After 42 appearances in the Maroon of Queensland and 56 caps in the Green and Gold, Cameron Smith has officially called time on his representative career. Citing an excessive workload and difficulty backing up in clubland, the greatest hooker of all time has finished with a record eleven Origin series and two World Cups to his name.
While the Queensland jumper looks to be a two-horse race, the scramble to secure the vacant Kangaroos jersey is wide open. Australian coach Mal Meninga has already stated that the test spot will go to whoever impresses during origin. That narrows it down to a possible five players. We take a look at the contenders and who is most likely to snare the number nine jersey for the October 13th test against the Kiwis.
1 Jake Friend (Roosters)
Friend has long been tipped as Cameron Smith's natural successor. Built in the same mould, Friend is a defensive workhorse and routinely gets through 40+ tackles a game. Friend is no stranger to the Australian side either having been part of the Kangaroos squad during the 2016 four nations. He played one game that series but hasn't featured since.
The one question mark over Friend is his current club form. Playing behind a tame Roosters pack, there's no avoiding the fact that Friend has struggled. Being outplayed by young gun Victor Radley, plenty are calling on Roosters' coach Trent Robinson to reduce Friend's minutes in a bid to inject more attacking flair and pace.
Verdict: A dependable choice but unlikely to provide the spark that Australia rely on. Had the selectors needed a replacement two seasons ago Friend would have been in the box seat but on today's form we can't see him being there come October.
2 Andrew McCullough (Broncos)
If Friend doesn't get the Queensland jersey then it's McCullough who looms as the beneficiary. Another tackling machine, McCullough is no stranger to hard work. In true testament to the toughness of this bloke, he suffered major ligament damage to his elbow against the Storm in Round 7. Despite an initial prognosis of 4-6 weeks on the sideline; he was back in just a fortnight. It's that kind of grit that the Australian side has been built on and they could do worse than go with McCullough.
Verdict: Not only is he tough, but McCullough has the benefit of playing club football with a handful of the current Australian side. Depending on selections, McCullough could play alongside up to four of his Broncos teammates in a Green and Gold jumper. Looks to be the frontrunner for Queensland and that could mean he's right in the mix for the Kangaroos.
3 Cameron McInnes (Dragons)
The first player in our list from the table-topping Dragons, Cameron McInnes is in the form of his life! After moving from South Sydney in 2016, McInnes has matured as a footballer and looms as first in line for the NSW Origin jersey. If he can achieve a starting role in Brad Fittler's side, he takes the first step towards also claiming an end-of-year test debut.
McInnes certainly has the pedigree to play for Australia having captained the Junior Kangaroos in 2014. That side included Cameron Munster, Jack Bird, and Valentine Holmes so those in the system have a high opinion of the 24-year-old.
Verdict: With only 72 appearances to his name, experience could count against McInnes but on form alone, it's hard to go past the Dragons number nine. Should he nab the Blues jersey for the June 6th opener, McInnes will be hot favourite to snare the Kangaroos jumper too.
4 Damien Cook (Rabbitohs)
The only remaining hooker battling McInnes for the Blues jersey is the man that replaced him at Redfern. Since claiming the Rabbitohs number nine jersey as his own, Damien Cook has exploded into form. His speed and creativity out of dummy half have contributed to much of South Sydney's early season success and that hasn't gone unnoticed by many league pundits.
Verdict: Cook's chances rest on who gets the Blues number nine jersey. If Fittler picks Cook to play a utility role off the bench, the Rabbitohs number nine can all but wave goodbye to an Australian test debut. Cook's attacking flair also comes with error-prone football - something which Mal Meninga may be hesitant to introduce to the Australian camp. Cameron Smith is a hard act to follow and the high-risk style of play that Cook offers may be a step too far for the Kangaroos.
5 Ben Hunt (Dragons)
This one's a left-field choice and a move that would require significant tweaking of the Australian lineup, but there's no arguing that Hunt is a proven performer at dummy half.
Towards the back end of 2017, Hunt was already on his way to the Dragons and Wayne Bennett had a surplus of quality halves at the Broncos (Oh, how Bennett must long for those days!). Following an injury to Andrew McCullough, Bennett shifted Hunt to the vacant hooking role, and it proved a masterstroke. Hunt actually improved the Broncos' attack and his vision playing closer to the ruck positioned him as the form hooker of the competition - a pretty impressive transition for what is normally a specialist role.
Given how well he is playing for the ladder-leading Dragons, it would be a brave call for Meninga to shuffle Hunt to hooker but hey, stranger things have happened.
Verdict: Unlikely we'll see Hunt at number nine given his current form. The crafty number seven is playing so well he is a certainty to snare the halfback role left vacant by Cooper Cronk. Expect to see him in the test side, just not at dummy half.
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