Queensland coach Billy Slater has refused to confirm whether Newcastle captain Kalyn Ponga will retain his fullback jersey for this year's State of Origin series opener in Adelaide on May 31. Ponga is the incumbent Maroons No.1 but has only just returned to the NRL after his latest concussion and looked well below his best in Newcastle's humbling 43-12 loss to Parramatta last week.
NRL statistics listed Ponga as missing eight tackles and he was uncharacteristically tentative while playing in the five-eighth role that he's moved into this season at the Knights. Ponga's side have the bye for Magic Round - which kicks off in Brisbane on Friday night - leaving the Newcastle skipper with limited game time before the Maroons pick their Origin side in less than three weeks.
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Ponga's place at fullback for the Maroons has come under massive pressure from Broncos star Reece Walsh, who has been instrumental in the early season form that sees Brisbane sit on top of the ladder. Walsh's superb displays in 2023 - where his blistering pace and ball-playing quality has proved a handful for opposition defences - has given Slater and fellow Maroons selectors Gene Miles and Darren Lockyer plenty of food for thought.
With Walsh's dazzling form, coupled with the lack of game time and fitness queries over Ponga, plenty of talk has focused on whether the Brisbane young gun is ready to replace Ponga at fullback for the Maroons. When asked whether Ponga would be selected if he gets through his next two games against Gold Coast and Cronulla, Slater gave very little away.
"We will make that decision in three weeks. It is premature to make it now," he said. "A lot of things can happen in the next three weeks, like they have in the last three weeks. In three weeks' time we will sit down as selectors and coaches and get all our cards on the table and we will build our best hand.
"We have a duty to Queensland to give them the best possible team that we think will go out and play their best footy. That (Ponga decision) will have to wait."
No doubt complicating matters for Queensland is Ponga's record in State of Origin, with the Maroons star regularly one of the standout players for his state. Ponga has been outstanding in his seven Origin games for Queensland and was man of the match in the 22-12 series decider last year playing at fullback.
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Slater admitted that loyalty "counts" at the selection table, but insisted that other factors would come into play when it came to picking their squad. In what could be seen as a warning to Ponga - particularly after his underwhelming last match against the Eels - Slater said it was "important to be playing well" in the lead-up to the Origin opener.
"Everyone talks about loyalty and there are a few things that go into that," the Maroons coach added. "It is not just about playing. It is about doing the job in the past and it is also about instilling the habits in your current game, whether it is a month or two months of football, where Queensland can trust they are the habits you are going to bring into (Origin).
"You can't just flick a switch and turn it on. It is important to be playing well." Slater said he just wants Ponga to enjoy his football.
Walsh and the Dolphins' Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Brisbane's have both had outstanding starts to the season and are considered to be in the mix to play fullback for Queensland. Tabuai-Fidow can also play wing and centre, and that versatility only enhances his chances of being selected.
As far as Walsh is concerned though, Slater says one of the things that has impressed him most about the 20-year-old is the development in his game, since making the switch from the Warriors to Brisbane. "We see all the shiny, bright stuff that Reece does," Slater said.
"I can see underneath that and the development he is putting into his game and the position he plays. He is building that capability in his game to play Origin but he has got to be capable when the opportunity is there as well."
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