The best buzzword to describe the focus of Queensland selectors and head coach Kevin Walters freshly named game one squad is probably youth.
The Maroons have begun a distinct changing of the guard following the representative retirements of Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk. With the three playmaking champions now consigned to the Origin history books, Walters and his team have placed their faith in a crop of talented youngsters, hoping they’ll mix perfectly with the existing squad.
Alongside the departed stars will now sit Darius Boyd and Matt Scott, both veterans have been axed in a bid to continue the regeneration of a historically successful squad.
Boyd (28 games) and Scott (22 games) have a combined record of 50 Origin caps to their name but have missed the cut while players such as Andrew McCullough, Felise Kaufusi and Jai Arrow all look sent to make their maiden bow in the Origin arena next week.
Billy Slater and Greg Inglis represent the two most experienced players in the squad. South Sydney Rabbitohs star Inglis appears the man set to captain the Maroons in the wake of Cameron Smith’s shock retirement.
Slater is a certain pick at fullback, with Inglis set to slot into a centre position. Will Chambers will be the other centre while Valentine Holmes and Dane Gagai will operate from the wings. It is expected Holmes will also take over the goal-kicking duties.
Cameron Munster and Ben Hunt appear set to combine in the halves, though there was a minor injury concern on Ben Hunt after he left the field during St George Illawarra’s 28-2 loss to the Penrith Panthers on Saturday night.
Debutant Andrew McCullough will be the dummy-half, filling the role previously held for over a decade by Cameron Smith while Dylan Napa and Jarrod Wallace are expected to be the starting front rowers. Ceon Hess, Josh Papalii and another debutant, Gold Coast Titan’s star Jai Arrow will provide the added beef on a bench which will also include utility playmaker Michael Morgan.
Gavin Cooper and Felisa Kaufusi fill out the two second-row spots while Josh McGuire will likely lock the scrum.
All in all, the Maroons have opted for a side which is fairly consistent with expectations. The departure of a number of high-profile, key players was always going to make for a unique looking squad, but the new faces have strong backgrounds in the Queensland development system and are, by and large, in good form at club level.
The axing of Boyd and Scott appears to be a nod to both their indifferent form over the course of the 2018 campaign and a need to commit fully to a revitalisation of a squad which has been held together far longer than is normally the case by a sustained period of success.
Gavin Cooper is perhaps a touch lucky to have been given another start, but he has performed well in the past at Origin level and does hold the trust of the selection panel and the coaching staff which definitely worked in his favour.
There are big question marks over the Maroons entering game one with Valentine Holmes as their chief goal-kicker, but there are few big concerns around the squad overall.
Queensland enter game one with plenty of ‘big game players’ and while they certainly don’t look as imposing a side as they have in recent years, there’s every reason to expect a strong showing as the new generation look to maintain the success of the predecessors.
Not Ponga’s time
Of those not in the squad, perhaps the most interesting name is Kalyn Ponga. Since his move to the Newcastle Knights, Ponga has been immensely impressive and had seemingly worked his way into contention for a bench utility role.
Walters and the selection panel have, instead, opted for Michael Morgan who does have a proven track record at Origin level, however.
Ponga is undoubtedly a freakish talent, but I suspect his omission is more around the need to pick a 17-man squad that is a good football fit rather than trying to jam in highly talented young playmakers who may or may not be ready for the big time.
Ponga’s chance in Maroon will come, sooner rather than later and he’ll likely prove a genuine superstar at the very highest levels, but I can fully understand why dynamics and the need to pick Michael Morgan and providing the right support to a new halves pairing in Munster and Hunt is paramount over the need to wedge Ponga in purely on his potential ability to break a game open.
That said, as a Blues fan, I’m not unhappy that Ponga will be sitting down watching this one.
The squad: Billy Slater, Valentine Holmes, Greg Inglis, Will Chambers, Dane Gagai, Cameron Munster, Ben Hunt, Dylan Napa, Andrew McCullough, Jarrod Wallace, Gavin Cooper, Felise Kaufusi, Josh McGuire, Michael Morgan, Coen Hess, Josh Papalii, Jai Arrow.
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