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Ranking the Maroons spine candidates for 2021 Origin

Coming off an upset series win despite missing some key players, Queensland have a settled-looking spine heading into the 2021 series.

That doesn't mean there aren't some important decisions for new coach Paul Green to make. NRL.com has crunched the numbers on the candidates for the key playmaking roles. 

Fullback

Candidates: Kalyn Ponga, AJ Brimson, Val Holmes

The Maroons staged a great upset last year with Ponga injured before the series then Brimson injured during it, finally claiming the decider with Val Holmes on the wing and Corey Allan at fullback. Don't expect that to be the case this year though, with Ponga all-but-certain to return to the custodian's role under Paul Green.

There is a struck match between the trio in most statistical categories, though if Ponga had played eight games rather than four his totals in terms of tries, assists and busts would likely stretch ahead of the other two.

The Knights custodian has also been the safest fielding kicks and is the only genuine general play kicking option of the three. Brimson and Holmes each had a slow start to the year statistically before picking up the pace in recent weeks.

NRL.com verdict: Ponga

Five-eighth

Candidates: Cameron Munster, Ben Hunt, Ash Taylor

Storm five-eighth Munster produced one of the finest ever performances by a Queensland No.6 in last year's decider – not something you say lightly given the jersey was worn by all-time Origin legend Darren Lockyer and Origin's greatest ever player in Wally Lewis.

Only injury could stop Munster lining up in that jersey again this year, with Dragon Ben most likely to partner Daly Cherry-Evans if something does happen to Munster. Titan Ash Taylor, Bronco Anthony Milford and in-form Knights playmaker Kurt Mann are the others that warrant a mention.

It would take at least two injuries between now and game one for anyone other than Munster or Hunt to fill this spot.

Reputation and incumbency aside, Munster is the leading candidate with by far the most dominant running game of those eligible with more than four times the busts of the other options and over 100 run metres per game.

He is also the strongest edge defender – although he has been complicit in nine opposition line breaks, level with Taylor and more than double Hunt. Taylor has been playing a handy supporting role for the Titans but statistically has been very quiet.

NRL.com verdict: Munster

Halfback

Candidates: Daly Cherry-Evans, Ben Hunt, Sam Walker

Manly captain Cherry-Evans is the incumbent Maroons and Kangaroos halfback and, for all the fanfare around in-form Panther Nathan Cleary, can still lay a fair claim to being the game's best No.7 given the degree to which he outplayed Cleary on the game's biggest stage last year.

Like Munster, only injury could stop him taking his place at the MCG on June 9. Hunt would slot into the No.7 if DCE were unavailable, with an unenviable choice awaiting Paul Green if two halves are ruled out.

Jamal Fogarty has had a good season-and-a-half since being elevated to the No.7 full time at the Titans while teenage Roosters sensation Sam Walker is without question an Origin player-in-waiting but it would be a big ask to toss him in at this tender stage of his career.

Taking age and experience out of the equation, Walker is the clear standout statistically. In just five games since Luke Keary's injury he has a stunning nine try assists, seven line-break assists and three tries.

Despite presenting an appealing target for opposition edge runners his defensive numbers hold up as well. His time in maroon will come.

Cherry-Evans has hit form for the Sea Eagles too; his numbers take a beating thanks to Manly's horror, injury-riddled start to the year but he is one of the NRL's best defensive halves despite recording 15 break causes in the opening two months with his tackle percentage among the best of any half in the NRL.

He has a compete kicking game and invaluable experience at the top level.

NRL.com verdict: Cherry-Evans

Hooker

Candidates: Harry Grant, Reed Mahoney, Ben Hunt

The only spot in the Maroons spine that is anything other than set in stone (barring injury), with Mahoney making a superb start to the year to keep the heat on Grant.

Grant made a sensational debut off the bench supporting Jake Friend in the Game Three win last year and is a strong front-runner to claim the starting jersey this year.

However, his delayed start to the season following a knee injury in the trials allowed Mahoney to get the jump on him and at least give Green some food for thought.

Mahoney's ball-playing has gone to a new level this year and he looks super-fit, comfortably pushing out 80-minute games despite the rule changes reducing stoppages. However, Grant's form since his belated return has been nothing short of electric.

Despite being used for reduced minutes by coach Craig Bellamy in a rotation with Brandon Smith, his 55 minutes per game have yielded 86 metres per match – more than any other hooker in the NRL. He has almost caught Mahoney in terms of line-break assists and both men are averaging one try assist per match.

Hunt's numbers are skewed by playing halfback rather than hooker but he is a known quantity as a dummy-half at the top level and, like both halves spots, he is next-choice back-up and almost certain to claim the No.14 jersey.

NRL.com verdict: Grant

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The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.