The 2017 State of Origin series opener months away, but speculation around how the Queensland and New South Wales teams may line up is already well underway.
5. Queensland wings
Dane Gagai has scored five tries in four Origin appearances and must have gone close to player of the series honours this year, while Corey Oates enjoyed a solid debut campaign for the Maroons in 2016.
But the incumbent Queensland wingers will be under immense pressure from new Kangaroos Test flyer Valentine Holmes, who most likely would have featured in the 2016 series if not for a 12-month ban for an incident during Emerging Maroons camp in January.
Gagai’s form at Origin level is undeniable but he’ll be playing for the lowly Knights, while Oates will be running in tries for the heavyweight Broncos. Holmes, who is set to slot in at fullback for the Sharks in 2017, has also played the bulk of his NRL football on the right flank – the spot Gagai has occupied for Queensland, with Oates a specialist left winger.
With Justin O’Neill and Will Chambers grappling for one centre spot, the unsuccessful applicant is also sure to come into contention for a Queensland wing berth, while Kyle Feldt remains on the fringes.
4. NSW fullback
Matt Moylan and James Tedesco both made long-awaited Blues debuts at fullback during 2016, and the brilliant duo is set to go head-to-head for the prized No.1 jumper next year. Tedesco would appear to have the inside running as incumbent, but Moylan’s versatility saw the Panthers captain oust the Tigers custodian for a spot in the Kangaroos’ Four Nations squad.
The wildcard is Jarryd Hayne, who will have plenty of time to stake a claim for the role after a rushed return with the Titans in the latter rounds of 2016. One of the Blues’ all-time greats, Hayne inspired his state to a drought-breaking series triumph from fullback in 2014 – but he has also played many fine hands at rep level from wing and centre.
Moylan, who started at five-eighth in the 2016 dead-rubber after being named in the No.14, shapes as a genuine bench utility alternative for the Blues next year.
A first-choice fullback for NSW on several occasions, Josh Dugan now appears to be well down the pecking order, but Blues and Kangaroos selectors are obsessed with fitting into their teams somewhere at the expense of better candidates. His status as an incumbent Australian Test centre should see the marquee Dragon snare a spot in the Blues’ three-quarter line.
Only a string of blistering performances from the likes of Michael Jennings, Joey Leilua, Jarrod Croker, Dylan Walker, Jack Bird and James Roberts can force the selectors’ and push Dugan out of the side altogether.
Jack Wighton, Lachlan Coote and Tom Trbojevic – who is a strong contender for injured Panther Josh Mansour’s wing spot – are the other Blues fullback options at Laurie Daley and Peter Sterling’s disposal.
3. Queensland front-rowers
The imposing figure of Sydney Roosters enforcer Dylan Napa looms large over Queensland’s ageing front-row picture. A near-certainty to debut in 2016, Napa was part of the group of Emerging Maroons slapped with a 12-month Origin ban for breaking curfew during their January camp.
But only injury can stop the redheaded beast in 2017 – which spells trouble for veterans Nate Myles and Jacob Lillyman, with Matt Scott and Josh McGuire (despite his Kangaroos dumping) virtual walk-up selections.
Myles is something of a protected species after making 31 appearances for Queensland and selectors will want him to go out on his own terms, but he was awful for Manly this season and will get gobbled up by Woods, Klemmer, Boyd and co. if he reproduces that form on the rep stage next year.
Ever-consistent Warriors bookend Lillyman has played 13 Origins since 2006 – including seven of the last eight – but has been deemed expendable by the Maroons over the years.
However, the retirement of lock Corey Parker could see Myles and Lillyman both remain in the squad, with McGuire a viable option in the No.13.
Jarrod Wallace, Christian Welch, Felise Kaufusi and Lloyd Perrett are among the next generation of Maroons props set to challenge for an Origin debut, though Wallace is the only realistic chance for 2017.
Roosters backrower Aidan Guerra is also under immense pressure to retain a spot in the Queensland forwards, and will vie for a place with Gavin Cooper, Chris McQueen, Ethan Lowe, Coen Hess and Jayson Bukuya.
2. Blues captain
Since Laurie Daley took over as NSW skipper in 1992, the Blues have been blessed with obvious captaincy candidates: Brad Fittler, Geoff Toovey, Andrew Johns, Danny Buderus.
After Kurt Gidley and Trent Barrett filled the role in 2009-10, Paul Gallen has assumed the responsibilities for the past six series, with Robbie Farah filling in twice during the Sharks ironman’s injury absences.
But with Gallen retiring from rep football, Daley and Sterling have a tricky decision to make.
Farah has his nose in front to retain the No.9 jersey, but his dominant status in the Blues set-up has waned and his chances of getting the nod as skipper are remote.
Aaron Woods impressed thoroughly in his first campaign as Tigers captain this year, while blue-chip backrowers Boyd Cordner and Josh Jackson have been touted as NSW captaincy material. Wade Graham is a born leader, but with only one Origin appearance to his name he would be a rank outsider.
In the backline, experienced linchpin James Maloney surges into contention after his leadership role in Cronulla’s premiership triumph. Moylan captains his club, but can’t be guaranteed a starting berth. The inspirational Hayne could be a left-field pick, but a risky one.
Queensland have no such issues: they’re likely to have four club captains in their starting line-up – all of whom have played over 20 Origins – along with peerless No.7 string-puller Cooper Cronk.
1. NSW halves
There will be a school of thought that James Maloney and Adam Reynolds did enough in the 2016 series to earn first crack again next year.
Maloney was arguably the Blues’ best across the three games and has only enhanced his reputation since, steering the Sharks to grand final glory and winning a Kangaroos call-up a the age of 30 – barring catastrophe, he’s a shoe-in for the No.6.
But despite some shining moments, it was a mixed debut campaign for Reynolds, who also endured an unhappy and injury-hit season at club level.
The Rabbitohs linchpin will require a commanding start to 2017 to ensure he keeps the cherished sky-blue jumper he fought so long and hard for – and that’s largely due to the quality of his competition for the No.7.
Mitchell Pearce has a bigger point to prove than any player in the game after a tumultuous 2016, and his previous Origin failures are unlikely to count against him too much in the eyes of Daley and Sterling. If Pearce can fire the new-look Roosters early next season, the 15-Origin veteran is every chance of a recall – probably to the chagrin of many Blues fans.
The NSW brains trust may be reticent to throw teenage sensation Nathan Cleary into the cauldron so early in his career, but they shouldn’t rule the Penrith playmaker out on account of his age and lack of top-level experience.
Cleary handled every rookie-season challenge that came his way after being thrust into the hot-seat for the flighty Panthers, producing some of the most level-headed and brilliant performances by any halfback in 2016.
If Penrith are at the pointy end of the premiership after 10 rounds, Cleary will be a primary reason why – and the temptation to hand him the reins for the Blues may be impossible to resist.
Plenty can change between now and team announcement day for Origin I, though, and Blake Austin, Aidan Sezer, Josh Reynolds, Mitchell Moses and Luke Keary are all capable of forcing the selectors into another rethink as they look for an answer to combatting the influential Thurston-Cronk combination.