Head to head: Ranking the Blues and Maroons spines
With the much anticipated Holden State of Origin series-opener just days away, NRL.com Stats has crunched the numbers on the new-look playmaking spines to see which state has an advantage heading into a new era of the interstate rivalry.
The bread and butter work for playmakers is creating chances for their teammates to score and the weight of numbers in this department favours Queensland.
Having an edge in the spine has underpinned their recent record of 11 series wins out of the past 12, with the Blues often having at least the equal of their rivals in the packs and outside backs.
Going into 2018, the Ben Hunt-Cam Munster-Billy Slater-Andrew McCullough quartet has 28 try assists compared to 18 for the Blues.
The fact Nathan Cleary has played just five games makes this a little misleading – if his rate of assists (four in five games) had occurred over 12 matches the Blues would have an extra four or five assists but even then the Maroons retain the advantage off the back of Munster (10), Hunt (eight) and Slater (seven) piling on chances for their clubmates.
Defensively, the stronger and weaker players tend to cancel out for roughly an 81% tackle efficiency for both spines. While Cook (90%) loses some ground to defensive maestro McCullough (94%) and the somewhat shaky Maloney (62%) trails Munster (82%), the Blues have the better tackling fullback (Tedesco's 83% beats Slater's 72%) and arguably the best defensive halfback in the competition in Cleary (89% versus 77% for Hunt).
While Slater's tackle percentage is down, he is arguably the greatest defensive fullback in history when it comes to being in the right place and organising defences; this is an aspect of Tedesco's game that he happily admits to copying from Slater and an area where he has improved out of sight in the past two or three seasons and it was on full display in last year's Origin series.
The overall running game also favours NSW due to the huge disparity between Cook (seven line breaks and 43 busts) over McCullough (two breaks and eight busts) as well as between fullbacks (Tedesco's 74 busts more than double Slater's 32 while his 180 average run metres laps Slater's 105 per week). The halfbacks both have impressive running games with similar figures while Munster (100 metres, 38 busts) is the only Maroon who edges his opposite with Maloney (81 metres, 20 busts) nevertheless holding his own.
This is also reflected in average supports and decoys where the Blues are, man to man, equal or better than their opponent for each of the four positions. Total average run metres for the combined spines goes to NSW (428m to 292m).
The last major statistical area for play-makers is the kicking game. The Blues really only have two kickers with neither Tedesco nor Cook known for putting boot to ball, whereas Slater can put in the odd grubber and McCullough an occasional clearing kick. However, the Blues have two top-class kickers in the halves whereas Munster is more of a running five-eighth (albeit an incredibly good one).
Hunt and Maloney both have dangerous short kicking games and are adept at forcing repeat sets. Cleary has a powerful boot that can launch long-range clearing kicks as well as some of the highest and most dangerous floating bombs in the NRL.
Verdict: Maroons – by the slimmest of margins. In every category – whether it's running, kicking, defence, creativity or game management – each state has players that are stronger and weaker in certain areas and effectively cancel each other out. Blues win the running game, Maroons own the experience and game management factor, Blues have better kicking from their halves but Maroons have better kicking elsewhere, defence is 50-50… and so it goes. The tie-breaker really is this: if Mal Meninga was picking an Australian team to play a Test this week, Slater and Munster would be guaranteed starters with Hunt the likely halfback. The No.9 jersey could well fall to McCullough so on that basis we have to suggest that, as has been the case for 12 years, Queensland head into this Origin with the better spine, but the margin hasn't been this close since Andrew Johns retired.
Witness Australia's greatest sporting rivalry when Origin comes to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday, June 6. Bronze tickets available from $49 HERE!