NSW Origin predictions: Only four certain starters
Only four incumbent NSW players can consider themselves certain starters for game one of this year's interstate showdown with Queensland.
From the Blues team which lost the series-deciding third game of the 2017 Holden State of Origin series, only skipper Boyd Cordner, fellow back-rowers Tyson Frizell and Jake Trbojevic, and playmaker James Maloney can consider themselves safe from the selection axe.
With five rounds remaining until new coach Brad Fittler announces his team for the June 6 series decider at the MCG, several players need to improve their form to guarantee a spot in the 17-man squad.
Four players from last year's game-three loss will definitely not be lining up for the Blues - prop Andrew Fifita, who has declared his representative allegiances to Tonga, winger Brett Morris, who has retired from the representative arena, and injured veterans Jarryd Hayne and Mitchell Pearce.
NRL.com has analysed the selection case for each of the 17 incumbent Blues players from 2017.
Fullback: James Tedesco
Tedesco isn't exactly floundering at the Roosters but his new club is struggling to get the best out of him. The former Wests Tigers star has strong claims for retention which could become overwhelming if he starts to hit his straps between now and when Origin kicks off. Much will come down to whether new coach Brad Fittler uses sure-fire selection Tom Trbojevic at fullback or wing.
Verdict: Under pressure
Left winger: Brett Morris
The ageless B-Moz is still doing plenty of good things on the flank for the Bulldogs but announced his representative retirement following last year's Holden State of Origin series.
Right centre: Josh Dugan
Dugan has had a disrupted start to the 2018 Telstra Premiership, missing rounds four and five through injury and getting shuffled between fullback and centre. With the likes of Latrell Mitchell and James Roberts pushing their centre claims, Dugan has a fight on his hands to retain a spot when Fittler selects his Blues backline. Working in his favour is a history of bringing his best to the Origin arena and a couple of strong games since moving back to Cronulla's No.1 jersey.
Verdict: In doubt
Left centre: Jarryd Hayne
Hayne's glittering pre-NFL Origin career – the most tackle busts in history, man-of-the-series awards from the wing, titanic efforts in NSW claiming the drought-breaking 2014 trophy – were a distant memory in his underwhelming game two and three efforts in last year's series loss. Already a controversial pick last year given his mediocre form at the Titans, his injury-hit start to 2018 at the struggling Eels and a host of younger candidates in better form put him at very long odds to feature in this year's campaign even before his most recent four-week injury, which puts an end to Hayne's 2018 Origin chances.
Right winger: Blake Ferguson
The biggest factor in Ferguson's favour is his current form, which is close to career-best. Fittler has made several public declarations of the importance of culture and Ferguson's extracurricular pub excursion with Blues teammate Dugan last year won't count in his favour but he is now off the drink and doing everything in his power to state his case on the field. The long-term injury to Josh Mansour works in his favour as well, however the 2018 form of Josh Addo-Carr also poses a big threat. It may come down to whether Tom Trbojevic gets picked at wing or fullback.
Verdict: Under pressure
Five-eighth: James Maloney
The injury to Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary was a blow to Fittler's halves planning but an unexpected silver lining has emerged in the form of James Maloney, who has stepped up several gears to lead his new club in Cleary's absence. The combination of Maloney's experience, his happy knack of improving any club he goes to, and his form spike have him pencilled in as one of the first names picked come Origin I.
Halfback: Mitchell Pearce
There is no question Pearce was going well at new club Newcastle, and he's arguably still the best NSW-eligible No.7 going round in club footy. But so many scars from previous failed Origin campaigns cast a big shadow over his possible selection. That all became academic in round seven, however, with a long-term pectoral injury ending Pearce's hopes of taking any part in the 2018 series.
