Billy Slater makes mockery of Paul Vautin criticism with genius call in State of Origin victory

Slater's contentious State of Origin move turned out to be a masterstroke.

Billy Slater's contentious call to have Selwyn Cobbo on his bench proved to be a masterstroke after Maroons fullback Reece Walsh was knocked out of State of Origin Game I after seven minutes. Slater copped plenty of backlash - including from Maroons great Paul Vautin - over the decision to carry a back on his four-man bench as well as a second hooker. But it proved to be a stroke of genius after Walsh was wiped out in a high shot by Joseph Suaalii that saw the NSW centre sent off.

The Blues were unable to contain the rampant Maroons after going down a player so early, with Slater's men taking a huge step towards claiming a third straight series victory by winning 38-10. The Maroons will head into neutral territory at the MCG for Game II on June 26, knowing another victory will see them wrap up the series. With Game III at the Maroons' Suncorp Stadium fortress on July 17, Slater's side are now massive favourites to retain the Origin shield.

Pictured left to right, Queensland State of Origin greats Paul Vautin and Billy Slater.
Paul Vautin's criticism of Billy Slater's 17-man squad came back to bite him in State of Origin Game I. Pic: Getty

Slater must have been tempted to give a big 'I told you so' to the doubters such as Vautin, who were particularly scathing of his decision to pick Cobbo on the four-man interchange. “I’m not happy with the bench,” ‘Fatty’ Vautin said on 4BC radio before the series opener. “I don’t understand why we’ve picked a winger-centre on the bench. I think we’re lacking another big forward. I’m not a selector, I’m never going to be a selector but I’m also entitled to my own opinion. Forwards win Origin games. They do all the hard work."

The Queensland coach had repeatedly pointed to the four out of six previous Origin games where the Maroons had lost a back, to justify the selection of Cobbo. And that worrying trend continued on Wednesday night, with Walsh ruled out of the game due to a category one head knock on the field, despite later passing his HIA.

Luckily for the Maroons, Slater had a plan to cover such an unfortunate development, with Cobbo slotting into his favoured position at left centre and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow moving back to fullback, where he features on a weekly basis with the Dolphins. The changes were seamless for the Maroons, with both players having standout games and Tabuai-Fidow scoring a hat-trick of tries in the 28-point rout.


"The team's been accustomed to adapt to adversity and that's no different to tonight," Slater said after the match. "I thought Hammer was great slipping back to that fullback position. Hindsight's a great thing. [Having Cobbo on the bench] worked out in our favour."

Hat-trick hero Tabuai-Fidow said his coach deserved to take a lot of credit after being constantly questioned over the make-up of his 17-man squad. "Billy's a smart coach like that," Tabuai-Fidow told ABC Sport. Anything can happen in the Origin arena."

Maroons skipper Daly Cherry-Evans showed how important he is to Slater's side with a man-of-the-match performance that included two try assists and a pivotal 40/20. Cherry-Evans set up the first try for Ben Hunt with a scoot down the short side and landing the 40/20 at a crucial juncture in the second half. He iced the game with an intercept, a break and kick for Xavier Coates to score.

Seen here, Maroons captain Daly Cherry-Evans playing for Queensland in State of Origin Game I.
Maroons captain Daly Cherry-Evans was a standout in Queensland's win over NSW in State of Origin Game I. Pic: Getty

Slater warned the Blues that despite the convincing nature of his side's win - albeit with a man advantage for most of the game - the Maroons have plenty of room for improvement. "I thought we were so far off with our footy tonight. That's all to come," Slater said in his post-match press conference.

"I don't think we played the way we prepared. There is so much more for this footy team. That's exciting. That is not for now. Now is about the feeling they are getting in the dressing room." The Maroons were obviously denied the chance to showcase much of the attacking game plan that was based around Walsh.

Speaking after the win, Hunt echoed his coach's sentiment that the Maroons have room for improvement and warned the games would only get tougher from here on out. "I think there needs to be more gears," he said. "We are going down to Melbourne and you wouldn't think someone would be sent off again. It is going to be a lot harder game. I still think we can be better in the middle. I thought we were a bit loose in the middle. I know they only scored 10 points but that is because they had 12 players. We need to be a lot better defensively."

with agencies