Maroons coach Billy Slater has all but confirmed that Kalyn Ponga will wear the No.1 jersey for Origin I, while revealing Cowboys rookies Jeremiah Nanai and Heilum Luki were also under consideration.
Slater joined fellow Maroons coach Tahnee Norris for a training session with the Queensland’s women’s squad and spoke openly afterwards about the merits of players in contention for the opening Origin match on June 8 at Accor Stadium.
Among the key selection points discussed by Slater, who will name a 24-man squad on May 30, were:
- Newcastle’s seven-match losing streak would not impact Ponga’s selection chances;
- The Cowboys are serious premiership contenders, with rookies and senior players in form, and;
- Harry Grant, Reed Mahoney and Ben Hunt are in a three-way battle for the hooking role, although the latter could also wear the No.14 jersey.
“We are still 16 days and three rounds of footy away from knowing exactly who is available and although it is my first series, I am smart enough to know that some decisions will be taken out of my hands, so I am not too fixed on what we are doing,” Slater said.
Big men aren't supposed to move like that
“What is really pleasing me is that we have got a group of Queenslanders playing well - not just 17 - and it is important to have a bit of depth in some positions. I really feel that we have done that this year.
“Some younger guys have been playing some great football and are telling me with their actions that they want to play State of Origin for Queensland, and some older players have really lit up the NRL in the opening eight rounds also.”
Among the rookies to catch Slater’s eye are Nanai and Luki – the young second-rowers who have helped North Queensland climb to third place on the Telstra Premiership ladder after finishing last season only ahead of the Bulldogs.
Nanai is just 19 and will make his 14th NRL appearance against Wests Tigers in the final match of Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday night, while 21-year-old Luki has played 20 NRL matches.
Slater also singled out Tom Dearden, the 21-year-old five-eighth who moved to North Queensland from Brisbane midway through last season, forward Rueben Cotter and Valentine Holmes, who has successfully transitioned from fullback to centre this season.
Luki scores a barn-storming try
“I believe the Cowboys are a serious team,” Slater said. “They are sitting in third place at the moment and they certainly deserve to be there. They are playing great with the football.
"Tommy Dearden is one young guy who is really making some noise and playing tough, running the football and defending well. The whole system at the Cowboys at the moment is everyone is doing their job and playing the team way.
“The two backrowers stand out, Luki and Nanai, Rueben Cotter is having a fantastic season and I think Kyle Feldt and Valentine Holmes are bouncing off the energy of the youth of the Cowboys so it is a good vibe up there.”
Warriors rookie Reece Walsh was initially named at fullback for Game I last season but was ruled out due to a hamstring injury and replaced by Holmes for the first two Origins, before Ponga returned to help Queensland avoid a 3-0 series loss.
If Ponga is fit, he appears certain to retain the jersey, despite the form of the Knights.
"One thing that hasn’t been questioned is Kalyn’s effort and his willingness to put himself on the line and be involved in the game," Slater said.
"Sure his team is not going well at the moment, he has had a whole heap of changes in his key positions so being the captain that he is he is stepping up and trying to play other people’s roles.
"It doesn’t concern me that the team isn’t going overly well. I watch Kalyn as an individual and I see a fair desire to be involved in the game and a want to compete. I know what Kalyn is capable of."
Asked about the hooking role, Slater said Grant was having a good season with the Storm but Mahoney had also been impressive for the Eels, while Hunt has proven himself at Origin level, despite playing halfback for the Dragons.
“Harry is a real competitor but there are a number of players playing well in that position," Slater said.
"Ben Hunt has done a fantastic job in the No.9 jersey for Queensland, he has been the Ron McAuliffe Medallist two of the last three years, and another guys is Reed Mahoney at Parramatta.
"He is playing some consistent football and we saw how valuable he is to Parramatta last year when he went down with that shoulder injury and it stifled their season really, so we are in a really good position with that No.9 jersey."
Slater helped train the Queensland women's squad and Norris said the players had taken a lot out of the session with the former star fullback and another on Wednesday with his former Storm, Maroons and Kangaroos team-mate Cooper Cronk.
“The girls thought it was a fantastic session. To have Cooper here on Wednesday night and Billy today, it was extremely beneficial for our lead up to the game," Norris said.