NOT even eight months have passed since Paul Gallen retired from the NSW State of Origin forward pack.
But already, Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan believes he's uncovered the former Blues captain's front-row replacement.
In a glowing assessment ahead of Saturday night's clash with Parramatta at ANZ Stadium, Flanagan has declared in-form Sharks prop Matt Prior capable of a NSW Origin debut for the series opener on May 31.
And not only has Gallen championed the shock call, statistics supplied by Fox Sports Stats illustrate how for the past 12 months the South Coast-born surfer has overshadowed - without serious recognition - the best forwards at NSW coach Laurie Daley's disposal.
Delighted that Prior decided to resist Newcastle's significant 2018 financial lure to instead re-sign on Friday for three more years at the Sharks, Flanagan said the 29-year-old had the game to join fellow teammate and prop Andrew Fifita in the NSW pack this year.
"I think Matt Prior can play Origin this year, he's not out of that league," Flanagan said.
"It's a step that Matty wants to take and I think his form over the last six to eight months has been great, he was probably the form front-rower at the end of last year.
"If he's not an Origin player, he's very close.
"Andrew (Fifita) is warming into the season nicely as well and given he was part of Laurie's win in game three last year, of course he'll be right in the mix.
"The two boys (Prior and Fifita) have so much respect for each other, so it would please me nothing more than to see those two boys continue to play strong football and reap the rewards."
Having overhauled his diet and cut all alcohol last year, Prior has enjoyed a stellar 12 months, highlighted no more than his man-of-the-match performance against Canberra during last year's semi-finals.
His accumulative figures make for fascinating reading.
Since the beginning of last season, Prior's average run of 9.4 metres is superior to the average metres gained of Gallen, Fifita, Trent Merrin and Test prop Jake Trbjoevic.
Prior's 27 tackle busts is also greater than what David Klemmer, Trbojevic, Merrin and James Tamou have obtained.
Prior, a former St George Illawarra centre, has also scored more tries (five) than Aaron Woods, Klemmer, Gallen, Fifita and Trbjoevic.
Gallen said it was pleasing that people were beginning to appreciate what Prior means to a football side.
"I said after our win over Canberra in round two, which was against a pack loaded with representative forwards, that Matty not only handled them, he led us," Gallen said.
"I thought he was seriously unlucky to miss last year's Four Nations tour after we won the premiership.
"If he continues to play good football, he's one player I know would love to pull on the Blues jersey."
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