Maroons door open for Hopgood amid vacancies: Slater

Joel Gould |

Parramatta’s J’maine Hopgood was 19th man for Queensland in 2023 and is close to an Origin debut.
Parramatta’s J’maine Hopgood was 19th man for Queensland in 2023 and is close to an Origin debut.

Billy Slater says the door is open for Queensland’s middle forwards to force their way into the squad for the State of Origin opener amid a rising injury toll.

If, over the next five weeks, the applicants bash the door down for the June 5 clash in Sydney it will make their cause more compelling to the Maroons coach.

New contenders and players who have featured previously could be in the frame.

Parramatta’s J’maine Hopgood is close to an Origin debut after being 19th man in game three of last year’s 2-1 series win.

J'maine Hopgood.
J’maine Hopgood crashes over for a try against premiers Penrith in round two. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS)

The 24-year-old will play lock against the Dolphins on Friday night in Darwin with another chance to press his claims in what will be his 31st consecutive game for the Eels.

Melbourne veteran Christian Welch and St George Illawarra enforcer Francis Molo, who both have not featured in Origin since 2021,  also have plenty to play for. 

The Maroons will be without Dolphins lock Tom Gilbert and Gold Coast captain Tino Fa’asuamaleaui because of season-ending knee injuries.

South Sydney forward Jai Arrow, with 12 Origin games under his belt, has a shoulder complaint with an unknown return date.

“Jai is nursing an injury and hopefully he can get back to play, but there is a cloud over him,” Slater told AAP.

“The other two guys have been a fabric of the team over the last couple of years also, in particular Tino. He’s played every game the last four years.

“Where there is injury there is opportunity, and other Queenslanders will get their opportunity.”

Hopgood was in the game-three camp last year and has shone for Parramatta.

J'maine Hopgood.
J’maine Hopgood (centre) is wrapped up during a Maroons training session on the Gold Coast in 2023. (Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

“We don’t just bring players in (to camp) for an experience. We bring them in because of the quality of football they are playing and because it is to the standard this group has created,” Slater said.

“Guys like J’maine Hopgood who weren’t in the team are obviously playing to that standard at their club.

“It is a position, in the middle of the field, that has been quite competitive for Queensland over the last few years.

“There is Christian Welch, (Gold Coast’s) Mo Fotuaika and even Francis Molo, who is doing a really good job for the Dragons.

“There is opportunity when injury comes and you have to be ready to walk through the door when it opens.

“In six weeks’ time we don’t know what cards we are going to be dealt. We have to build our best hand when we get there.”

North Queensland forward Reuben Cotter, last year’s player of the series, and Sydney Roosters prop Lindsay Collins are certainties to be selected if fit.

The Maroons are sweating on Dolphins prop Thomas Flegler’s return from a shoulder injury.

“I thought he was great last year and one of the premier front-rowers in the competition playing for the Broncos and was an integral part of game one and two for Queensland,” Slater said.

“He is not playing at the moment due to injury, which is why it is so hard to talk about players, selection and who is or is not going to be available.”