger to the Cronk-Thurston uber-combo, but he is arguably the best player in the world: Daly Cherry-Evans. There has been a growing call for DCE to be elevated to the starting side, but there is a snowball’s chance in Cairns Mal Meninga would upset his Rolls Royce applecart by demoting a superstar. Cherry-Evans’ time will come, while he is playing an excellent role off the bench in the meantime.
The Bolter: Only an injury crisis that claims two of the aforementioned trio will see any other player line up in the halves for the Maroons, but Ben Hunt is arguably the next best qualified after impressing in his first season as the Broncos’ fulltime halfback. His kicking game and option-taking – particularly late in close games – need plenty of work, however.
Likely Choice: Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston
The Incumbent: It appeared the inspirational Robbie Farah would miss the opening Origin after suffering an elbow injury a month ago, but the playmaking veteran will line up for the Blues if he makes a successful return this weekend against Cronulla. The Tigers skipper has been NSW’s best over the last two series.
The Challengers: When Farah was a likely absentee, the contenders to fill the No.9 were Michael Ennis, Nathan Peats and Kurt Gidley. A veteran of seven Origins, Ennis’ form has spiked during the Bulldogs’ recent winning streak, while Peats has been at the forefront of the Eels’ resurgence.
The Bolter: Young rakes Beau Falloon and Mitch Rein squared off in the City-Country fixture after a string of high-profile withdrawals, while Cronulla rookie and soon-to-be Bulldog Michael Lichaa shapes as a future rep star.
Likely Choice: Robbie Farah
The Incumbent: Maroons captain Cameron Smith boasts 30 Origin appearances, missing just one game since his debut in the 2003 dead-rubber. The ultimate professional, Smith thrives in the rep arena and will pass Darren Lockyer’s appearances record if he plays in each match of the 2014-15 series.
The Challengers: The No.9 jumper is Smith’s until he is 40 if he wants it, but Queensland has several outstanding dummy-half options. Manly iron-man Matt Ballin filled in for Smith for the 2010 series opener and is still one of the NRL’s best, while nuggetty Rooster Jake Friend was considered unlucky not to make the World Cup squad last year and Andrew McCullough has arguably been the form hooker of 2014. Warriors veteran Nathan Friend is also from the Sunshine State.
The Bolter: His form has not been up to his explosive 2013 standards, but Penrith livewire and Papua New Guinea international James Segeyaro is eligible for the Maroons.
Likely Choice: Cameron Smith
The Incumbents: James Tamou and Aaron Woods were the starting props in last year’s decider after captain Paul Gallen was ruled out injured. Andrew Fifita and Trent Merrin came off the bench, but Fifita is out with an ankle problem while Merrin is a certainty to be selected in the 17. Woods has taken his performances to another level in 2014, but is likely to have to settle for a bench spot with Gallen to be picked at prop rather than lock.
The Challengers: Country Origin props Aiden Tolman and Tariq Sims are pushing hard for inclusion, as is Gold Coast workhorse Luke Douglas. But a four-man rotation of Tamou, Gallen, Woods and Merrin shapes as the most likely selection table outcome. The current NRL team lists are littered with former NSW props currently sitting on the fringes or retired from rep duty: Snowden, Mason, Kite, Grant, Bailey, Mannah, White.
The Bolter: Prone to regular over-aggressive brain explosions, Parramatta firebrand Darcy Lussick displays the traits of a potentially outstanding Origin front-rower when he concentrates on playing footy.
Likely Choice: James Tamou and Paul Gallen
The Incumbents: Matt Scott has been an automatic selection for the last three seasons, while he boasts 14 appearances for Queensland dating back to 2006 and has been in magnificent recent form for the Cowboys. Nate Myles, the man with the biggest and most punchable head in Rugby League, was moved up to the front-row after Queensland’s series-opening loss last season, taking his Origin tally to 23 games of a possible 24 in the Maroons’ winning streak.
