Despite coming off a series win, one forced change, a balance issue in the incumbent pack and the emergence of a future superstar point to at least two changes in Brad Fittler's NSW forward pack for the June 5 Origin series opener.
NRL.com Stats has crunched the numbers to assess the claims of the incumbents and hopefuls in the Blues forward stocks.
- Ranking Maroons spine candidates
- Ranking Blues spine candidates
- Ranking the Maroons backs candidates
- Ranking the Blues backs candidates
- Ranking the Maroons forwards candidates
Blues forwards candidates
Candidates: David Klemmer, Paul Vaughan, Matt Prior, Jordan McLean, Matt Lodge, Payne Haas, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, James Tamou
With two starting spots and probably just one bench spot set to be allocated to specialist props, there will be a host of worthy candidates missing out on Blues selection for game one. Fittler picked no props on the bench in the game three loss last year with David Klemmer and Paul Vaughan starting.
In the game one and two wins, Klemmer started with Vaughan coming off the interchange with Campbell-Gillard (game one) and Matt Prior (game two) soaking up the early salvos. Moving Vaughan (and lock Jake Trbojevic) into the starting side for the dead rubber was just rewards for two of the series' stars but also weakened a strength – the phenomenal lift the Blues got in the back end of the first half in the opening two games when those players came on.
The other issue facing Fittler is the downturn in the Dragons' form; this time last year they were absolutely flying and it was an easy decision to add Paul Vaughan and Jack De Belin to incumbent Tyson Frizell. However the Dragons are now struggling with four straight losses including the worst of the lot last weekend in Mudgee. Vaughan's performances are slightly down on the same time last year still good enough that, added to his Origin performances last year, his spot should not be under threat.
One man whose spot is under no doubt is Klemmer; this time last year it took a massive 11th-hour effort for Canterbury to force his way into the team with Fittler having decided to leave him out due to up-and-down form. No such issues this year; Klemmer's Knights have won four on the bounce after a slow start but even when they were losing the Kangaroos prop's numbers were through the roof. If you ignored experience and incumbency and went purely off the stats Klemmer would be the first forward picked with his attacking and defensive numbers each the best or close to it among all candidates.
Campbell-Gillard and Prior each started one game last year; since then Campbell-Gillard suffered his broken jaw and missed plenty of footy and unfortunately neither his form nor confidence seem to have recovered with club coach Ivan Cleary demoting him to NSW Canterbury Cup in round 10 as his club languishes at the bottom of the Telstra Premiership ladder. RCG has the worst running stats of those in contention and is the most penalised with a lower effective tackle rate than most.
Prior has been battling a neck injury and is the only other man on the list averaging below 100 run metres and one of just two with an effective tackle rate below 90%, with the lowest average tackle count. On form, each is very much a long shot for any involvement this year given the strength of other candidates.
Tamou, like Campbell-Gillard, is playing for the club running last but he has lifted his own form this year impressively. At 30 years of age and with the most recent of his 14 Origins back in 2016 he is the longest shot on the list but statistically he is far from the worst.
McLean is something of an anomaly in that he now has eight Test caps for Australia but is yet to play Origin. It's largely a timing issue of injuries and form for both himself and others available and while his Cowboys aren't exactly flying his own numbers are excellent. He has the best defensive numbers behind Klemmer and his run metres are high.
The other two candidates from the Broncos would each be making their representative debut if picked. Lodge has performed strongly since returning to the NRL but has easily the weakest defensive numbers on the list. He did have his best game of the year in the round 10 upset of the Roosters.
Haas, meanwhile, has gone from 'probable future Blue' to 'probably in NSW's best 17 right now' over the past fortnight. The 19-year-old powerhouse has a phenomenal motor for one so big and so young. He is a graduate of the Blues pathways system under Fittler and has been churning out frightening numbers for Brisbane. He averages the most minutes on this list with metres just shaded by Klemmer with easily the most busts (in four fewer games due to an early-season suspension) and hardly any errors or penalties.
