Ryan Papenhuyzen firms for State of Origin debut after gesture from Billy Slater and wife

It would mark a fascinating development for the Melbourne Storm fullback.

Michael Maguire has heaped praise on Ryan Papenhuyzen and hinted he might pick him for his NSW team for Origin I, in a move that would pit the fullback against his mentor and close friend Billy Slater. Speaking on Tuesday at the official launch of the 2024 State of Origin series at the MCG, new Blues coach Maguire spoke of his desire to pick a team based on character rather than flashiness or high-profile names.

Maguire nominated Papenhuyzen as someone he's been particularly impressed with considering his comeback from back-to-back leg injuries in the last two years. The Melbourne Storm fullback has started the year in sublime form, dispelling any doubts about his future after two horror injuries in recent years.

Ryan Papenhuyzen alongside Billy Slater and wife Nicole.
A State of Origin debut for Ryan Papenhuyzen would pit him against mentor Billy Slater. Image: Getty/AAP

After spending over 12 months on the sidelines with a fractured kneecap he suffered in 2022, Papenhuyzen only played three games in 2023 before breaking his leg. But he has returned to his best in 2024 and has put his name in the discussion for Origin.

Many have called for Papenhuyzen to be picked on the bench for NSW to come on and wreak havoc around the ruck - a role similar to what Queensland are likely to do with Kalyn Ponga. On Tuesday, Maguire hinted that Papenhuyzen is firmly in his calculations, saying: "I sort of left 'Paps' alone earlier in the year because he just wanted to get himself back and playing.

"It's great to see what he's been able to do and achieve with everything he's been through, and that's part of character that I'm talking about. A player that comes back in that sort of way says a lot about a person and he's playing some really good footy at the moment."

Ryan Papenhuyzen.
Ryan Papenhuyzen in action for the Melbourne Storm.


Ryan Papenhuyzen has chance to haunt mentor Billy Slater

Papenhuyzen was seemingly on the cusp of NSW selection before his two serious injuries. If he was to be handed a debut this year it would mark a fascinating development as it would pit him against Queensland coach Slater - the man who Papenhuyzen has credited with keeping him mentally focused during his injury layoffs.

Papenhuyzen has previously spoken of how Slater and wife Nicole have become his second family in Melbourne, and how the Storm champion invited him into his family home when he was doing it tough. Slater suffered some serious injuries of his own throughout his career and provided the perfect mentor for Papenhuyzen when he was struggling for motivation to get back to his best.

Billy Slater and Michael Maguire with the State of Origin shield.
Billy Slater and Michael Maguire at the 2024 State of Origin series launch at the MCG.

"The Slaters are the closest thing I have to a family down here (in Melbourne)," Papenhuyzen said earlier this year. "I’m like an older brother to their kids, and I even have my own bedroom now. Going to their farm, it’s an outlet.

“When I first did my ankle last year, I headed out to the farm for a week, and (Slater's wife) Nic had me on a quadbike with my foot up, feeding the animals. Billy understands what I’m going through. It’s good just to talk. I only hope I can mentor someone like that one day.”

The 25-year-old also revealed last year: "Billy has been awesome. I am where I am now because of him. He went through such a long-term injury himself and understands how tough it is, but him and Nicole would invite me over to their place and we would just have a day out where we would not talk about footy.

"He understood the mental side of rehab and how you need to switch off sometimes and enjoy the company of others. I am just really grateful to them."

Slater has been delighted to see how Papenhuyzen has returned to his peak so far this season. And hopefully for NSW fans, Papenhuyzen can help the Blues take down Slater and the Maroons for the first time since 2021.