If I was Billy Slater
Picking my Queensland team for Origin I
We’re well and truly into full blown State of Origin season now, and with Game 1 now two weeks away (May 31st at Adelaide Oval), it’s time to get into the weeds and talk about teams.
I’m going to be picking my Queensland side, and explaining my reasoning for each selection as well as running through some other options. All in all this is a bit of fun, obviously this team isn’t going to appeal to everyone, and that’s the beauty of sport.
Full disclosure, this is MY team. I’m not trying to get into the mind of Billy to predict what he’ll do.
For any New South Welshmen reading this, I released my Blues team yesterday, which you can see here.
Ok let’s go.
*Note: I’ll name the team and a “first drop” for each position.
Straight off the bat, we have the position that I think causes the most debate in the Queensland ranks, and that’s what to do at the back. In essence, it comes down to an argument of incumbency and loyalty vs. irresistible form.
Kalyn Ponga is the current Queensland custodian, and regardless of his club form in Newcastle, always seems to save his very best for the Origin arena, as evidenced by his game breaking performances in last year’s series.
On the other side, there’s Brisbane superstar Reece Walsh, the prodigal son of sorts, returning home from his internship with the New Zealand Warriors. You may remember Walsh was selected to play fullback for Queensland in Origin II in 2021 after a handful of first grade games for the Warriors, becoming the youngest debutant since Ben Ikin, before an injury ultimately ruled him out.
Both these players deserve to be in the squad, and both of them would make perfect utilities had Queensland not been locked into their successful two hooker rotation of Ben Hunt and Harry Grant. As such, there’s only room for one of them in the squad.
Much like his NSW counterpart Tom Trbojevic, I’ve been waiting to see Kalyn Ponga bounce back from his myriad of injuries and really stretch out to show his quality. His performance over the weekend for Newcastle, back to his puppeteering best in a quality victory for the men from the Hunter, ultimately gives him the narrowest of edges to me.
In reality, it’s a coin flip.
QUEENSLAND FULLBACK: Kalyn Ponga
FIRST DROP: Reece Walsh
Much like NSW, to me, one of these wing spots is well and truly sewn up. Selwyn Cobbo, still very much in the infancy of his NRL career, can be a rocks and diamonds prospect at times, balancing basic errors with feats of rare athleticism and skill that leave jaws firmly on the floor.
Having a strong season in the grunt work and finishing off sweeping Broncos backline moves, Cobbo is in no doubt.
The other wing spot is a little more open.
Corey Oates, the other Queensland incumbent from Origin III last season, is currently out with a knee injury and is unlikely to feature in Origin I (he may have already been ruled out and I missed it, I’m not sure). If Oates was fit, he’d almost be the walk up start on the other wing given his history in Origin, but he isn’t.
Xavier Coates is clearly a very talented young winger, and I do think people forget just how young he still is. That being said, his form for Melbourne this season has been frustrating at best, with critical errors and a disappointing lack of yardage production given his physical talents.
Then there’s Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, who has been in electric form for the surprise Dolphins so far this season. One of the fastest men in the league and with enough utility value to roam around the field, I think the Hammer deserves a spot in the squad somewhere.
The last option is Murray Taulagi, who debuted in last year’s series. It’s hard for wingers to stand out in disappointing teams, and the Cowboys have had a pretty miserable season so far, although they have looked better in recent weeks, but I still think Taulagi has held up his end of the bargain with his form.
QUEENSLAND WINGERS: Selwyn Cobbo, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow
FIRST DROP: Murray Taulagi, Xavier Coates
Valentine Holmes is a rusted on member of this Queensland side and that isn’t changing. Always imperious in Origin and valuable with his goal kicking to boot, this is one of the selections that doesn’t really need much validation.
Regarding the other centre, there’s been some debate about Dane Gagai’s spot in the side, with reports he may be left out of the Game 1 squad for Tabuai-Fidow to come into the centres.
I’m not sure where this rhetoric about Gagai being out of form has come from, but he puts together strong performances every time I’ve watched Newcastle this season and he also comes with the reputation of growing a third leg whenever he pulls on that Maroons jumper.
Gagai is running for over 160 metres a game this season, a very impressive mark for a centre, while dishing 7 try assists and breaking 57 tackles in 9 games. If that’s out of form then I’m the US President.
QUEENSLAND CENTRES: Dane Gagai, Valentine Holmes
FIRST DROP: Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow
Cameron Munster, next.
QUEENSLAND FIVE EIGHTH: Cameron Munster
FIRST DROP: Um, Kalyn Ponga I guess? If you wanted Walsh at the back anyway.
Again, this position is under lock and key guarded by the Manly skipper, Daly Cherry-Evans.
Much like his NSW counterpart Nathan Cleary, DCE has never truly entrenched himself as a bonafide consistent Origin performer, showing flashes in amongst periods of anonymity and inconsistency.
Still, Queensland have made it work in recent years with Ben Hunt as a hooker, allowing Cherry-Evans to keep his spot in the side without a true challenger.
