Cameron McInnes has two matches to not only secure the NSW No.9 jersey but earn himself a shot at the Australian hooking role after Cameron Smith’s representative retirement left the Test position vacant for the first time since the Super League war.
McInnes and South Sydney’s Damien Cook are vying to be the Blues hooker in the Holden State of Origin series but Smith’s shock announcement means whoever wins the job will also be battling the new Queensland rake for Kangaroos selection.
With Smith succeeding former NSW great Danny Buderus as the Australian hooker in 2006, the Kangaroos No.9 jersey has been filled by those two since the beginning of the century.
Before then, Andrew Johns was Australia’s preferred hooking option – a role he first filled during the 1995 World Cup after Steve Walters was overlooked for selection, along with other players who had signed with the breakaway competition.
Johns continued to be favoured ahead of Queensland hooker Jason Hetherington until Buderus took over in 2001, although Jason Hetherington (2), Craig Gower (5), Craig Wing (2) and Luke Priddis (1) have worn the No.9 Australian jersey occasionally in Tests.
The absence of Smith this season will ensure a return to the days when State of Origin doubled as a head-to-head contest between Walters and his NSW rival Ben Elias for the Kangaroos hooking role.
Brisbane’s Andrew McCullough is the favourite to replace Smith at hooker for Queensland but the Blues No.9 appears to still be undecided and McInnes needs strong performances for St George Illawarra in the next two weeks before the team is named.
"Anyone would be naïve if they think the job is done now, if they want to get picked," Dragons teammate James Graham said. "Australia play at the end of the season so it will be interesting to see who gets the No.9 for them as well."
McInnes is one of up to six Dragons players under consideration for Blues selection, along with centre Euan Aitken and forwards Tyson Frizell, Jack de Belin, Paul Vaughan and Tariq Sims.
All have been willing to talk up their Origin claims to gain the attention of NSW coach Brad Fittler and have followed up with performances that have helped the Dragons to the top of the Telstra Premiership ladder.
"I have been delighted for my teammates to be spoken about in such high regard and it is all deserved as well," Graham said.
"I have been so impressed about how everyone has gone about their business, it is a credit to them. I am fully behind each and every one of their campaigns to get selected.
"I think if they keep doing the team-first actions that will go a long way these next two weeks."
Meanwhile, Graham paid tribute to Smith and he admitted the Dragons had been counting on the 2017 Golden Boot award winner being absent when they played Melbourne during the Origin period in round 17.
"What a tremendous career. Can we say he is the best of the best?" said the England prop, who has gone head to head with Smith at Test level for the past 12 years. "In the past 120 years of our game [since 1895] is there any more decorated.
"You look at the St George teams of yesteryear who won those [11 consecutive] premierships but Smith, with what he has done, it is hard to think of anyone that would come close.
"It’s hard to put it on a scale to do justice to what he has achieved; the way he is, the way he carries himself, the position that he plays …
"He is such an expert in knowing when to interject into the game, He is like the conductor of the orchestra. He knows if he needs to turn something up here or turn something down there."