Kevin Walters approached today’s Origin team announcement with a hint of trepidation. Perhaps this was him coming to the sudden realisation that, for the first time in a long time, he would be without two of the finest players ever to pull on a Maroons jumper – Jonathan Thurston and Greg Inglis. But Walters is rarely phased by these kinds of adversities. He is a jovial character by nature; strong willed and a person everyone seems to get along with. The only possible explanation for his noticeable change in disposition was the fact that he, and the other Maroon’s selectors, had left Slater out of their side. A decision that would have no doubt eaten him up inside.
Slater has battled injury after debilitating injury for the past two seasons. His return earlier this year was one of the most heart-warming stories of the opening rounds. But his omission from the opening game of the Origin series paints a troubling picture for the star halfbacks’ future. With Boyd in the form of his life, reveling under the reign of Wayne Bennett, it’s hard to see him breaking back into the side unless, after game two, Queensland are two-nil down and want to avoid the humiliation of a whitewash by bringing back experienced heads with club form under their belts.
At some stage, Queensland needed to part with their champion players. For Slater, 2017 appears to be that time. It’s disappointing because had he not missed the amount of football he has over the last few years, he would have played an influential role in Queensland’s series win last year. Good form that would have seen him picked without a second thought by the selectors until he called time on his own Origin career. And of all the Queensland greats that have passed through, few deserve to end on their own terms more than Billy The Kid. There is still time though, and it is far too early to be writing off a player of his caliber. But if Boyd fires at the back, and the Oates/Gagai wing combination lives up to its potential, than it is almost impossible to fit Slater back into the side.
Slater’s omission was far from the only tough decision Walters had to make on a seismic day for Queensland rugby league. Rather unexpectedly, Milford has been named in the number six jumper, while Thurston, who remains under an injury cloud that looks likely to keep him off the paddock for a number of weeks yet, was named as the 18th man.
Now I’ve heard across the last few hours that the Queensland selectors had to give Milford a starting spot for fear of missing out on his services altogether due to the comments made by Bennet around not releasing him had he been named on the bench. At first, I found this laughable, my thoughts were: this is Origin, if a player is selected, they will play. No one wields that much power over the selectors. But then, like many others, I thought about who we were dealing with. This is Bennett, a man who gets what he wants and never gives in. At press conferences he gets away with taunting journalists because he is Wayne Bennett. He can do what he wants with the England side, even if this is met with intense media scrutiny, because he is Wayne Bennett. And if he wants to sit a player out of Origin because he feels he is getting the rough end of the stick, than chances are he will.
There are few coaches in the NRL who wield this amount of power over whole organisations. But that is the aura Bennett possesses and the confidence he brings to the table. So yes, I agree to an extent with those who believe that Milford has been named in the starting side because, had he been where Thurston is now, Bennett may not have released him. This poses a whole host of ethical questions, such as: “how could a coach stop one of his best players from reaching the pinnacle of a rugby league player’s career?”. But that just about answers the very question it is posing. Milford is the Broncos best player and to loose him over the Origin period is to, potentially, drop a few games. Whether this is right or wrong doesn’t worry Bennett. Rugby league is business. Sponsors, investors and TV broadcasters, no to mention fans, are expecting you to perform and win games. And the only way this is possible is by putting your very best team on the paddock. So Bennett’s logic makes sense, even if it sounds a little convoluted and self concerned in its delivery.
The naming of Gagai, while surprising in a sense, was completely understandable on the selectors part. While he has played the odd pearler for Newcastle, he hasn’t been anywhere near his best for the majority of the season thus far. But because the Queensland selectors often adopt a pick and stick loyalty policy, and Gagai has been in and around the Queensland setup during the Maroons’ most successful year’s, you can understand why they have opted in his favour.
Personally, I think Gagai is part of an exclusive group of players that rise for the big occasion. We’ve seen in the past that when you stick him in an Origin jumper, he plays like a man possessed. Most Queensland fans, and those from NSW for that matter, will remember the drubbing the Maroons handed the Blues in Game three of 2015. It was the decider and, if memory serves me correctly, the Blues had outplayed Queensland at ANZ Stadium – where they lost by a field goal – and in the game they took to the MCG. You’d expect then that NSW would come out all guns blazing and blow Queensland off the park in the third and final game, but, as it happened, Queensland were the one’s inflicting the damage. 52 – 6 was the scoreline in the end and Gagai, who opened the scoring for Queensland in the fifteenth minute with a try, played the best representative game of his career. Forget the All Star game’s he’s played in and the Origins up to that point, he was fantastic on the biggest stage of them all. A sign that, when the mood strikes, he is unstoppable and as good as any of the wingers and centers currently running around in the NRL.
The final bombshell, if you can call it that, was the unveiling of Napa at prop. Again, this was fairly predictable given the injury to Matt Scott and the form Napa has shown at club level not just this year, but across the last few seasons. It will, however, be interesting to see how Napa copes with the physicality of an Origin contest. He bullies and bruises opposition players at club level; running over them like a freight train careering down the side of a mountain. But Origin is a huge step up in class and Matt Scott has been extremely dependable, if somewhat underutalised, in the number eight jumper previously, so Napa has big shoes to fill. The interesting thing to track here is how many minutes the Roosters front rower gets, and how Kevvy uses him. In the past, Scott was used mainly as an impact player, given twenty to twenty-five minutes at the start of the game and twenty to finish off when the ruck speed has slowed and the opposition forwards are starting to tire. It looks as if Napa will adopt the same role.
Other than that, Queensland were, more or less, named just as we all expected:
- Morgan retains his place on the bench following strong club form;
- the starting second-rowers have been reshuffled with the retirement of Corey Parker;
- Nate Myles, despite sustaining an injury against the Titans in round 11, retains the number ten jumper;
- Will Chambers slots into the centres in the absence of Greg Inglis;
- and Boyd, Cronk and Smith make up the remainder of the spine.
While NSW aren’t down on troops, they too have problems they need to rectify and questions that won’t be answered until kick off in Origin one, such as the Peats/ Farrah fiasco; what to do with Mitchell Pearce; how Tedesco will perform after an indifferent few rounds for the struggling Tigers; and whether they’ve made the right move in blooding two new players.
All signs that we’re in for one of the most closely fought Origin series in some time.