Gagai relaxed with role ahead of Origin debut

He admits they'll be some pre-match nerves but Dane Gagai's involvement within the Maroons set-up this year has the Newcastle Knights centre feeling confident ahead of his Holden State of Origin debut next Wednesday night.

Queensland coach Mal Meninga made no hesitation in naming Gagai as an indirect replacement for injured fullback Billy Slater after selecting him on the wing for the July 8 decider.

Named as 18th man for Game One and Two, the 24-year-old has trained in a number of positions at Camp Maroon during this year's campaign, doing everything apart from actually getting to play. 

 

Initially on standby to cover for Slater's dodgy shoulder prior to Game One, it came as no surprise when Gagai's name was read out by QRL Chairman Peter Betros on Monday.

Only three days earlier the Mackay-born speedster sealed his Origin III selection by amassing 203 metres, a try and three line breaks against former club Brisbane at the same venue where he'll make his Maroons debut.

Gagai says his involvement with the Maroons throughout the 2015 Origin period has him feeling relaxed ahead of the biggest match of his career.

"I'm feeling pretty good at this moment but I'm sure the nerves will start kicking in once we start getting closer to game day," Gagai said.

"I was spoken about earlier this series prior to Game One with Billy being on the edge so when he announced he was getting the [shoulder] operation I obviously I had an idea [about selection].

"I've been on a couple of QAS (Queensland Academy of Sport Emerging Origin) camps and Mal invited me in for the first two Origin games and I got to train with the boys – I know all the plays so in that sense I'm comfortable.

"To be officially a part of the Queensland squad is very exciting."

It's hard to believe barely 18 months have passed since Gagai skipped a training session at an Emerging Origin camp in Brisbane last January.

The Wests Panthers Bardon junior's relationship with Meninga was strained from the moment he told Gagai he wouldn't be considered for Origin selection in 2014 as punishment for his breach of discipline. 

Gagai seems to have spurred himself on from those days to become arguably Newcastle's best player this season.

In a testament to his increased maturity, Gagai is now part of the Knights' leadership group and also rejected Wayne Bennett's advances to return to the Broncos by opting to remain in Newcastle until the end of 2017.

"I've moved past all that when I moved down to Newcastle, I don't hold any grudges," he said.

"I was close to moving back to Brisbane earlier this year but a few things made me stay in Newcastle.

"I'm just excited to be a part of such a great team and hopefully we can win the series.

"To be able to play in an [Origin] decider for my home state at Suncorp Stadium is going to be a great experience."

Gagai will form a potentially potent duo with Justin Hodges on Queensland's right flank, with the Maroons veteran also finding form after producing three try assists against Newcastle last weekend.

Six of Gagai's 80 NRL games have been played on the wing for an encouraging return of four tries, although they were all during his rookie year with the Broncos in 2011.

Knowing Gagai would be playing alongside someone with the experience of Hodges, who will play his 24th and final Origin next week, is reassuring according to Maroons five-eighth Johnathan Thurston.

"He's a confident kid and he's playing outside 'Hodgo' – you could put anyone outside Hodgo and they'd feel safe," Thurston said.

"He'll be able to do a good job there for us and we'll trust that he will."