Haas is probably the man most likely to worry Queensland if they see his name on the team sheet and given what he can produce in 65 minutes for Brisbane the thought of what he can unleash in a 25-minute spell off the bench is frightening.
NRL.com prop verdict: Klemmer and McLean with Vaughan and Haas on the bench.
Candidates: Jake Trbojevic, Cam Murray, Dale Finucane, Victor Radley
Manly star Trbojevic will be one of the first players picked after his superb exploits last year. The 25-year-old lock plays above his weight and seems to get better the bigger the stage and has been a shining light for an understrength Manly team that continues to claw out wins in 2019. The only question for Fittler is whether to keep him in the bench role he starred in last year, coming on after 20 or 25 minutes and playing out the game or whether to move him into the starting side now that Jack De Belin is unavailable.
That decision will, in part, inform the chances of the other three names on this list. Finucane has been one of the NRL's most consistent and yet most unheralded performers for years. His post-contact metres per carry are among the top few across the entire premiership, he scarcely misses a tackle, is the busiest decoy runner of any middle forward in this analysis and hits like a truck. If Fittler opts to keep Trbojevic on the bench, Finucane is the standout choice as the new starting 13.
Murray is another that plays well above his weight and has been one of the Bunnies' most important and consistent performers in their 9-1 start to the year. He is a more dynamic runner and offloader than the other candidates yet still a busy defender. His best hope is for a bench spot if Trbojevic takes the starting 13 jersey.
Radley has been playing hooker for the Roosters in the absence of Jake Friend, resulting in his running stats looking far leaner than the others. It does give him a utility advantage if Fittler opts to go without an all-round utility like Tyrone Peachey or Cody Walker on the bench but at this stage he looks to be a better chance in that kind of role with three other forwards on the bench.
NRL.com lock verdict: Trbojevic. Finucane and Murray competing for one other spot depending on team balance.
Candidates: Boyd Cordner, Tyson Frizell, Angus Crichton, Tariq Sims, Josh Jackson, Ryan Matterson
Cordner is the incumbent Blues and Kangaroos captain, was titanic in last year's Origin win and in terrific form for the Roosters. He takes the left edge spot.
Frizell has missed a couple of games this year and as usual shifted between edge and middle; unlike this time last year his club is struggling for wins and his own stats are nothing to write home about. However his runs on the board in previous Test and Origin appearances and the fact that he can play edge and middle just as effectively make him a certain selection on the Blues' right edge.
The game three loss last year featured both Sims and Crichton on the bench in what was Sims's Origin debut and the balance looked wrong with two edges and a utility and just one middle on the interchange.
Sims isn't exactly an incumbent given his only cap was in a dead rubber loss and he also probably didn't do his ability justice in that game. While his energy and aggression look perfectly suited to Origin he's had a fair few errors and penalties this year and no standout numbers in attack or defence.
Crichton played all three games last year off the bench and played a useful role without anything like the dominance he was displaying in 80-minute games at Souths. He has slowly adapted to a new role at the Roosters this year and built into his work nicely as the season has progressed. He has easily the most busts of those vying for a bench spot and the most offloads, with solid defensive numbers
Jackson played nine straight games from his 2015 debut before failing to earn selection under new coach Fittler in 2018; his leadership has grown since being handed the Bulldogs captaincy and while his club is struggling for wins his effort – particularly in defence – cannot be questioned. He earned (perhaps controversially) the man of the match award in a narrow loss in game two of 2017 and would not let anyone down but for Fittler to hand him a recall would probably take an injury or two.
Matterson has been able to maintain if not improve his form since shifting from Bondi to Concord and has some support for an Origin debut. He has the best defensive numbers on the list and as a former five-eighth has fantastic ball skills. He probably doesn't have the speed or mobility for a genuine bench utility so would need to edge out the rest of the list for the one second-row bench spot.
NRL.com second row verdict: Cordner and Frizell starting with Crichton on the bench.
Match: Maroons v Blues
Game 1 -
Venue: Suncorp Stadium
- Nine Network
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.