NSW coach Brad Fittler has the luxury of retaining his entire series-winning Origin spine in 2019 if he so chooses, but with two of the four out of form and a host of red-hot candidates booting the door down, things are hardly that simple.
NRL.com Stats has crunched the numbers to analyse what sort of a case those outside the incumbent squad are putting forth to force their way in.
Blues spine candidates
Candidates: James Tedesco, Clint Gutherson
One of the two settled spots; Roosters star Tedesco was among the Blues' best last season and the next-best option – Sea Eagle Tom Trbojevic – will be sidelined with a hamstring injury until at least the first game.
Matt Moylan is also on the injured list while former Blues fullback Josh Dugan has hardly played at the back in between his own injury woes at Cronulla where he has shifted between centre, wing and fullback this year.
If something were to happen to Tedesco, in-form Eels custodian Gutherson shapes as the next cab off the rank with Alex Johnston, Matt Dufty and Will Hopoate among the others eligible.
- Ranking the Maroons spine candidates for 2019 Origin
- NRL Tipping: Round 9 - see what the experts are saying
Stats-wise, Gutherson is a long way in front in terms of creative play and while he edges Tedesco in terms of total metres the incumbent has been much harder to handle as a ball carrier with a big lead in terms of line breaks, tries and tackle busts. Tedesco has also been near-perfect cleaning up kicks.
Gutherson's raw competitiveness, solid defence and slick ball-playing are an encouraging sign if injury does befall Tedesco at any point in the series, while his all-round game and ability to play centre, wing and five-eighth keeps Gutherson in the argument for spots elsewhere in the backline or as a bench utility.
NRL.com fullback verdict: James Tedesco
Match: Maroons v Blues
Game 1 -
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
- Nine Network
Candidates: James Maloney, Luke Keary, Cody Walker
One of the biggest decisions Fittler has to make ahead of game one is whether to stick with incumbent James Maloney, because the teams currently sitting first and second on the ladder each boasts a Blues-eligible five-eighth in dazzling form.
Maloney was excellent for NSW last year and did a good job guiding young clubmate Nathan Cleary through his maiden series. However the pair are playing like virtual strangers at a Penrith side sitting in 15th place with two wins and just a handful of differential points away from last spot.
Penrith are earning plenty of red-zone attacking chances and failing to score points – they currently have the worst attack in the NRL. All of which is a bad sign for the incumbent Blues halves given attacking maestros Keary and Walker are scoring and setting up tries for fun at the two best attacking teams in the comp (with each club in the top four for defence as well).
Walker's freakish instincts have netted him an NRL-high nine tries in eight games while Keary's 10 try assists are an NRL-high (and Walker-s seven assists are equal fourth best). Walker's running game has clearly been the most incisive while Keary's ball-playing is the best of those in the conversation. Maloney has the weakest defence (though not by as wide a margin as many would have thought) and most penalties, while Keary has the most errors in a team that tops the error count but it doesn't seem to slow them – or him – down.
While Maloney has incumbency and experience and a theoretical combination with Cleary, he is coming towards the end of his career, while either of the others – and Keary in particular – could hold the spot for some years if given the chance.
Also in Keary's favour is a stunning combination on the Roosters left edge with centre Latrell Mitchell and back-rower Boyd Cordner, with each a certainty for NSW selection. Keary has also shown in limited chances when halves partner Cooper Cronk is out injured that he can manage a game as well as any halfback, keeping him in the argument for the No.7 jersey as well.
NRL.com five-eighth verdict: Keary
Candidates: Nathan Cleary, Adam Reynolds, Mitch Moses, Luke Brooks
There is plenty of pressure on incumbent Cleary given Penrith's woes but with some patches of good form this year, his understated but unflustered series-winning debut, ice-cold temperament under pressure, solid defence, huge boot and laser-guided goal-kicking, he is starting from a long way in front.
Reynolds is in great form and won a premiership with possible five-eighth Keary when they were at Souths together. Moses is a favourite of the coach following their time working together for the Lebanon side in the 2017 World Cup; he was in strong contention early last year before Parramatta's diabolical season ended those hopes. His biggest issues historically – consistency and defence – have both improved markedly this season.
Brooks is the reigning Dally M halfback of the year but is probably a step behind the rest, and while there will be other goal-kicking options in the squad, the fact he doesn't kick goals and is up against three sharp-shooters doesn't help.
There is almost nothing between the four in terms of errors, penalties or defence (though even with Penrith's struggles Cleary remains the best defensively).
There is also little between them in terms of their try and line break assists, which is good news for Cleary given his team has scored far fewer points than the clubs of the other three candidates – it shows he is still producing some attacking plays. He also has the best goal-kicking rate of those available.
NRL.com halfback verdict: Cleary
Candidates: Damien Cook, Cameron McInnes
The second of the two spots not up for debate; Cook was brilliant for the Blues last year after edging McInnes to the starting spot and has since taken over from Cameron Smith in the green and gold No.9. He is in tremendous form for the Bunnies again while McInnes has also shown brilliant form giving the Blues a reliable back-up option if injury strikes.
Victor Radley is playing some good footy at the Roosters in place of the injured Jake Friend but is an outside hope of a bench utility spot at best, while 2018 candidate Api Koroisau has slipped down the pecking order at not just NSW but also his club where young gun Manase Fainu is claiming more and more minutes.
Statistically there's not a heap between them; Cook remains the best running dummy half in the game but McInnes is actually the best of the rest, making more metres than any rake other than Cook and with the third most busts behind Cook and Reed Mahoney.
McInnes has better numbers in defence, though Cook's are still fantastic, and has fewer errors.
Cook is streets ahead with his ball-playing though; his eight try assists are the best of all hookers and equal second-best across the whole NRL behind only Keary.
NRL.com hooker verdict: Cook
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.