Funnily enough, I’m racking my brains to come up with a first drop and all the Queensland halves that I’d even consider for Origin right now play five eighth at club level. Tom Dearden filled in admirably last season for the missing Munster in Origin III, but as a six next to DCE. Ezra Mam again, is in awesome form for Brisbane, but is primarily a five eighth.
Of course, Ben Hunt is the obvious halfback replacement but he’s almost exclusively a hooker now at both State of Origin and international level I don’t even really consider him.
Sam Walker anyone?
QUEENSLAND HALFBACK: Daly Cherry-Evans
FIRST DROP: Ben Hunt
Now with the forwards coming up, I’m going to note now. My bench has three forwards on it, so I’m not going to bother with first drops as it’ll just be a spoiler for the bench.
Queensland’s middle forward depth is simply frightening at the moment, and there’s going to be a bevy of quality forwards that miss out selection both in my side and in the actual squad, simply due to the numbers game.
I do think Gold Coast captain Tino Fa’asuamaleaui is as much of a guarantee as you can get in this pool of Queensland forwards. Developing into a true star of the game, Tino regularly goes 60+ minutes for the Titans, running for huge metres, and provides a nuanced hybrid style to his play, allowing him to shift between hard running front rower and ball playing lock forward when need dictates.
His big minute value and versatility in role make him an auto selection for me.
Now the other forward spot has some really tough calls.
Josh Papalii is a quality footballer, but after a delayed start to his season with injury, he’s been somewhat up and down in a Raiders side finding consistency. I don’t think it’s unfair to speculate that Joseph Tapine has overtaken Papalii as the leader of the Raiders forward pack, and Papalii’s production, while solid on paper, doesn’t guarantee him a start anymore in my opinion.
Then there’s a forgotten man in Melbourne’s Christian Welch. I’ve seen a lot of predicted Maroons sides and not many, if any (shout out Canterbury) have the Melbourne man in them. Welch missed the entirety of last series with a ruptured Achilles tendon, but has slotted back into first grade nicely this season, running for just under 130 metres a game.
Or what about Roosters enforcer Lindsay Collins, who plays incredibly fast paced and hard every time he pulls on a representative jersey, sometimes to his own detriment. Collins numbers don’t jump off the page, especially considering he often plays big minutes, but to be fair the Roosters forward pack has been one of the more underwhelming units in all of footy, not winning many advantage lines, of which Collins has been a victim.
Another player maybe harshed by an unproductive side is North Queensland’s Reuben Cotter. Part of a red hot pack last season, the Cowboys have come crashing down to earth so far in 2023, and the form that earned Cotter his Maroons and Kangaroos debut has somewhat waned. Again, much like Collins, I don’t think Cotter himself has done his case any harm, still playing big minutes and running with as much reckless abandon as always.
Finally, to cover all bases, I’m going to include someone who could be classed as a bolter, if only because the average fan probably won’t be totally across how good his season has been, and that’s Corey Horsburgh. I’m including him here just to get a scope across all the front rowers, as I don’t think he’s anywhere near a start for Queensland, but is a red hot candidate for that bench madman (much like how I picked Spencer Leniu for NSW). If Tapine is the leader of the Raiders pack, Horsburgh is the heart and crazy, crazy soul. He’s made for 10 insane Origin minutes.
QUEENSLAND FRONT ROWERS: Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Christian Welch
I typed about three different names next to Tino before I settled on Christian Welch. To be honest I have no good reason other than I do think he’s been a bit out of sight out of mind with his injury last year. In the end it came down to him or Cotter.
In terms of the actual side, I do wonder if Papalii is on the way out of Slater’s plans, given his minimal usage during last year’s series. Again though, this is what I would do, not a prediction of Billy’s mind.
In the New South Wales edition I separated these two roles because I only carried one hooker. For Queensland though, we all know what’s going to happen so it’s pointless to try and hide it.
Harry Grant is the best hooker currently in the NRL.
Yet, Queensland have proven this Ben Hunt-Harry Grant tandem is effective, with Grant’s impact scheming and dissecting tired forwards with a surgical precision a huge advantage in the middle of the park for Queensland.
Ben Hunt is a more than adequate hooker at rep level, providing good service and getting through his tackles, but most importantly, providing genuine utility value with his kicking game and ability to then shift into the halves or just as a general roamer if necessary once Grant comes on.
Not much else to say here, this combo just works together.
QUEENSLAND HOOKER: Ben Hunt
QUEENSLAND BENCH UTILITY: Harry Grant
Felise Kaufusi isn’t exactly a ‘sexy’ pick anymore, but my goodness he’s ageless in the Origin arena, and his move to the Dolphins over the offseason, which many viewed as a precursor to the retirement village, has actually breathed new life into the veteran.
Kurt Capewell and Jeremiah Nanai are the incumbent back rowers from Origin III in 2022 (Kaufusi missed the decider to be with his ill father over in America), but neither sniff my squad this year on form. Nanai is suspended anyway, but he’s not lit the world on fire for North Queensland, while Kurt Capewell hasn’t exactly been in great form for Brisbane either.
