Ranking the Maroons spine candidates for 2019 Origin

The changing of the guard continues for the Maroons, with fullback Billy Slater the last of the great generation of Queensland playmakers to retire from Origin last year and a wave of injuries further compounding the headaches for coach Kevin Walters.

Two of the four positions appear to be absolutely locked in but there are some big decisions to be made with the other two.

The spine contenders

Fullback

Candidates: Kalyn Ponga, Moses Mbye, AJ Brimson

With Slater's retirement, Ponga looks certain to be the Maroons' next long-term fullback. His Origin debut from the bench in game two last year was encouraging in the way he handled the occasion while his club form this year at fullback since ending the five-eighth experiment has been exemplary.

Mbye and Brimson are the best of the rest and in each case their utility value will be worth a look for Walters as a bench option but neither is a chance of starting in the No.1 jersey unless the Maroons injury curse claims another victim between now and game one.

Both Mbye and Brimson have missed games through injury this year while Brimson is yet to be selected in his preferred fullback position, making the stats for each look worse than they otherwise would.

Brimson was terrific in his one game at fullback (spending 77 minutes at the back after Michael Gordon was concussed in round eight), busting 10 tackles with one try, two line breaks and 152 metres.

Mbye has been steady this year and with an ability to cover hooker, halves and centre (and kick goals if needed) would be a more than useful utility for Walters.

However, Ponga's form since switching to the back in round four has been irresistible, with tries in his past three games, 14 goals in the past fortnight and 174 metres per game over five games (with five busts per game) is hugely encouraging ahead of the Newcastle young gun's first series as Queensland's first-choice fullback.

NRL.com fullback verdict: Ponga

Five-eighth

Candidates: Cameron Munster, Anthony Milford

Munster is the second of the guaranteed selections in the Maroons spine; the in-form Storm pivot has been one of the best players in the competition this season.

He sits atop the Dally M leaderboard and is the incumbent No.6 in the Queensland set-up. Like Ponga, only injury could stop him grabbing his spot for game one.

Milford has worn plenty of criticism for the Broncos' early-season woes and has not developed into a game-manager but with an incisive running game and rapidly improving long-kicking game he could add plenty of value if called upon at some stage through the series.

Milford easily leads the Telstra Premiership for kick metres, while Munster has the best kicking accuracy of any halfback or five-eighth so far this year.

The pair are second and third (behind only Rabbitoh Cody Walker) for tackle busts among halves and both are among the top few for run metres, proving each is making an impact carrying the ball.

While Munster is a lock to start the series, Milford remains on the Origin radar and would come in if required due to injury.

NRL.com five-eighth verdict: Munster

Halfback

Candidates: Daly Cherry-Evans, Ben Hunt, Michael Morgan, Ash Taylor

Sea Eagles captain Cherry-Evans returned from the Origin wilderness in last year's game three dead rubber and put in the type of performance that earmarked him as the likely long-term Maroons halfback.

He has been in tremendous form for surprise packets Manly this season too but an untimely syndesmosis tear looked to have ended his game one hopes. At this stage Queensland are hopeful he will still be fit to take his place but he is racing the clock – and is next to no chance of lining up for Manly before Origin sides go into camp.

His presence is even more crucial given the other injuries with Michael Morgan currently earmarked to slot into the centres and Hunt looking more and more likely to be required at dummy-half.

Next in line after those three is probably Ash Taylor and while there is no doubting the young Titan's ability, his form this year – in between some niggling injuries – has been anything but convincing.

At the next level down are emerging players like Brodie Croft, Jake Clifford, Kane Elgey and Lachlan Lam.

The eye-test suggests Cherry-Evans is in the best form and he has certainly had the best running game of the contenders this year but his creative play has so far failed to register much in the way of assists.

While the Cowboys have been struggling you couldn't question Morgan's efforts and he easily leads the list for try assists and line break assists, although has arguably been forced to overplay his hand at times with 11 errors.

Hunt sits between the pair with useful numbers in terms of his running and creativity and has the most busts and offloads plus the best kicking accuracy of the four candidates.

As a possible long-term captain and halfback who has shown he can win games at Origin level, DCE has the inside running while Morgan would be the next option unless he is required at centre.

NRL.com halfback verdict: Cherry-Evans if fit, otherwise Morgan

Hooker

Candidates: Jake Granville, Reed Mahoney, Ben Hunt

The injuries to in-from Rooster Jake Friend and incumbent Bronco Andrew McCullough have savaged the Maroons' depth at dummy-half.

So thin is the Maroons' depth at hooker now there is a building narrative for the hierarchy to send out an SOS to Cameron Smith to make a fairy-tale comeback.

Given Smith's representative retirement he is not currently included as a viable option but his stats will be included for comparison.

Granville would have been a player likely to worry the Blues in North Queensland's 2015 premiership season but his dangerous running game has deteriorated since. Breakout young Eels star Mahoney has built his game up to 80 minutes with mountains of tackles and is currently playing with confidence and decisiveness but his lack of big-game experience – or even NRL experience – is currently considered too much of a gamble by the Maroons to throw him in as a starting hooker in Origin.

Match: Maroons v Blues

Game 1 -

Full Time
Maroons

Home Team

Maroons

Scored 18 points
Blues

Away Team

Blues

Scored 14 points

Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

Match broadcasters:

  • Nine Network

Comparing the stats, Hunt's numbers are skewed – particularly in defence – compared to the rest because he is playing halfback for his club and consequently kicking and running more and tackling less than the other three.

If we consider Smith the benchmark, Mahoney actually compares favourably with almost as many minutes and slightly more tackles at almost as good an effective rate. He makes just 32 metres per game but he makes those runs count with comfortably more tries, breaks and busts, though his errors are a little high. Granville's defence stands up but in far fewer minutes which would call for a back-up or utility on the bench and his creative play has not been on show this year.

In Hunt's favour he has big game and Origin experience but like Granville you would need a back-up on the interchange given he has been making just 21 tackles per game so far this year.

NRL.com hooker verdict: Hunt starting, with Mahoney or Mbye on the bench.

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.