Despite last year's State of Origin series win, NSW coach Brad Fittler has left some high profile incumbents out of his squad already with a new-look pack set to be picked on form and stacked with talent from top-six teams.
With the extended Blues squad taking shape, NRL.com Stats has crunched the numbers on the known and likely candidates to work out who should line up for NSW in the State of Origin series opener on November 4.
Incumbent players or players previously expected to be in the group who have already missed the cut have not been included in the analysis, though it is not impossible names like David Klemmer, Paul Vaughan, Wade Graham and Ryan Matterson could be called up later on.
There is some overlap between props and locks; for example Manly lock Jake Trbojevic has previously used more as a front-rower by the Blues, who only picked two genuine props in their game two win last year, and three in their game three win, with Trbojevic and Dale Finucane effectively used as props.
Blues forwards candidates
Candidates: Junior Paulo, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Payne Haas, Daniel Saifiti, Moses Leota, Junior Tatola, James Tamou
Incumbents Klemmer and Vaughan have been dropped while in-form incumbent Daniel Saifiti was one of the only safe picks. Eels X-factor Junior Paulo is likely to debut and his clubmate Reagan Campbell-Gillard set to earn a recall after each was included in the squad.
Haas was one of a host of players dropped after the Blues lost in his game one debut last year but has put together a huge year for the wooden spoon-winning Broncos while Moses Leota and Junior Tatola have rocketed into contention after strong finishes to the year for the Panthers and Rabbitohs respectively.
Penrith skipper James Tamou has had one of the best years of his career but at nearly 32 years of age and with four years having passed since the last of his 12 Origins is only an outside chance.
Fittler has shown through his successful Origin career to date his philosophy doesn't revolve so much around the old model of picking the best players and finding spots for them – he picks his team with a plan in mind, with players to fill certain roles, and goes after players that suit that style.
It makes Paulo an interesting case and a near certain selection. He has seven line-break assists – none of the other eligible props have more than one (Saifiti's impressive numbers are individual breaks rather than assists) while Paulo has more than double the offloads of any other candidate and his 48 busts make him the only prop other than Haas (61) to register anything of interest in that category.
He also has the quietest defensive numbers of any of the candidates, making less than one tackle per two minutes on field at the second-worst effective rate of those listed.
He has the second-slowest play-the-ball ahead of Campbell-Gillard, the most errors (13) and his metres per carry are second-worst ahead of only Tamou (9.3).
In short, you wouldn't pick four Paulos, but one could be a game-breaker.
Haas and Saifiti appear to be no-brainers; they are the best two of those available in terms of metres per carry and post-contact metres while Haas has the most busts and second-most offloads and a ridiculous engine that allows him to play 80 minutes more often than not at club level. The sting in Saifiti's running game has helped him to six line breaks and three tries.
Leota is an interesting case; he would be picked with a plan to play him for no more than the 33 minutes he averages for Penrith and probably less, asking him to pump out a few of those 10-plus metre carries and lightning fast play-the-balls. Tatola's numbers are solid across the board but are not eye-catching in any department. The pair are the most-penalised on the list though neither Leota (nine in 21 games) not Tatola (eight in 20) is particularly bad.
If Tamou were to be recalled, he makes up for the worst metres per carry of any available with the best effective tackle rate of 95.7% and the quickest play-the-ball at 3.20 seconds.
NRL.com verdict: Haas and Saifiti to start, Paulo on the bench.
Candidates: Jake Trbojevic, Cameron Murray, Dale Finucane, Nathan Brown, Isaah Yeo
It's remarkable how many high quality, in-form No.13s Fittler has at his disposal. Trbojevic is an incumbent and already in the squad while Brown is also in the squad and has been around representative conversations for a while, earning a start in Australia's World Cup 9s squad last year.
Murray and Finucane are also both incumbents and each plays for a team still in premiership contention. Murray is certain to be added while Finucane hasn't played since round 14 due to a calf strain which could hurt his chances of retaining a spot. Yeo is arguably in the best form of all five for the table-topping Panthers. Dragons hooker-turned-lock Cameron McInnes is already in Fittler's extended squad but has been regarded as a hooker or utility for the purposes of this analysis rather than vying for the lock role.
Again, horses for courses will play its part – Trbojevic plays the most minutes, has the best defensive numbers, a lightning fast play-the-ball and by far and away the most support runs of any middle forward in the NRL. He also has the worst numbers for metres per carry, post-contact meters and busts of those listed while his usually slick ball-playing has not been yielding rewards at Manly this year. Numbers aside, Trbojevic will be hard to leave out having not missed an Origin since his 2017 debut, playing all nine games over the past three years and performing excellently every time.
Murray's form, like that of his club, has spiked late in the season and his happy knack of accelerating just before the line to poke his nose through continues, with his nine line-break involvements (including six assists) the best on the list. His defensive numbers are great, his play-the-ball is second fastest after Trbojevic and his minutes are up this year.
Finucane will probably need to play two games over the final fortnight of the competition to return to the frame despite performing well in Origin last year with quiet numbers across the board, given the outstanding calibre of other candidates.
Brown's belligerent carries have been eye-catching at the Eels this year and he makes the most metres per run of the locks in contention, with the most offloads. Like both his Eels clubmates listed among the prop candidates, his play-the-ball speed is absolutely glacial so having all three on the field at the same time is a risk Fittler likely cannot afford.
Yeo has been an absolute revelation since taking over the No.13 role at Penrith this year. In the conversation for most improved player in the NRL, the numbers don't really capture the importance of his contribution for the Panthers, the linking role he plays between his halves and outside men or the indecision he causes defences with his pass options and decoy runs.
Statistically, his defensive numbers are just a fraction behind Trbojevic, his running numbers just a shade behind Brown's, with the most busts, most post-contact metres per carry and second best decoy and support numbers. He will also have an existing combination with halfback Nathan Cleary and whichever other Panthers end up making the team – and there could be a few of them.
NRL.com verdict: Yeo to start, Trbojevic and Murray on the bench.
Candidates: Boyd Cordner, Tyson Frizell, Angus Crichton, Liam Martin
With Wade Graham and Ryan Matterson not making the squad and no candidates left in the four remaining teams other than Martin, the young Panther looks certain to at least make the squad.
Cordner is the captain and despite concern over his physical well-being after the toughest season of his career, his form has remained excellent and his leadership is vital. He has the best running figures of those available and the quickest play-the-ball, plus a strong combination with possible new Blues five-eighth Luke Keary.
Frizell was one of the best players at the Dragons all season despite their disappointing year and has never let the state down in his 13 Origins to date. He has the best defensive numbers of those in contention with plenty of busts and like Cordner gains 9.9 metres per run.
Crichton has been in sensational form since returning from a six-week layoff with an ankle injury in round 17. His numbers aren't necessarily a perfect comparison because he has spent plenty of time in the middle as well as on an edge but he has been dynamic in both roles and that utility value will serve the Blues well. He has the fourth-most busts of any forward in the NRL, with six line breaks and five tries.
Martin has been fantastic on the right edge for the Panthers this year, with a consistently high involvement and making life hard for opposition edge defences. The torrid working-over he gave Matt Moylan still stands out. He is still very raw though, with the weakest defensive numbers of those listed and the most penalties and errors conceded. He plays above his weight impressively though whether the fact he is easily the smallest candidate worries Fittler remains to be seen.
NRL.com verdict: Cordner and Frizell to start with Crichton on the bench.