Let’s talk about David Fifita.
One weird criticism of Fifita was how his workrate wasn’t on par with his talent as a footballer. I must have missed the memo where gamebreaking edge forwards needed to be ground into paste like a common mule and run into the ground for grunt work out of yardage, but I always thought the workrate criticisms of Fifita missed the mark.
This season? How about 173 metres a game while still being the attacking weapon we know with 3 tries, 5 try assists, 4 line breaks and 5 line break assists. Turns out, he’s combined the workrate of a middle with the elite skills and raw talent and power he was blessed with, and no one gives a shit. Fifita is in some ridiculous form right now, playing 80 minutes in every game except one.
The other option I’m looking at is Jai Arrow, who isn’t the gamebreaker Fifita is but provides tremendous value and an ability to cover both edge and middle, and given the dearth of other quality edge forwards right now in Queensland, I’m viewing Arrow’s best spot in this squad as an edge forward.
QUEENSLAND SECOND ROWERS: Felise Kaufusi, Jai Arrow
Spoiler, Fifita is on my bench, and I honestly don’t distrust him to play 80 in a game like this, I just think it’s probably in his best interests if he’s coming off the bench around 25-30 mins in and playing the rest of the game out, while Arrow can then join the middle rotation.
Again, regarding the actual side, I would not be surprised if Billy sticks with Kurt Capewell as a ‘safer’ option. I just can’t do it.
I’m going out on a limb and say the reigning Wally Lewis medallist and current starting lock forward of the second placed NRL side is probably going to be a fairly easy choice here.
Outside of Carrigan though, I do want to quickly highlight how good Tom Gilbert has been for the Dolphins this season, and he’s absolutely in the mix for a bench spot for Queensland given his tireless form for the expansion franchise.
Since signing from the Cowboys during last season, Gilbert was often thought of as one of the Dolphins premier recruits, although that was also in part due to a general lack of excitement over their entire recruiting class.
Gilbert is averaging 125 metres per game and getting through nearly 40 tackles per contest, his workrate in the middle for the Dolphins has been first class and would be a worthy addition to Queensland’s middle forward rotation.
QUEENSLAND LOCK FORWARD: Patrick Carrigan
As mentioned above, Harry Grant takes one of the bench spots as part of the vaunted twin hooking rotation, leaving three spots left.
I also spoiled above that David Fifita is getting a spot on my bench, I’ve been in love with his form this year, and even though I still think less is more for a player like him to maintain his peak effectiveness, the fact he’s putting up the numbers he is only speaks to his rare quality as a player.
That leaves two spots available and about six players in contention, including one I neglected to mention above in the prop section in Brisbane’s Tom Flegler. I think he’s had a perfectly fine season, and has warmed into it as the year has gone on, but I don’t think he’s particularly banged the door down to be included. Then again, if you want 20-25 minutes of turbulence then he’s your man.
QUEENSLAND BENCH FORWARDS: David Fifita, Reuben Cotter, Corey Horsburgh
I’m doing it, I’m picking Big Red, he gets to face off against Canberra teammate Hudson Young and fellow psycho Spencer Leniu for bench supremacy in the Origin game in my mind.
Horsburgh has been dynamic this season, and sometimes you just need a forward on the bench who’s going to crack a few skulls and step on some hands, and Horsburgh fits the bill. His last four weeks have been immense, running for 159 metres a game, making 147 tackles while only missing six, finding an offload (including 5 against the Dolphins) and being a post contact machine.
Origin is just as much mental as physical, and if there’s any player who can live rent free in the mind of the opposition, Corey’s your man.
I’m a big believer in Reuben Cotter’s ability and I think his form for North Queensland has really picked up the last few weeks. An Australian representative, he would’ve been an Origin regular last season had his season not been derailed by injury. I like his punch through the middle and his ability to play big minutes if necessary but provide real punch and some underrated ball playing ability.
I found it incredibly hard to not pick Reece Walsh, but I do believe in the value of loyalty when a player has earned it in the Origin arena, and Kalyn Ponga’s certainly done that. I recognise it is a risk though, especially given he’s only really got one solid game behind him for Newcastle. If you ask me tomorrow I’ve probably swapped him back with Walsh.
By that same token, I found it very hard to not pick Papalii, and I may have been slightly influenced here by how Slater used him last year and some of the discourse I’ve seen around the Maroons pack, but he just doesn’t have that same aura he once held. It’s a weird, silly, intangible reason, I know, but that’s how I feel.
1. Kalyn Ponga
2. Selwyn Cobbo
3. Dane Gagai
4. Valentine Holmes
5. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow
6. Cameron Munster
7. Daly Cherry-Evans
8. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui
9. Ben Hunt
10. Christian Welch
11. Felise Kaufusi
12. Jai Arrow
13. Patrick Carrigan
14. Harry Grant
15. David Fifita
16. Reuben Cotter
17. Corey Horsburgh
18. Reece Walsh
19. Murray Taulagi
20. Lindsay Collins
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