Wayne Bennett insists Brisbane hooker Andrew McCullough is ready to be the successor to Cameron Smith in the wake of the Queensland and Australian captain’s shock representative retirement.
With the Holden State of Origin series opener just three weeks away, Maroons selectors must pick a new hooker and McCullough, North Queensland’s Jake Granville and Sydney Roosters veteran Jake Friend lead the charge.
Bennett said McCullough, now in his 10th full season in the NRL, was set to take the next step and play in the Origin cauldron.
"He has played over 200 NRL games now and played in a grand final. Macca will never be more ready [for Origin] and he has an opportunity now,” Bennett told NRL.com
"He has got the number one ingredient where he is always competitive and always trying to do his best.
"He will do 40 or 50 tackles and doesn’t need to be replaced so he is in the Cameron Smith mould that way and his dummy-half work is pretty impeccable.
"He is not Cameron Smith. He is Andrew McCullough, but he is very good."
Bennett said McCullough was a good decision maker on the field and pointed to the first two tries that the Broncos scored in the loss to Manly on the weekend, one where he went himself and the other where he set up Sam Thaiday for a try with a pass Smith would have been proud of throwing himself.
It is in the decision-making area that former Maroons hooker Kerrod Walters said McCullough had made great strides.
"McCullough is a similar player to Smith. He kicks out of dummy half and defensively he is very good," Walters told NRL.com.
"Cameron Smith is without peer with regard to his football brain and game management skills, but McCullough is a seasoned professional now in that area and certainly won’t let Queensland down.
"We know Andrew is tough and that is one of his biggest strengths. He is not big but he gets through his work and doesn’t take a backward step against blokes that are 30 and 40 kilos heavier than him.
"He has a good football brain. I’m not sure which way the Queensland selectors are going to go but he'd be at the top of their minds."
Walters said the opportunity that had opened up for McCullough, Friend and Granville had been a long time coming with Smith playing all but one match in the Maroons' No.9 jersey since 2003.
"Those blokes have all been waiting in the wings thinking they wouldn't get an opportunity but here it is," Walters said.
"Andrew McCullough has come back unbelievably well from a few major injuries and Jake Granville and Jake Friend probably haven’t been playing as well as they can."
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga, who took Queensland to nine Origin series wins in his 10 years at the helm, was reluctant to select from the sideline who should be the new No.9 for the Maroons.
"That’s up to Kevvie – it’s his decision,” Meninga said, "But I’d imagine Andrew McCullough would come into his thinking, or [Jake] Granville."
Smith’s club coach Craig Bellamy also thought McCullough would be the logical choice for Queensland at rake. He thought a harder decision would be a new captain.
"The captain is the interesting one for me. Obviously, Darius [Boyd] is a good choice and so it GI [Greg Inglis]. There’s two really strong candidates right there," Bellamy said.