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Ranking the Blues spine candidates for 2021 Origin

Blues coach Brad Fittler has a fairly settled playmaking line-up heading into the Ampol State of Origin series but one possible debutant is staking a huge claim for a key role in the spine.

With game one teams to be picked in just over a month, NRL.com Stats has run the rule over the candidates to see who should be in the NSW team for the June 9 series opener.  

Fullback

Candidates: James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic, Ryan Papenhuyzen

There is no position for either state currently blessed with so much depth as NSW's fullback options.

James Tedesco is the world's best player, the incumbent and captain and will be picked if fit and Tom Trbojevic can lay claim to being the NRL's most influential player, such is the turnaround in Manly's form since he returned from injury.

Ryan Papenhuyzen is the reigning Clive Churchill medallist and statistically the most in-form fullback in the NRL. All three are likely to be in the squad somewhere.

Latrell Mitchell was in devastating form before his suspension and could yet nab a centre spot while in-form Eels skipper Clint Gutherson is playing better now than when he was picked for the Blues last year yet may still struggle to keep a spot in the team.

And spare a thought for Dylan Edwards. He's a NSW-eligible fullback in supreme form for the best team in the competition. He has a well-set combination with the NSW halfback but can barely rate a mention as an option.

The real question for Brad Fittler is how many of these players can he fit into his side, with as many as four to be picked across fullback, centre, wing and bench roles.

Statistically, Papenhuyzen is the standout, even having missed the last three games with a shoulder injury, with his eight tries the most by any fullback this year and his 209 metres from 20 carries the best of any Blues-eligible No.1.

Gutherson (seven) and Mitchell (six) are the two top fullbacks in the NRL for try assists so far while Mitchell has the most busts (37) of any NSW candidate, one more than Tedesco (36) from one fewer match.

Gutherson also has seven tries, level with Tedesco, with his 14 try involvements the best of any fullback this year and equal-best of any player in the NRL.

In just three games, Trbojevic has racked up three tries and four try assists while running over 200 metres per match, completely banishing questions over his hamstrings.

Edwards is making 182 metres per match with three tries and has consistently been among Penrith's best in every game he's played.

In short, none of the top six options would look at all out of place in the sky blue No.1 - but you can't pick them all.

NRL.com verdict: Tedesco – with Trbojevic, Papenhuyzen and possibly Gutherson and Mitchell to earn spots elsewhere in the squad.

Five-eighth

Candidates: Cody Walker, Jarome Luai, Jack Wighton

A huge decision for Fittler here whether to go with the more experienced Walker or bring in the young in-form Panther Luai.

Walker is in impressive touch, handling a switch to fullback well while also doing his usual thing marshalling a devastating Rabbitohs left-side attack when he has been at five-eighth.

With six tries and eight try assists, he has the most try involvements of any of the halves options from either state and the equal most of any player in the NRL, equal with Gutherson and Brett Morris.

But the calls to hand Luai a debut are growing from a whisper to a roar as the St Marys junior continues to pile on impressive performances.

After notching an NRL equal-high 23 try assists last year, Luai is at it again this year with his 11 try assists through eight rounds two more than any other player so far.

He has a near-telepathic combination with club halves partner and Blues halfback Nathan Cleary and any questions over him either in terms of experience or defence simply do not add up.

Along with his bounty of try assists, evasive running and dangerous short-kicking game, Luai has the best effective tackle percentage of any of the halves candidates from either state.

Wighton is very much the outside option; there were calls for the Dally M medallist to get a look in as a Blues five-eighth last year but Wighton appears out of sorts this year in a Raiders side that hasn't won in over a month.

His stats bear out a player struggling for impact, with an error count double those of his rivals and very little to speak of in the attacking columns.

Having also struggled in Origin last year for the impact at centre he was able to bring in the 2019 series, he may also be at risk of losing his spot in the 17.

NRL.com verdict: Luai

Halfback

Candidates: Nathan Cleary, Mitchell Moses, Adam Reynolds

While there are some in-form options at Fittler's disposal when it comes to halfbacks, there is no question incumbent Nathan Cleary will take his spot in the side on June 9, barring injury.

Elevated to Penrith's co-captaincy this year, Cleary's form is even better in his seven games this year than it was last year.

If something were to happen to Cleary, in-form Eels no.7 Mitch Moses would be the likely back-up.

Moses has a strong connection with Fittler from their time together for Lebanon at the 2017 World Cup and was in the mix in 2018 until the Eels' horror season scuppered his hopes.

His general play kicking and organising are the best they've ever been while his running game has returned after last year's calf injury and his defence has improved out of sight.

Reynolds is one of the best generals in the competition with arguably the best kicking game in the NRL but is currently sidelined with a thumb injury and is also in the middle of protracted contract negotiations.

All three are sharpshooters who would be the team's first-choice goal-kicker if picked.

Statistically, Cleary is only one ahead of Moses in the key halfback stat of try assists (seven versus six), although he has one of the best effective tackle rates of any half and his sheer weight of run metres and kick metres are beyond any current NRL playmaker, showing just how heavily he involves himself in every contest.

NRL.com verdict: Cleary

Hooker

Candidates: Damien Cook, Api Koroisau, Jayden Brailey

With Dragon Cameron McInnes out for the year with an ACL injury and Api Koroisau only just back from a six-week wrist injury, the Blues' hooking depth doesn't look as imposing as it has in recent times – but it's a moot point if incumbent Blues and Kangaroos rake Cook doesn't get injured.

While the occasional question has been raised about Cook's form, the fact is he has been among the best No.9s in the NRL again this year.

His team haven't lost a game since round one, he averages more metres than any other hooker bar Queensland rival Grant and Raiders young gun Tom Starling, he has the most line breaks (five) and tackle busts (14) of any hooker and defensively he is as sound as ever with 44 tackles per game at 94 per cent among the best of any No.9 this year.

Koroisau has just two games so far this year; he went off injured in round one and got an early mark in his round eight comeback so it would be unfair to judge him on his 2021 statistics.

He has looked sharp while on field for Penrith and was in the mix last year. He busted more tackles than any hooker bar Cook last year while making 50 tackles per game at over 92 per cent effective, and would likely be next cab off the rank if something happened to Cook.

Brailey is worth a mention after an excellent opening two months for the Knights, where he has been among the best players every week in a hot-and-cold side.

Defensively he makes more tackles at a better effective rate than any hooker except Andrew McCullough this year and with three try assists he has laid on more four-pointer than any other Blues-eligible No.9 so far in 2021.

NRL.com verdict: Cook

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