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NSW’s State of Origin selection in chaos with Queensland clear-cut favourites | Nick Tedeschi

Michael Maguire’s inaugural campaign as New South Wales head coach was always going to throw up some selection headaches, but hamstring injuries to stars Nathan Cleary and Tom Trbojevic have thrown the team into chaos ahead of the State of Origin series opener.

Cleary was one of the few certainties in Maguire’s first Origin team but after sustaining his third hamstring injury in 12 months, Penrith are looking to send him overseas for rehab that would rule him out for an extended period. With the five-eighth position wide open, Maguire must now settle on a new halves pairing with question marks over all the contenders.

Cody Walker and Mitch Moses played game three last season but the former has been out of form for the last-placed Rabbitohs and is unlikely to be considered, while Moses has not played since round three and is no certainty to return next week. If he does not make it to Magic Round, it would be a risk to bring the Eels playmaker in with just 80 minutes under his belt.

That provides limited options for Maguire in two of his most critical selections. Nicho Hynes, who endured a horrendous introduction to Origin due to his mishandling by the previous coach, would be the front-runner for one of the positions but he was a late out against the Storm on Saturday night with calf tightness. Matt Burton, who was overlooked for last year’s series, and Jarome Luai, who was dropped for game three last year, are the other two now in the frame.

Trbojevic’s hamstring opens up a similar quandary at centre. Jack Wighton has retired from rep football and Latrell Mitchell has indicated he wants to focus on South Sydney this year, leaving the centre stocks bare. Burton has played centre previously at Origin level while Kotoni Staggs, Zac Lomax and two-try hero from last year’s game three Bradman Best are the contenders to partner Stephen Crichton.

They will not be the only selection calls Maguire will need to make. Skipper James Tedesco is facing an almighty challenge from Dylan Edwards to retain the No 1 jersey. Isaah Yeo, Api Koroisau and Payne Haas are the only certainties to be named with Stefano Utoikamanu and Liam Martin likely to be included somewhere in the 17. Rampaging Sea Eagle Haumole Olakau’atu looks certain to be handed his Origin debut while Angus Crichton would prove one of the great redemption stories if he was to win a recall. Workhorse Sharks Tom Hazelton and Cameron McInnes and Warrior enforcer Mitch Barnett are also in calculations.

While the Queensland side is far more settled, Billy Slater still has plenty to decide upon.

Kalyn Ponga’s serious injury saved Slater from the ultimate headache of picking either the Dally M medal winner or rising superstar Reece Walsh. Like New South Wales though, Queensland have an abundance of fullbacks and it will be incredibly difficult to leave out Titans custodian AJ Brimson, who has been in irrepressible form since moving back into the spine, and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, who was a standout for the Dolphins before picking up a hamstring injury.

Tabuai-Fidow likely has one centre spot sewn up while Brimson will be pushing for the other in competition with the inconsistent Valentine Holmes. The versatile Brimson could also be used in the bench utility role typically filled by Ben Hunt, whose form has headed south dramatically this year. A groin injury picked up in the win over the Cowboys does throw his availability into doubt. Queensland selectors are typically loyal and Hunt has worn the maroon 17 times but given the form disparity, it is a debate that will be had by Queensland selectors.

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Tom Dearden and Ezra Mam are two others who will be in calculations to replace Hunt, should selectors be inclined to move on from the Dragons’ seven. Dearden is cut from the quintessential Queensland Origin cloth while Mam is a genuine game-breaker in sublime touch.

The most compelling decision Slater and the selection team will make will be who to include in the prop rotation. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui is out for the season and will need replacing while Moeaki Fotuaika and Corey Horsburgh are long odds to retain their spots. Lindsay Collins, following his stellar series last year, will likely be elevated into a starting role while Tom Flegler, J’maine Hopgood, Christian Welch, Jai Arrow and Felise Kaufusi will fight it out for two, potentially three, bench spots.

There is little doubt though that Slater will be sleeping far better than Maguire. The Queensland spine is set, while New South Wales have no obvious halves pairing and a genuine fullback battle that requires a tough decision between incumbency and form. For once, Queensland will not go into a series as the underdog, but as a clear-cut favourite with a more settled lineup and a huge edge where it counts the most: the spine.

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