Ponga and Walsh could play together in Origin: Slater

Jasper Bruce |

Kalyn Ponga’s tussle with Reece Walsh for the Queensland fullback job is sure to gain headlines.
Kalyn Ponga’s tussle with Reece Walsh for the Queensland fullback job is sure to gain headlines.

Queensland coach Billy Slater sees a world where star fullbacks Kalyn Ponga and Reece Walsh could be picked in the same State of Origin team.

As the Maroons’ extended squad settle into their pre-season camp, Slater believes there is still plenty of Origin football in veteran halfback Daly Cherry-Evans, who turns 35 this month.

Ponga and Walsh were two of the NRL’s stand-out players last season, the former winning the Dally M Medal and the latter enjoying a breakout campaign after  relocating from the Warriors to Brisbane.

Walsh made his Origin debut last year as Slater advised Newcastle captain Ponga to prioritise club duties on return from a serious concussion.

Walsh missed the third game through suspension but starred in the first two, just as Ponga did as Slater’s first-choice fullback across the 2022 series, his first as coach.

Reece Walsh
Reece Walsh impressed in the first two games of last year’s Origin series before being suspended. (Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS)

On Friday, Ponga and Walsh were among 34 players called to a Brisbane-based pre-season camp during which the Maroons are engaging with the community, bonding and chatting early tactics.

On the surface, Slater has a difficult call to make between Ponga and Walsh for the series opener in June, when the Maroons can push toward a third consecutive series defeat of NSW.

But the coach said choosing one man at fullback need not preclude the other from selection somewhere else in the team.

“Everything’s a possibility,” said former fullback Slater, who played wing and from the bench early in his own Origin career.

“(Ponga and Walsh) both contributed immensely to both the 2022 series and the 2023 series and they’re both Queenslanders. I’m sure they’d love to be teammates one day as well.

“We’ve got 34 players here that have earned the right to be here. Seventeen players will get their name read out leading into that first game. 

“Sure, there’s competition, but they’re teammates as well.

“They understand the selflessness that you need to have to be successful in this game.”

Young playmakers Sam Walker, Ezra Mam and Tom Dearden were selected in the 34-man squad as the Maroons look further ahead to life without Cherry-Evans, a veteran of 22 Origin games and captain since 2019.

Cherry-Evans’ long-term Origin halves partner, Cameron Munster, will turn 30 later this year as well.

While Slater looked forward to mentoring the next wave of playmakers, he saw no need to rush into a succession plan for Cherry-Evans, who enjoyed a superb season in 2023.

“Those numbers (ages) don’t matter,” Slater said.

“Daly’s playing as good as I’ve seen him play for Queensland and he’s still got that want and desire to go and represent the people of Queensland.”

Daly Cherry-Evans
Daly Cherry-Evans is approaching 35 but Billy Slater says age is irrelevant. (Jono Searle/AAP PHOTOS)

So too could there be room in Slater’s team for the likes of Felise Kaufusi, Kurt Capewell and Dane Gagai.

All three are Queensland veterans on the wrong side of 30 who were overlooked for the 2023 series, but who have reported for camp.

“They’ve helped build the standards of this footy team, they’ve helped build that over the last couple of years and before that, to be honest,” Slater said.

“They’ve still got ambitions as much as anyone. 

“Numbers, ages, they’re irrelevant, to be honest it’s more about actions and what habits you have in your game and what you’re all about as a footballer and a person.”