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Ranking the Maroons spine candidates for 2020 Origin

Despite a wave of injuries and suspensions wrecking Queensland's availability list for the State of Origin series opener, the key playmaking spots look reasonably settled.

NRL.com Stats has crunched the numbers to determine who should fill the key spine spots for the Maroons on November 4.

Maroons spine candidates

Fullback

Candidates: Kalyn Ponga, AJ Brimson, Corey Allan

Despite a few off games, incumbent Ponga has been in terrific form and as the incumbent who has already shown he is up to the rigours of Origin footy, will be one of the first names on the team sheet.

Brimson has had a whirlwind second half of the season since returning from a back fracture to be the Titans custodian and is making a compelling case to be somewhere in the 17.

It gets very light on for fit candidates after that with Valentine Holmes suspended and Moses Mbye injured, although Rabbitohs back Corey Allan has done a superb job over the past month taking over from Latrell Mitchell.

As the only candidate with a full season under his belt, Ponga's stats are predictably dominant compared to the others and they also stack up very well against the rest of the NRL with the third most try assists of any fullback, a mountain of busts, busy support play and plenty of metres.

If Ponga joins the growing unavailable list between now and Origin I, Brimson's form should have him in the box seat.

Brimson's role at this point is almost purely as a runner rather than a creator; he is making a scarcely believable 1.4 line breaks per game with almost one try per match with plenty of metres and has one of the best kick defusal rates in the entire competition. However his assists are almost non-existent.

Allan has blossomed of late and his club coach, Wayne Bennett, will be back on deck for Queensland so he is a big chance for a spot in the extended squad, especially with his versatility. 

NRL.com verdict: Ponga

Five-eighth

Candidates: Cameron Munster, Ash Taylor

Again, unavailable players trim the depth. Munster is the incumbent and a shoo-in for the spot, if fit.

The last person other than Munster to wear the Maroons' No.6 jersey was Johnathan Thurston, in 2017. With two injury interruptions already this year and with halves partner Jahrome Hughes blossoming, Munster hasn't racked up the numbers at club level he usually would but the fact his side sits in second suggests he is playing his role well.

Best of the rest looks like Ash Taylor, with the rejuvenated Titan back to something like his best footy after a troubled 2019.

Long touted as a possible future Origin player, it's debatable whether now is the best time to thrust Taylor into the Origin cauldron but if further injuries befall Queensland-eligible halves then Bennett may not have a choice.

Taylor's numbers stack up well after Gold Coast's late-season surge to ninth with plenty of try and line break assists. He also appears to be relishing the freedom of five-eighth, having a controlling half wearing the No.7 beside him.

Other eligible players include Knights utility Kurt Mann and a pair of out-of-form playmakers with Origin experience in Corey Norman and Anthony Milford.

NRL.com verdict: Munster

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Halfback

Candidates: Daly Cherry-Evans, Ben Hunt

As the incumbent halfback and captain, Cherry-Evans is an automatic selection. Manly struggled this year but it was through no lack of effort from DCE, who was third in the NRL for try assists and had easily the most tackle busts of any halves player.

If he is ruled out of the series opener for any reason, the most likely solution would be to move Ben Hunt from hooker to halfback given the strength of back-up dummy half options compared to at halfback.

Hunt's numbers are skewed when comparing him to either halfbacks or hookers given he has spent plenty of time in each role.

He is one of the few long kickers in the game to be finding the ground regularly, hitting the grass almost half the time behind only Cameron Smith (48.8%). He is a reliable tackler and seven try assists is serviceable given his time spent at hooker and the Dragons' difficulties creating attacking chances this year.

Other eligible players include Jake Clifford, Lachlan Lam and Lachlan Lewis.

NRL.com verdict: Cherry-Evans

Hooker

Candidates: Ben Hunt, Jake Friend, Harry Grant, Reed Mahoney

Hunt played all three Origins last year and did a fine job. He arguably looked more comfortable in the No.9 than the No.7 jersey at the Dragons this year and shapes as the likely starting hooker unless necessity shifts him elsewhere, which brings any of the other three candidates in.

Friend is unlucky not to have played Origin but untimely injuries have got in the way and at 30 years of age at the back end of a gruelling season, he may do it tough once again to force his way into the 17. However his big-game experience could work in his favour in the shortened campaign.

Grant and Mahoney are the future. The pair duelled for the Queensland No.9 jersey through their junior years and neither would look out of place.

Grant is the more dynamic runner while Mahoney has the best defensive stats of the four. None have registered big numbers in terms of assists but Grant is the best of the rest after Hunt, although Mahoney has the next best kicking game out of dummy-half after Hunt.

Grant looks the more likely to be the next long-term Maroons hooker but has just 17 first-grade starts compared to Mahoney's 54. If Hunt does require back-up any of the three could do the job but we'll lean to Grant due to his ability to generate something out of nothing.

NRL.com verdict: Hunt

 

 

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