With less than month to go until this year's State of Origin opener and nine rounds of NRL action under the players' belts, what better time than now to predict who will make Brad Fittler's NSW Blues squad for Game I.
The Melbourne Cricket Ground hosts the first game of the 2021 series on Wednesday June 9, with games two and three to be held at Suncorp Stadium (Sunday, June 27) and Stadium Australia (Wednesday, July 14) respectively.
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With Fittler's men desperate to avenge last year's series defeat to a Maroons side famously dubbed the 'weakest in 40 years', here's who we reckon the Blues coach will turn to for Game I.
Fullback: James Tedesco (c)
While Teddy hasn't been dominating games like previous seasons, the two-time premiership winner is still arguably the Roosters' most important player and a proven game-breaker.
A rock at the back and a gun in attack, Fittler has all but confirmed the Blues incumbent will be given the nod ahead of Ryan Papenhuyzen, based on his previous heroics at Origin level.
"He’s been a big part of what we do and he’s been doing it really well at fullback so I think it’d be silly to move him out of there," Fittler said on Thursday.
Wingers: Brian To'o and Josh Addo-Carr
Melbourne Storm's Addo-Carr is the NRL's leading try-scorer (with 11 alongside Brett Morris) and a mainstay in Fittler's side. Fresh from his incredible six-try haul against the Rabbitohs in round nine, the Foxx's confidence will be sky high. Roosters veteran Daniel Tupou partnered Addo-Carr in last year's series but the irresistible form of Brian To'o leaves the exciting Panthers flyer primed to make his Origin debut. Diminutive in stature but big on heart, To'o has 65 tackle busts and is averaging a whopping 252 run metres after nine games this season, crossing for five tries.
Centres: Latrell Mitchell, Tom Trbojevic
The fact Fittler has a number of world class fullbacks to choose from makes his job that much more difficult, with Mitchell starting the season in outstanding form for the Rabbitohs before his suspension and Trbojevic arguably the most influential player in the competition since his return from injury. Manly's average points per game has jumped from just 9.4 to 32.5 since Turbo's return, highlighting just how incredible he's been. Both Mitchell and Turbo have experience at Origin level and edge the likes of other centre candidates Jack Wighton and Clint Gutherson, who didn't have the happiest of series in 2020.
Halves: Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary
Cleary has been the standout halfback in the NRL in 2021 and will be one of the first names on Fittler's list. Who partners the Panthers superstar is the tricky question. Wighton has so far failed to replicate his 2020 Dally M-winning form, and is down against the likes of Cody Walker and Jarome Luai in key attacking stats. Walker's six tries and eight try assists is the most try involvements for any of the halves candidates, however, Luai's combination and understanding with Cleary gives him the edge. The Panthers' number six also leads the NRL for try assists with 11 this season.
Hooker: Damien Cook
While the likes of Api Koroisau and Jayden Brailey have been in excellent form so far in 2021, incumbent Blues hooker Damien Cook is another player Fittler knows he can rely on at Origin level. The Rabbitohs rake's service and speed out of the ruck are exceptional and he has a proven ability to come up with big plays at crucial moments for the Blues. An absolute certainty.
Front row: Payne Haas, Daniel Saifiti
Haas and Saifiti finished last year's series as the Blues' starting props and their displays so far in 2021 should see them retain those roles. Saifiti has been an ever-dependable presence up front for an impressive Knights pack, while Haas has been a tackle-breaking machine, averaging 177 metres per game after serving a suspension at the start of the season. Parramatta's Junior Paulo - with 15 tackle breaks and 18 offloads this season - looms as a danger man for the Blues coming off the bench.
Second row: Tyson Frizell, Angus Crichton
Boyd Cordner's absence from this year's series creates an opportunity for a number of players banging down the door for Origin selection. Frizell and Crichton played together for Games II and III in 2020, following Cordenr's concussion in the series opener. The two work-horses continue to play key roles for their club sides and could consider themselves unlucky if Fittler was to overlook them for the MCG opener. Eels pair Ryan Matterson and Shaun Lane have also been exceptional in 2021, while Cam Murray, Isaah Yeo and Victor Radley would also be considerations for an edge spot, despite playing predominantly through the middle for their clubs.
Lock: Jake Trbojevic
Arguably one of Fittler's toughest decisions will be who to pick at lock, with the aforementioned Yeo and Radley throwing down a serious challenge to incumbent Blues lock, Jake Trbojevic. The Manly star's defensive brilliance and his ability to offer a playmaking alternative to the Blues backline, should see Trbojevic keep his spot. The understanding he has on the field with younger brother Tom is another factor in favour of the tireless Sea Eagle.
Interchange: Ryan Papenhuyzen, Junior Paulo, Isaah Yeo, Victor Radley
Papenhuyzen has lit up the competition in 2021 and Fittler simply has to find a spot for the 2020 Clive Churchill Medallist. The thought of the Storm superstar being injected into the game to run at tired defenders is a scary proposition for Maroons fans. Joining him on the interchange is Eels enforcer Paulo, who also has the ability to break the game apart with his hit-ups, offloads tackle-busting prowess, while forwards Yeo and Radley offer versatility, work-rate and a mountain of tackles off the bench.
Predicted NSW squad - Game I
1. James Tedesco (c) 2. Brian To'o 3. Latrell Mitchell 4. Tom Trbojevic 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Daniel Saifiti 9. Damien Cook 10. Payne Haas 11. Tyson Frizell 12. Angus Crichton 13. Jake Trbojevic 14. Ryan Papenhuyzen 15. Junior Paulo 16. Isaah Yeo 17. Victor Radley
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