Prop: Aaron Woods
Woods can be a popular target among fans when his teams don't go too well but there is no doubting his best is still very, very good. His powerful stints at the start of games one and two last series highlight what he can bring to the table. He has been an automatic selection for NSW since his 2013 debut but an underwhelming start to his Bulldogs career – combined with the Blues' poor record during his career – mean his 2018 selection is far from assured. Still, his past two games have been his best of the season and he's far from finished at the selection table.
Verdict: In doubt
Hooker: Nathan Peats
There is no questioning Peats's toughness given the horror injuries he's overcome and, at times, played through, in his career. He did his job in the Blues' game one win last year but a lack of attacking spark was noticeable as they slumped to a series loss. A poorly timed rib injury will give him just a game or two back to stake his claims for the sky blue No.9 jersey – meanwhile rivals Damien Cook, Apisau Koroisau and Cameron McInnes are in excellent form, getting further ahead of Peats by the week.
Verdict: All but gone
Prop: Andrew Fifita
From one of the best games by a prop in Origin history in game one last year, to being completely contained by Queensland through games two and three, to withdrawing from Origin altogether to focus on Tonga – the Fifita Origin flame burned brightly at times before being snuffed out.
Left-edge second-rower: Boyd Cordner (c)
He is not in peak career form but as incumbent captain, only an injury would stop Cordner being one of the first names on Fittler's team sheet for game one.
Right-edge second-rower: Josh Jackson
The ultimate professional, you know Jackson will never let you down. However, he plays in the most stacked position on the field when it comes to NSW-eligible players and his Bulldogs aren't exactly dominating. Cordner, Wade Graham and Tyson Frizell will likely be the first three edge forwards picked, leaving Jackson vying for – in probability – one final place against a host of other in-form forwards led by Tariq Sims.
Verdict: In doubt
Lock: Tyson Frizell
Frizell prefers to play on an edge but can play a role in the middle. His Dragons are absolutely flying and he is in good form. He probably won't be wearing the No.13 jersey again but expect him to be in the 17 somewhere.
Interchange: David Klemmer
Klemmer and his Bulldogs not have started 2018 well but it would be a rough call to drop the 2017 Blues player of the series. Like his close mate, Aaron Woods, he faces a stiff challenge from the likes of Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Paul Vaughan, Tariq Sims and Jack de Belin. The injury to Jordan McLean does remove one name from the challenger list and big Klem is still churning through the metres and wouldn't look out of place in sky blue again.
Verdict: In doubt
Interchange: Wade Graham
Graham is one of the most dangerous edge-running forwards in the NRL along with being one of the hardest-hitting in defence, with the ball skills to get by at five-eighth. He is all but a certainty for game one - his all-round game makes him a near-irresistible proposition for Fittler when it comes time to select the team. He acquitted himself well last year, has big-game experience and leadership qualities to boot.
Verdict: All but safe
Interchange: Jake Trbojevic
Manly are not at the pointy end of the ladder but that won't stop the elder Trbojevic brother being one of the first names written down in permanent ink on Fittler's team sheet. The incumbent Kangaroo has an enormous motor, one of the best defensive techniques in the game, ball skills to rival Manly predecessor Glenn Stewart, can play prop or lock, and was one of the very few NSW players you could say played well in games two and three last year. He is the sort of player the Blues can build their squad around and is every chance of a promotion to the starting 13 this year.
Interchange: Jack Bird
The former Shark had a delayed start to his career as a Bronco courtesy of a shoulder operation. He has played centre and five-eighth since his round-three return with his best game coming in the halves in an upset win over the Warriors in round six. His utility value keeps him in the frame for the No.14 jersey – though he will face competition from the likes of Cook and Koroisau in a potential two-hooker strategy, and would also miss out under a four-forward bench policy. However, injuries to Cleary and Pearce combined with the form of Maloney at No.7 for Penrith could open the door for Bird to start at five-eighth for NSW if he plays well there for Brisbane over the next month.
Verdict: In doubt
Witness Australia's greatest sporting rivalry when Origin comes to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday, June 6. Tickets available at NRL.com/tickets.