Queensland coach Billy Slater has confirmed he wouldn't have an issue picking incumbent Maroons fullback Kalyn Ponga for Origin despite the blistering form of emerging talent Reece Walsh. The Broncos have started the 2023 season on fire, with 20-year-old fullback Walsh showing his potential as a future superstar of the NRL.
Meanwhile, Ponga hasn't played since the second round after being concussed against the Wests Tigers. Having made the shift to five-eighth for the 2023 season, the 25-year-old took a scary knock in the first match, before suffering his fourth concussion in 10 months in the second round.
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There were significant fears for his playing future after the most recent knock, but the 25-year-old has confirmed he will be making a return to club footy against the Cowboys in round eight. This leaves legendary fullback and Maroons coach Slater a tough selection dilemma for State of Origin.
Ponga was arguably the Maroons' best player across the series last year and was electric in the decider, which helped Queensland secure the series win. However, having not played more than 90 minutes of footy in 2023 and switching to a new role, critics could argue he shouldn't be in the starting team.
Walsh has been in sensational form for the Broncos, while Ponga is unlikely to usurp current Maroons and Kangaroos five-eighth Cameron Munster in the team. But Slater believes Ponga just needs to return and play his best to put himself in the selection argument with State of Origin squads to be announced in five weeks.
"From a Queensland point of view, that gives him five weeks before the first team is picked. They've got a bye in there, so he will get four games," Slater told Wide World of Sports.
"That is plenty of footy... With what Kalyn did in the series last year. The ball is in Kalyn's court. To be honest he shouldn't even be thinking about (Origin), he just needs to get back and play footy. "
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Ponga's recent head knocks have seen him travel to Canada to undergo scans with equipment unavailable in Australia. The NRL superstar returned and was 'reassured' with the results.
Despite his impending return, his concussions have prompted questions from NRL greats as to Ponga's suitability for the position. Moving him to fullback isn't an easy option for the Knights though, with off-season recruit Lachie Miller having a breakout season in the No.1 jersey.
However, Slater is confident Ponga can bounce back and protect himself from further injuries while playing in the frontline. "There is nowhere to hide, it doesn't matter where you play, you're at risk," Slater added.
"It is a physical, collision, contact sport. It doesn't matter whether you're in the front line...You've just got to go out there and play."
Ponga reiterated his confidence in coming back to footy and said he was keen to help out his teammates. "I'm good," Ponga said. "Four weeks ago there was all that talk about retirement.
"To go over to Canada and get clarity about what I am doing and what I can do, it's reassuring for me. I should be back in not too long. I just want to get back on the field, doing what I love with the boys.
"We got the best result I could over there. That was the result I got, that you are able to go back and play ... your brain is in a healthy position to do so. Really reassuring and positive news."
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