Queensland coach Billy Slater and Maroons selectors have been called out after straying from their tried and tested "pick and stick formula" for State of Origin. The Maroons - who pride themselves on showing loyalty to many of their series-winning stars, dropped several selection bombshells after announcing their squad on Monday for Origin Game I in Adelaide on May 31.
The two biggest shocks came in the omissions of veteran NRL centre Dane Gagai - who has played the last 22 games straight for Queensland - and last year's Game III hero Kalyn Ponga. Both players were widely expected to be a part of Slater's squad, particularly Gagai, who always seems to play some of his best footy in the Maroon jersey of his home state. The ever-reliable Kurt Capewell was another to miss selection.
QLD ORIGIN TEAM: Billy Slater makes shock call in Maroons shake-up
The loyalty aspect was a big part of the Maroons era of dominance between 2006 - 2013 when they won eight straight Origin series with the large nucleus of the side playing through the majority of those triumphs. Suffice to say, eyebrows were raised on Monday when two of the best players for the Maroons in recent years were overlooked in favour of debutant Reece Walsh at fullback and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow at centre.
“Well I think they’ve thrown loyalty out the window,” veteran league reporter Phil 'Buzz' Rothfield said on NRL 360. “No Ponga after that game he played two weeks ago (for the Knights). One of the best individual performance all year. I know he got the knock the other night.
“No Capewell, No Gagai - 22 Origins straight. He’s got them out of so much. I’m surprised they haven’t stuck more solid.”
Slater admitted the phone call to Gagai to inform him he'd been dropped, was one of the hardest he's had to make. Gagai was overlooked after playing in every Origin game since the third match of 2015, with Blues assistant coach Greg Alexander telling SEN he found the move "stunning".
"When you think Queensland over the last seven or eight years, I think Cameron Munster, Josh Papalii and Dane Gagai. Dane Gagai is one of those players that just produces for Queensland and has every time."
The Australian's league reporter Brent Read told NRL 360: “I’m surprised Gagai is not there. I understand Ponga not being there given the concerns over the HIA and how good Reece Walsh is going. But the Gagai one surprised me.”
"I think they've thrown loyalty out the window."
Buzz doesn't understand why the Maroons have left Kalyn Ponga out of QLD's origin line-up.
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Maroons called out for 'disloyal' selection calls
Rothfield said he understood the concerns around Ponga's concussions but argued that his form since returning to the field in 2023 has been excellent. He said the Knights captain's starring role in the Maroons' series win last year made the omission even harder to fathom, labelling Queensland "disloyal" for the snub.
“Ponga should be in the 14, he can cover every position in the backline and it is disloyal what they’ve done to him in my opinion,” he said. “What he did last year he deserves to be in that side.”
Gagai and Ponga's Newcastle teammate Tyson Frizell - who himself earned a recall to the NSW side - admitted he was surprised by their omissions. "I guess they do miss that experience. Gags, every game since his debut he's been one of their best," the Blues forward said.
Queensland skipper Daly Cherry-Evans also sympathised with the pair after he too was dropped in 2015. "They are tough calls but they are the decision that as a player, once they are made, you can't linger on them," he told AAP.
"They are friends of mine now, so I definitely feel for those boys, mainly because I have been there before." Cherry-Evans said the trio must respond appropriately at club level "with the passion and desire that shows they still want to be here". Cherry-Evans insisted there was a still a chance Gagai, Ponga and Capewell can play a massive role in the series for Queensland.
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