Slater reveals possible surprise duo for Maroons

Joel Gould |

Queensland No.1 Reece Walsh (L) and coach Billy Slater (R) after 2023 State of Origin series win.
Queensland No.1 Reece Walsh (L) and coach Billy Slater (R) after 2023 State of Origin series win.

Elite fullbacks Reece Walsh and Kalyn Ponga could still both be in the Queensland team coach Billy Slater will name for the State of Origin series opener.

“I’m open to anything. I’m not against trying to evolve our game and think about it in different ways,” Slater told AAP.

“That is how I was as a player. It is about what suits your team. I am sure they would like to be teammates one day.

“Whether it can work, I am not too sure. I watch our players and the habits they have got in their game and try and build a game plan around our strengths so they can be at their best.” 

Newcastle’s Ponga, with seven Origin games to his credit, was integral to the Maroons’ 2022 series win in his finest performance for the state.

In 2023 he suffered multiple concussions and, on recovery, selflessly decided to commit to club football where he led the Knights to the NRL finals. 

Billy Slater talks to Kalyn Ponga and Reece Walsh.
Billy Slater (second from right) talks to Kalyn Ponga (far right) and Reece Walsh (second left). (Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

Broncos custodian Walsh shone in his two winning Maroons outings in 2023 at No.1 before being suspended for game three.

One of the pair, fitness pending, will wear the No.1 jersey in the Origin opener in Sydney on June 5. The other could be elsewhere in the 17. 

Ponga came off the bench in his Origin debut in 2018 and played a stellar role as a roving creator of havoc.

Walsh played as a utility on occasion when he first came into the NRL with the Warriors while being mentored by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in 2021.

“I think anything is possible,” Slater said when asked if Walsh could play another position such as wing for the Maroons.

“I don’t build the team now. It is the players’ role to build habits in their game and my role to watch them now.

“In 40-odd days we accumulate all the actions they have built into their game and work it out.”

The habits of both players at fullback, asides from their acknowledged razzle dazzle with the ball, have impressed Slater. 

As an elite custodian for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia, the Maroons mentor valued the defensive and organisational side of his role as much as the attacking aspect and he looks for the same ethos in his players.

“Their movements off the football are really impressive. Their defensive movements at the back are really good,” Slater said.

“I value the movements they make without the football for their team. 

“Both of them are putting themselves in positions to be involved in the game. That’s something they have built in their game and they have grown in that area.”  

While Ponga was unavailable last year, Slater is assured his commitment to the Maroons has always been rock solid.

“Sometimes circumstances out of your control come up … but the Queenslander in Kalyn I have never questioned,” Slater said.

“There were some pretty influential players in that 2022 series and none more so than Kalyn.”

AAP