'The pipeline' to Maroons' success
Wayne Bennett likes to call it "the pipeline".
And it is that pipeline, the Maroons' Emerging Origin Program, which Bennett insists has Queensland well prepared to cope with the representative retirements this year of Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk.
The senior Emerging Origin Camp, overseen by Maroons coach Kevin Walters, will be held this weekend on the Gold Coast with 11 players to be inculcated in Queensland culture and expectations.
The emerging camps - which now include under 15s, 16s, 18s and 20s - were set up in 2001 by Bennett in partnership with the QRL and Queensland Academy of Sport in the wake of Queensland's disastrous 2000 series.
Since then more than 50 graduates have gone on to represent the Maroons - including Cameron Smith, Thurston and Greg Inglis - with Queensland winning 13 of the last 17 Origin series.
The emerging Origin program was designed to provide a production line of Queensland players to be ready for the rigours of State of Origin when called upon.
Bennett had noted how Australian Test cricket suffered in the wake of the retirements of Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rodney Marsh at the conclusion of the 1983-84 series against Pakistan, and was determined that wouldn't happen to the Maroons.
"Australian cricket was certainly one of the sports that I personally learned lessons from, that when all your stars go out together all of a sudden there is a big slump. The tide turns very quickly," Bennett told NRL.com.
"We have 15s, 16s, 18s and 20s in there now and they have been in the system a long time and have been identified. Clubs do a good job with them, but our camps add value to it.
"It is the pipeline. We are massaging the pipeline all the time so we have got guys ready."
The next generation of halves has been prepared in the emerging camps with Michael Morgan (2013-15), Anthony Milford (2014-17), Daly Cherry-Evans (2011-13), Cameron Munster (2016-17) and Ben Hunt (2015-17) all recent graduates.
This weekend Eels playmaker Corey Norman will enter his first camp and Titans rising star Ash Taylor will back up for his second after being part of the program last year.
Cowboys playmaker Morgan is favoured to secure one of the starting Queensland halves positions in 2018 after stepping up for Australia in Thurston's absence to play a key role in the World Cup triumph.
"I remember Morgan coming into those camps and how talented I knew he was, but no-one seemed to be able to find a position for him at the time," Bennett said.
"He was playing a bit of halfback and five-eighth, and Paul Green played him at fullback [in 2014] when he started to play regularly.
"The good thing about the camps is that it lets them know they are on the shortlist [for Queensland] and that there are people outside their clubs who realise they can play.
"They get a bit more confidence from being there and all of sudden they find themselves in Origin.
"Thurston will be a huge loss, and Cronk, but we have prepared well for it.
"Milford and Munster got opportunities last year and they had been in the system for a while, so it is working for us."
Bennett, who coached Queensland in 22 Origins and for five series wins, said current coach Kevin Walters and his predecessor Mal Meninga had done "a great job" bringing players in at the right time.
Meninga slotted Cooper Cronk into starting half when Darren Lockyer retired in 2011, and now Morgan has followed a similar path.
"Morgan has spent time on the bench, as Cooper Cronk did, and then all of a sudden the opportunity comes," Bennett said.
"The next challenge will be to find Morgan's replacement in five or six years' time, and start to wean him in. He might be just 15 now."
When Queensland legends Wally Lewis and Allan Langer retired from Origin football in 1991 and 2002 respectively the Maroons lost three consecutive series after each significant departure.
With Thurston and Cronk gone, in many respects the Maroons are now entering unchartered territory with the retirement of two great halves at once.
Bennett said the Maroons had planned for this moment, and had needed to with the Blues on the improve.
"They still have a wonderful player in Cameron Smith there, so they didn't all go at once," Bennett said.
"The series are that close at the moment, and it will be close again this year because I think NSW have picked their act up in a lot of areas, but my point is that because of the pipeline we are well prepared for the future."
Senior Queensland Emerging Origin squad 2018: Kyle Feldt, Ethan Lowe (NQ Cowboys), Felise Kaufusi, Christian Welch (Melbourne Storm), Kalyn Ponga, Tautau Moga (Newcastle Knights), Jai Arrow, Ashley Taylor, Brenko Lee (Gold Coast Titans), Lloyd Perrett (Manly Sea Eagles), Corey Norman (Parramatta Eels).