The Challengers: The ability of Corey Parker and Sam Thaiday to play in tight saw Meninga stack his bench with backrowers, but Manly late-bloomer Brenton Lawrence and the Warriors’ six-time Maroon Jacob Lillyman are genuine contenders if injury or form dictates another specialist prop needs to be drafted in. Former Origin stalwarts David Shillington and Ben Hannant, and misfiring Broncos recruit Martin Kennedy have slipped well down the pecking order.
The Bolter: Josh McGuire has been on the fringes of selection for a few seasons and now prematurely finds himself elevated to the status of Brisbane’s front-row anchor. A call-up is not out of the question.
Likely Choice: Matt Scott and Nate Myles
The Incumbents: Luke Lewis, Ryan Hoffman and Greg Bird started in the 2013 decider, with Trent Merrin, Boyd Cordner and Anthony Watmough coming off the bench. Bird will miss the series opener through suspension, but will be back for game two after sanity prevailed and his dangerous tackle charge was downgraded. Lewis is just one game back from a long injury layoff, while City Origin skipper Hoffman has only been mentioned sporadically as a likely 2014 Blue.
The Challengers: Merrin and Cordner are game one certainties and could be named in the starting line-up, while Watmough is also a strong chance to add to his tally of 12 Origin appearances. Wade Graham is in the Bird mould of tough and skilful and deserves a call-up, but former Blues Beau Scott and Tony Williams have been talked up in recent weeks, while uncapped Sims and Josh Jackson also have their supporters in a hot field of contenders.
The Bolter: Burly backrower Paul Vaughan has been a revelation for Canberra this season. Robust and skilful, Vaughan could get a look in later in the campaign, although the sheer weight of competition for backrow spots and the Raiders’ awful form makes a call-up unlikely.
Likely Choice: Boyd Cordner, Anthony Watmough and Trent Merrin.
The Incumbents: Corey Parker is assured of starting in the backrow, but Sam Thaiday has been battling injury and will again be sitting on the sidelines this weekend, while Chris McQueen – elevated to the starting side for games two and three in his impressive debut series last year – is fighting to retain his spot after a disappointing start to the season with Souths. Bench backrowers Matt Gillett, Ben Te’o and Josh Papalii are all in the mix, but the out of form Papalii is tipped to miss out.
The Challengers: In career-best form, Gillett is likely to move into the starting side whether Thaiday is ruled out or not. The enigmatic David Taylor is gunning for a recall, while a debut for wholehearted Roosters forward Aidan Guerra would be much deserved.
The Bolter: Gavin Cooper’s form for the Cowboys has rated a few mentions as a mature-age Origin debutant and he would not look out of place running off club-mate Johnathan Thurston at rep level.
Likely Choice: Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday and Matt Gillett.
The Incumbents: Andrew Fifita, Trent Merrin, Boyd Cordner and Anthony Watmough.
The Challengers: The question in front of Daley is whether he wants to carry a utility capable of playing dummy-half, with Josh Reynolds – if not picked at five-eighth – the leading contender, ahead of veteran and regular rep bench-man Kurt Gidley. The remainder of the interchange will be made up of the aforementioned prop and backrow contenders, with Luke Lewis’ versatility making him an ideal candidate. Tony Williams somewhat provides the power game and dynamic presence the Blues will miss without Fifita and he could be on the cusp of a recall.
Likely Choice: Luke Lewis, Tony Williams, Aaron Woods, Wade Graham.
The Incumbents: Daly Cherry-Evans, Josh Papalii, Ben Te’o and Matt Gillett.
The Challengers: There is no need for much change here, with Cherry-Evans and Te’o interchange certainties and Chris McQueen likely to drop back to the bench in favour of Gillett. Papalii, as mentioned, is fighting an uphill battle to be retained despite Meninga’s reluctance to drop players who have done the job in the past. If Thaiday fails to recuperate in time, the door will be left open for Taylor, Guerra or possibly Lawrence.
Likely Choice: Daly Cherry-Evans, Ben Te’o, Chris McQueen and David Taylor.