The NSW forward pack likely won't have quite the same dramatic overhaul as the backline but there will be plenty of new faces. NRL.com Stats analyses all the contenders.
Candidates: Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Paul Vaughan, David Klemmer, Aaron Woods, Trent Merrin, Ryan James
Campbell-Gillard is widely considered an absolute moral to make his Holden State of Origin debut in the run-on side and is playing some terrific footy for the Panthers. The all-round strength of the Panthers pack means there isn't an over-reliance on the Kangaroos prop which may partly explain why his bulk of numbers are a little down compared to some of the other candidates but if you glance at any Penrith game, it's easy to see the impact he has been having up front. He does miss more tackles than his rivals – often as he rushes up looking to put a shot on – but it shouldn't stop him earning a spot in the 17. His massive 9.8 metres per run are third among Blues-eligible props behind only clubmate James Tamou (10.3) and Eels veteran Tim Mannah (10.2).
Vaughan is someone plenty thought should have been given a chance in 2017 and a strong 12 months since last year's game one could well see him into Brad Fitter's side. His overall numbers are actually slightly down on last year – the arrival of hard-working big-minute Englishman James Graham is a factor here – but Vaughan's energy and effort haven't dipped and he has contributed mightily to the Dragons' impeccable defence and powerful starts to games.
Klemmer was the Blues' player of the series last year from the bench and had a terrific World Cup campaign. His relentless charges have been the standout feature for an otherwise struggling Bulldogs outfit this year and the only question looks to be whether he will start for the Blues or provide impact off the bench. His contribution of run metres and post-contact metres are the best of any front rower this year. In part this indicates how important he is to a Dogs pack struggling for impact but his 9.8 metres per carry are level with Campbell-Gillard and he's producing them in bulk.
Klemmer's close mate and now-clubmate Aaron Woods is arguably the forgotten man in the Blues' front-row puzzle. Woods hasn't missed an Origin since his 2013 debut (which could count against him given the team's losses over that period) and he has been a stalwart for the Kangaroos over the same period. While he is a popular target among fans his numbers in attack and defence also stack up fine. Defensively he is very reliable but at just 8.6 metres per run he needs plenty of them to get to his lofty 140 metres per game.
Merrin has one of the most curious Origin careers of modern times; a hard-working big-minute lock (recently turned prop) capable of laying a platform, offloading and soaking up a ton of defence used exclusively off the bench by Ricky Stuart then Laurie Daley in his 13 Origins, rarely for more than half an hour of game time, before being pensioned off without ever really getting a chance to show what he can do. Merrin looks to have a new lease on life at Penrith this year and while his overall weight of numbers suffers from the same issue as Campbell-Gillard's in a pack that is strong across the board, he has one of the fastest play-the-balls and would not look out of place in sky blue. His clubmate James Tamou – another Blue pensioned off in recent years – is also producing some impressive form but unlikely to get a run.
Last on our list is Titan Ryan James; he is the least likely name here to be in Fittler's final 17 but has been around the Origin conversations for some time, has a massive motor and can produce some enormous stats on his day. He is busy on and off the ball and can play middle or edge.
Andrew Fifita has not been included in this analysis; he has elected for Tonga which surely rules him out of selection. His form is immense but to pick him for game one knowing he has placed his priorities elsewhere would send the wrong message to the rest of the squad, the candidates not picked as well as the fans. It would mean leaving out someone like Vaughan, Campbell-Gillard or Jack de Belin who would give anything for a single chance at Origin level only to then have to select them as a back-up option for game two.
NRL.com verdict: Campbell-Gillard and Klemmer to start, with Vaughan on the bench.
Candidates: Jake Trbojevic, Jack De Belin, Dale Finucane
Trbojevic shapes as a certainty for the 17 and has earned the right to get first crack at the No.13 jersey. He is the form lock of the competition ahead of the likes of 2016 Dally M Medallist Jason Taumalolo. He can play 80, has one of the best defensive techniques in the NRL and the ball-playing and passing skills of a half. He should play 20-plus Origins if he stays fit.
De Belin has been there or thereabouts for a long time but has improved drastically from season to season over the past three years and was on the extended bench for all three Origins last year, coming close to a game three debut. If anything he has lifted again this year with 34 busts and 31 offloads despite a lower reliance on him for minutes in the Red V's stacked pack. He can perform a role in the prop rotation if required and would be the perfect option for a bench middle forward.
Finucane is one of those players whose absolute worst games are basically indistinguishable from his best games – and trust us, we mean that as a compliment. It's quite a Melbourne trait really, although Finucane was like that even before he got to the Storm. A broken thumb looked to have ended his charge but a recent strong return gave him enough time to press his claims. Statistically, there's nothing eye-catching about his numbers but he's the type of rugged and reliable performer who you just know won't let anyone down if given the chance.
NRL.com verdict: Trbojevic to start with De Belin on the bench.
Candidates: Boyd Cordner, Wade Graham, Tariq Sims
Roosters co-captain Cordner was elevated to state skipper last year and was also an automatic selection for Australia in the end of year World Cup. He played through a broken toe for his state in game one 2016 (an injury that put him out of the rest of that series) before rising to the occasion last year. There is a growing perception that Cordner is down on form and under pressure to even retain a spot in the 17. If he plays – which still looks highly likely – he will be captain and start on the left edge. His club is in the top half of the ladder and his numbers stack up well – he is one of the best metre-getters among all second-rowers this year as well as one of the busiest decoy/support runners.
Graham's biggest problems are that he plays the same spot as Cordner and he has been sidelined with a recurring hamstring injury. He hits hard in defence, has ball-playing skills and a short kicking game, experience in big games and brings plenty of leadership. Without the hamstring issues he'd have been a near certainty given his form when he has played this year and his efforts for NSW last year.
Sims looked like a long-term Origin player when he exploded out of the under-20s at the Cowboys before suffering serious injury setbacks. He is enjoying his most dominant season to date though, and is the only Blues-eligible second-rower making more post-contact metres than Cordner (he is second overall behind Panther Viliame Kikau). Sims has been putting on some crunching hits in defence and is playing in arguably the most potent forward pack in the competition right now.
NRL.com verdict: Cordner to start, with Graham on the bench if fit but Sims ready to jump in if Graham misses game one.
Candidates: Tyson Frizell, Josh Jackson, Angus Crichton
Frizell is one of a small handful of absolute certainties for NSW in game one. He was excellent last year, has been consistently terrific every time he has worn the sky blue or green and gold, and is in dominant form in a dominant team this year. He is arguably the best defender of the available candidates, and can play a role in the middle during a game if required.
Jackson is an incumbent, was (slightly controversially) awarded man of the match in game two last year despite a late loss for the Blues and is the sort of hard-working player anyone would want in their team. Jackson was in the captaincy conversation when Paul Gallen retired and Cordner eventually got the gig and he remains one of the best defensive options available. However, a host of quality in-form candidates and his club's poor form look likely to count against Jackson this season. Jackson and Frizell shared the lock role last year – hopefully Fittler resists the urge to play either out of position with plenty of genuine locks in commanding form.
Crichton enjoyed a massive break-out year in 2017 and while his numbers are slightly down they still stack up very well, especially in attack where he is producing more busts and offloads than any of the other candidates. The Rabbitohs boast one of the form packs of the NRL which will also boost his claims. Crichton certainly looks likely to play Origin at some point, the question is whether he can push his way in this year. The Blues bench is likely to feature two middle forwards and one utility, leaving just a single spot for all the second-row candidates that don't nab one of the two starting spots which doesn't favour Crichton or Sims.
NRL.com verdict: Frizell
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The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of NRL.com or the NRL.
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