Queensland Maroons selectors will name their side for the State of Origin opener in less than seven weeks and at this stage there are more questions than answers about the possible makeup of the side.
Coach Kevin Walters wants all contenders to be in top form ahead of the June 5 clash with the NSW Blues at Suncorp Stadium and that is far from the case with the three Queensland-based NRL teams all struggling.
The fourth ‘Queensland’ team, Melbourne Storm, is firing.
While the Craig Bellamy-coached outfit does not provide as many players to the Maroons as it once did, the good news for Walters is that incumbent Queensland five-eighth Cameron Munster is on fire.
In this column I will name the 17 I would select if the Maroons team was picked now.
Getting the spine right is going to be critical for Queensland now Billy Slater has joined Johnathan Thurston in retirement from the game, and Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk have both retired from rep footy.
Munster should be the Maroons No.6 and Manly skipper Daly Cherry-Evans has returned to top form in recent weeks to make a strong case to be retained at halfback.
Cherry-Evans was one of Queensland’s best in the 18-14 win in Game III last year and there are no other Queensland-qualified halves bashing down the door to replace him.
Last year Slater, now a Maroons selector, anointed Kalyn Ponga as his successor in the fullback position and Newcastle coach Nathan Brown has done Queensland a favour by switching the 21-year-old back to the custodian’s role, after a short-lived experiment at five-eighth.
There were plenty of signs in the Knights' golden point loss to the Dragons, where Ponga set up both of his side’s tries, to suggest that he isn’t far away from returning to his best.
With Greg Inglis out of club footy with injury, and South Sydney Rabbitohs coach Wayne Bennett to continue to play him in the centres this year, the Maroons skipper will slot straight back into the centres at Origin level, where he has been such a force.
Inglis has played both his games for Souths this year at right centre, but the Maroons will likely leave him on the left if he is fit and available for Origin I.
Will Chambers had a poor series by his standards last year, after Latrell Mitchell got the better of him, but he has the class to bounce back for the Maroons.
Michael Morgan has performed well at centre in the past for the Maroons, but the North Queensland Cowboys skipper is yet to hit his straps in club footy; his utility value and class is undeniable, which is why I would play him at No.14, where he has been utilised by the Maroons in seven of his nine Origin games.
The hooking position is one the selectors will want to get right and I reckon Ben Hunt is the best option if the Maroons want more creativity out of dummy half.
Andrew McCullough is tough and reliable, as is Roosters skipper Jake Friend, who is one of the best club performers yet to play Origin; but Hunt’s impact was notable in Game III last year and he is not lacking in the toughness stakes either.
The wingers pick themselves with Corey Oates and Dane Gagai the best options now Valentine Holmes will continue on his NFL path and not return to the NRL this year.
The forward positions are the most problematic for the Maroons because so many of them are well below their best at the start of the season.
Walters would have relished a situation where guys like Jaydn Su’A and David Fifita, both yet to play Origin, and incumbents such as Coen Hess and Jarrod Wallace, were demanding to be picked on form; but that is just not the case at the moment.
Josh Papalii was outstanding as a starting prop in Game III last year - in his best game in a Maroons jumper, so he should be one starter.
Titans lock Jai Arrow has already had a belter of a game against the Sharks this year and deserves to be retained; he has a massive engine and a great attitude to boot.
In the second-row the Maroons selectors have another tough decision to make.
Storm’s Felise Kaufusi should be the first back rower picked on the right edge.
With Test forward Matt Gillett back from injury with Brisbane, and despite also being a right edge specialist, I would slot him in to the back row; Gillett, who played his 18 Origin games consecutively before last year’s hiatus, is a genuine footballer and has always performed at Origin level for the Maroons.
It is tough for Gavin Cooper, who has been outstanding for the Maroons in his twilight years, but the Cowboys veteran is not setting the world on fire in clubland.
Cooper’s clubmate, Test lock Josh McGuire, is a big-minute performer who is made for Origin and he should retain his No.13 jersey.
Joining Morgan on the bench I have Matt Scott, Dylan Napa and Joe Ofahengaue.
Scott is not wreaking havoc for the Cowboys, but has led the forward pack in his 22 Origin games.
A mainstay of the side that swept all before them, Scott will also be of great benefit in a cultural sense; he is the kind of player capable of one last campaign, and of taking the younger forwards with him.
Napa has been playing in a struggling Canterbury Bulldogs side and has an ankle injury that will keep him out until Origin eve, but there were positive signs in his last three games. At his best, Napa is a menacing presence.
The final bench spot is a tough one, but I have gone with Broncos prop Ofahengaue as a fresh face and a player who suits the interchange bench.
Hess and Wallace had their chance last year and neither did enough to demand re-selection.
I don’t believe the side named here will necessarily strike fear into the hearts of NSW, simply because not enough of the players are in their best form.
That is what Walters and his fellow selectors will want to see in the coming month - players putting up their hands and making it impossible to leave them out.
My Queensland Maroons team:
1 Kalyn Ponga, 2 Corey Oates, 3 Greg Inglis, 4 Will Chambers, 5 Dane Gagai, 6 Cameron Munster, 7 Daly Cherry-Evans, 8 Jai Arrow, 9 Ben Hunt, 10 Josh Papalii, 11 Matt Gillett, 12 Felise Kaufusi, 13 Josh McGuire, 14 Michael Morgan, 15 Matt Scott, 16 Dylan Napa, 17 Joe Ofahengaue.