The 2021 State of Origin series gets underway in just under three weeks and league fans will be eager to see whether new Maroons coach Paul Green can repeat predecessor Wayne Bennett's 2020 magic act and help the Queenslanders retain the famous shield.
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 injury clouds and suspensions for Green to contend with ahead of Game I, we take a look at who makes the Maroons squad for the series opener.
Fullback - Kalyn Ponga
The Newcastle Knights superstar hasn't played much footy in 2021 and is currently out of action for his club with an adductor injury, but if fit, will be almost impossible for Green to leave out of his starting side.
Titans star AJ Brimson deputised at fullback for the Maroons in the 2020 series opener and has continued his excellent form into this season with the Titans. However, Ponga remains one of the most exciting talents in the NRL and has proven his class at Origin level in the past. Dependable at the back and an x-factor in attack, the Knights custodian gets the nod ahead of the likes of other fullback contenders Corey Allan and Valentine Holmes.
Wingers - Xavier Coates, Valentine Holmes
Coates got his first taste of Origin last year and the Broncos flyer will be better for it in 2021. The Brisbane winger has more tries (eight) and line breaks (seven) than his Maroons rivals and with injured incumbent Edrick Lee yet to play a game for the Knights this season, deserves to take his place on one wing.
Despite playing at fullback for the Cowboys, Origin specialist Holmes will be hard to overlook on the other wing. With a phenomenal record of eight tries in just five games for his state, the Blues know all too well about the 25-year-old's ability to rise to the occasion on the representative stage. Phillip Sami also made his debut in 2020 but probably hasn't done enough with the Titans in 2021 to demand selection this year.
Centres: Dane Gagai, Kurt Capewell
Gagai has an uncanny ability to grow another leg for Origin clashes and regardless of his club form, seems to always come up big for his state. The veteran has been in superb form for the Rabbitohs this season, with a handful of tries (four) to go with his excellent average run metres (125m per game). Gagai should be an easy pick for Green.
Gagai's centre partner is a trickier proposition, with incumbent Brenko Lee's absence through injury opening the door for Panthers star Capewell to get the nod ahead of the likes of Corey Allan and Phillip Sami. Capewell was one of the revelations for the Maroons in 2020 after making his debut in Game I, showing his versatility by switching from the centres to the back row to play an integral part in Queensland's series triumph. A key member of a purring Panthers side who's solid in attack and defence, Capewell will be relishing another taste of rep footy.
Halves: Cameron Munster, Daly Cherry-Evans (c)
Comfortably the easiest decision for Green to make will be his halves pairing with Munster establishing himself as one of the game's best players and Cherry-Evans leading the Maroons to their against-the-odds series win in 2020.
Plenty has been made about the incredible form of 18-year-old Roosters whizz kid Sam Walker, whose time on the Origin stage will almost certainly come. The leadership, kicking game and organisational ability of Cherry-Evans, coupled with the devastating attacking flair of Munster is a formidable combination for the Maroons to base their game plan around.
Hooker: Harry Grant
Queensland's greatest hooker Cam Smith this week anointed Parramatta's Reed Mahoney as his starting rake for Game I, with currently injured Storm star Harry Grant coming off the bench.
"You’d probably start with Reed. He is a tough little bugger. He doesn’t mind getting involved in tackles. He’s made 60-odd tackles plenty of times in his career," Smith said on SEN radio.
"He’s got great service from dummy-half, a pretty good running game and kicking game. He’s got all the threats."
Despite those comments from Smith, we expect Grant to be given the nod at hooker (provided he's fit), with Dragons halfback Ben Hunt's proven versatility seeing him fill an interchange spot.
Front row: Christian Welch, Moeaki Fotuaika
Storm enforcer Welch comfortably leads his Maroons front row rivals in average metres per game (147m) and offloads (29), making the Maroons incumbent's starting spot all but secured.
A season-ending injury to Lindsay Collins and the suspension of Josh Papalii for Game I has opened the door for several other front row contenders, such as Moeaki Fotuaika, Coen Hess and Josh Kerr.
Out of those vying to partner Welch in the Maroons' pack, Fotuaika's largely superior stats in key areas (tackles, average metres, offloads, tackle busts) for the Titans in 2021 give him the edge.
Second row: Felise Kaufusi, David Fifita
Kaufusi has been a stalwart in the Maroons side for several years now and the premiership-wining Storm workhorse will be one of the first names on Green's team sheet.
The Maroons are spoilt for choice when it comes to edge forwards, with the likes of David Fifita, Jaydn Su'A and Kurt Capewell among the standouts.
Fifita has been almost unstoppable at times for the Titans this season, with his nine tries easily the most by any forward in 2021. With the added threat of his tackle-busting and offloading ability, the Gold Coast metre-eater will be more than a handful for the Blues' defence.
Lock: Tino Fa'asuamaleaui
Rounding out the Maroons pack should be another Titans wrecking ball in Fa'asuamaleaui. The big man took his Origin debut with both hands in 2020 and ended the series as one of the breakout stars, taking much of that form into the new season with Gold Coast. His combinations and understanding with Titans teammates Fotuaika and Fifita, as well as his tireless work rate should see him hold off the likes of Souths utility Jai Arrow, Wests Tigers enforcer Joe Ofahengaue and Canberra's Corey Horsburgh.
Interchange: Ben Hunt, Jaydn Su'A, Jai Arrow, Joe Ofahengaue
Hunt's ability to cover a number of positions and his proven record as impact player should see the Dragons playmaker given the bench utility role. Su'A has been in superb touch for the Bunnies, while Souths teammate Arrow's Origin experience and numbers off the bench make him an ideal option. Ofahengaue can cover a number of forward roles and offers Green an excellent degree of flexibility.
Predicted QLD squad - Game I
1. Kalyn Ponga 2. Xavier Coates 3. Dane Gagai 4. Kurt Capewell 5. Valentine Holmes 6. Cameron Munster 7. Daly Cherry-Evans (c) 8. Moeaki Fotuaika 9. Harry Grant 10. Christian Welch 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. David Fifita 13. Tino Fa'asuamaleaui 14. Ben Hunt 15. Jaydn Su'A 16. Jai Arrow 17. Joe Ofahengaue
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