State of Origin 2023: What QLD got right and wrong for Game I

Will Billy Slater's Queensland selection bombshells pay off or leave the Maroons reeling?

From right to left, QLD State of Origin players Reece Walsh and David Fifita, with Dane Gagai on far right.
NRL fans were surprised by a number of State of Origin selection bombshells for the QLD Maroons this week. Pic: Getty


Having already dissected Freddy Fittler's NSW squad selections this week, the Yahoo Sports team turns its attention to Billy Slater's QLD side for State of Origin Game I.

Three of our reporters have cast their eyes over the Maroons line-up and where we think Slater got it right and wrong in a team announcement that took many by surprise.

Adam Lucius, Yahoo Sport Columnist

GOT IT RIGHT: David Fifita

When there was talk David Fifita could miss Queensland selection, I almost bought a case of XXXX mid-strength as a thank-you from a NSW supporter. And while my sensitive and well-trained beer palate is better off for not having to go through with it, it would have been worth the sacrifice to watch a Maroons side without the Incredible Hulk.

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I suspect Fifita was going to be picked all along, but selectors just wanted to put a rocket up his backside, so let it leak he needed to lift his game to return to the side after being overlooked last year. He has responded with some outstanding performances for the Titans, typified by a near man-of-the-match performance in a losing side against Canterbury last weekend.

"He’s pushed his way into the conversation more throughout this year and it’s truly been through actions,” Slater said. "I think he’s just starting to realise that the game is a complete package."

It's a package NSW hoped would remain unwrapped because Fifita brings plenty of X-factor and a trace of that lunacy we touched on re: Tevita Pangai Junior's selection for the Blues. Slater knows Origin better than anyone and leant on that old adage – pick players the opposition would least like to see – to slot Fifita in. He will be a maroon-coloured nightmare for the Blues.

GOT IT WRONG: Dane Gagai

Boy, I'd hate to be Manly on Sunday. Not only do they have to handle Kalyn Ponga days after he was omitted from the Queensland squad, but there's also a raging Dane Gagai to contend with. The Reece Walsh for Ponga deal I can live with, even though I think it’s a blunder. Gagai's axing is another thing altogether.

This is a bloke who has played 21 Origins, scored 12 tries, stopped almost as many, been part of several series wins and won two Wally Lewis Medals. To put that in some sort of perspective, only Billy Slater (two) and Cameron Smith (three) match or beat him on the WLM tally board.

Gagai epitomises that Queensland spirit we hear about ad nauseum and is one of those special players – albeit annoying if he's at your club – who performs better in the rep arena than he does in clubland. It’s as if his maroon jumper features a cape, such is the lift in his output when he's on the Origin stage.

And you can bet he would have done it all again on Wednesday night despite dragging some ordinary form with him from Newcastle. Queensland's "pick and stick" policy has suddenly become "not pick and flick".

And aren’t the Blues happy about that!

Andrew Reid, Senior Sports Reporter

GOT IT RIGHT: Reece Walsh

Look, I get the uproar about replacing Kalyn Ponga for the Brisbane 'whizz-kid', particularly after the Knights skipper's heroics in last year's series-clinching Game III masterclass. Ponga - much like his Newcastle teammate Gagai - plays his best footy in the Origin arena. However, his most recent HIA early in last Saturday night's game - the latest in a growing list of head knocks - would have left the Maroons' gaffer more anxious than a cat on a hot tin roof.

Slater has been accused of being "disloyal" for overlooking Ponga but to throw him onto the most brutal stage in rugby league - in light of obvious concerns - would be tantamount to blind loyalty. The fact the Maroons have a ready-made replacement in Walsh makes it a no-brainer.

Forget the fact Ponga hasn't even been playing No.1 for Newcastle, Walsh has been absolutely electric in the NRL this season and is almost certainly in the top-three fullbacks based on form. His turn of speed is second-to-none and his playmaking ability has gone to new levels. Slater admits he's been thoroughly impressed watching his Maroons custodian closely this season and who are we to argue with arguably the game's greatest fullback?

Seen here, Reece Walsh playing for the Broncos in the NRL.
Reece Walsh has been a revelation at fullback for the Broncos in the NRL. Pic: Getty

GOT IT WRONG: Kurt Capewell

When it comes to Queensland superheroes in recent years, few have overcome the odds more spectacularly than Kurt Capewell. The versatile Broncos workhorse was an integral part of the 'worst Maroons team in 40 years' that famously claimed the shield in 2020 and left Paul Gallen cleaning up copious amounts of egg off his face.

Capewell debuted in that memorable series at centre, before shifting to the second row for Game III, where he helped set the Maroons on their way to one of the great Origin boil-overs. The former Panthers premiership winner has been a mainstay in the QLD side ever since, and had the honour of holding the famous shield aloft again as part of Slater's 2022 squad.

He's as reliable as a Swiss-made watch and plays big minutes, but Capewell has been overlooked in favour of Tom Gilbert, with the Dolphins hard man offering Slater a bit more 'mongrel' to counter the Blues' firebrand forwards. They say form is temporary but class is permanent, and while he's yet to take off in 2023, I think Capewell could still have a big part to play in this series.

Riley Morgan, Senior Sports Reporter

GOT IT RIGHT: Thomas Flegler

Maroons veteran Josh Papalii left Slater reeling when he called time on his State of Origin career only a week out from the squad announcement. But the Maroons coach looked at one of the form props of the competition and went with youth.

Thomas Flegler is the type of player that will thrive in the Origin arena and running out in front of a packed Suncorp stadium as a Broncos star could be the making of a Maroons mainstay.

GOT IT WRONG: Harry Grant

There is no doubt Ben Hunt has helped steady the Queensland ship in recent years with the makeshift hooker often saving his best footy for when he pulls on the Maroons jersey. Hunt performed admirably at the World Cup and continues to be the go to man for Slater and Aussie coach Mal Meninga.

“You look at Ben and he's a Queenslander through and through,” Harry Grant said of his teammate. “Where he's come from and the position he's in now, you see the way he turns up and plays for Queensland, it's always his heart and soul on the line for the jersey and for the state and I'm just happy that he's in the squad."

Seen here, Harry Grant runs with the footy during QLD State of Origin training.
Harry Grant runs with the footy during QLD State of Origin training. Pic: Getty

However, last year Grant only played 48 minutes and 51 minutes in State of Origin Game I and II respectively. I'm not arguing the combination doesn't work, but Grant has arguably been the best hooker in the NRL this year.

The only other hooker that could take that title from Grant is Damien Cook and Brad Fittler opted not to pick him. So what does that say when the two in-form hookers of the NRL are either not playing or acting as second fiddle?

Maybe it's Grant's year to take his game to another level, take back the starting role and create a legacy like his future immortal predecessor.

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