TEST coach Mal Meninga says picking the halves combinations will be the biggest headache confronting both State of Origin coaches going into this year’s series.
Both Queensland and NSW are entering new eras with this year’s series.
Maroons coach Kevin Walters will again have to rebuild his team after the representative retirements of Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk.
The Blues meanwhile go back to the drawing board again after another disastrous series, this time under the direction of rookie coach Brad Fittler.
While both coaches face selection issues based around form and availability, Meninga expects both Walters and Fittler to spend the most time agonising over who to select in the halves.
At the back end of last season, North Queensland’s Michael Morgan was a Winx-like favourite to inherit the Maroons No.7 from Cowboys teammate Thurston, with 2017 Origin revelation Cameron Munster expected to be alongside him at five-eighth.
While Munster has been solid for an inconsistent Melbourne Storm side, Morgan’s scratchy form in a struggling Cowboys team has put his Origin claims firmly in the spotlight.
Not helping Morgan’s cause is the fact Ben Hunt, another player who shone in his first Origin series last year, has been in electric form for St George Illawarra in their rampaging start to the season.
“I have said all along leading into this year’s series that the biggest issue confronting both coaches was who was going to be their seven and six,” Meninga told fogs.com.au.
“The halves combinations could be the making or the breaking of both teams in this year’s series.
“There is just so little between the two teams at the moment, even that little fraction of difference in such a key position could make all the difference.
“The combination that they have in the halves will be so important, not just for the Origin series either.
“Whichever seven and six comes out on top at Origin level you would think will be the Australian seven and six at the end of the year.”
Meninga said Morgan’s poor start to the year had surprised given his career-best form last year as he carried the Cowboys to the NRL grand final, but backed him to regain his touch.
“The harder you work the worse it gets sometimes, and you can clearly see Michael is still trying very hard and not getting the results,” he said.
“But Michael is experienced, and that is a big asset that he has behind him at the moment.
He understands Origin and what is required to succeed at that level.”
But Meninga conceded Hunt’s blistering form with the Dragons was making the former Bronco’s claims to the Queensland halfback job hard to ignore.
“Ben has proven himself to be a great option in the No.14 jumper because of the versatility he brings to the team by being a potential gamebreaker in the halves or at hooker,” Meninga said.
“But Michael has done a terrific job as No.14 in the past as well.
“Ben had a fantastic finish to the season last year, and got his first taste of Origin where he did an outstanding job. He then kept working hard and fought his way back into the Australia squad for the World Cup.
“But his game has gone to a whole new level this year with that extra responsibility at the Dragons. They could not have had a better start to the year, and Ben has played a big role in that.
“If he can keep his form up for the next couple of weeks, he will bring a whole heap of confidence and momentum with him into Origin, and that is going to be very hard for the coach to ignore.
“Confidence is so important going into big games, and Ben has that in spades at the moment.”