Where to now for Queensland?
Nick Fray, Origin Online and Over the Line Sports
Eight in a row – it’s a good run in any competitive arena, and anyone who accomplishes such a feat has earned the right to reflet proudly upon such an achievement when the end finally comes. Unfortunately, whilst history is nice, the present, and indeed the future, are always more important – take the South Sydney Rabbitohs for example. Sure, they’ve won 20 premierships, but the last of them was so long ago (1971) that the majority of their fans probably weren’t around to see it.
With this in mind, the time for Maroon reflection is already over as they look to reassert their dominance in the Origin arena after New South Wales finally ended their golden era. However, whilst the bulk of their players should be available next year, it’s no secret there are a number of key players getting up there in years, and it may not be long before we see a considerably different Queensland side to the one we’ve come to know in recent years. The Maroons have done a good job of slowly integrating players of the future into the setup in recent years, but they’ll need to hope those players are up to the task as the vast majority of emerging NRL stars at the moment bleed blue.
At fullback, Billy Slater has obviously been an integral part of Queensland’s success in recent time, but at 31 he’s not exactly ‘Billy the Kid’ anymore. While he still possesses incredible quickness and vision, he’s become increasingly injury=prone over the last couple of years and may be a candidate for retirement in the next couple of years. Fortunately, the Maroons are likely to enjoy several more years of Greg Inglis and he appears set to take over at the back once Slater calls it a day.
In the backs, Brent Tate may well have played his last game after the devastating injury suffered in Game Two, whilst running mate Justin Hodges is 32 and no stranger to serious injury himself. Also, with Inglis likely to move to fullback in the near future, Queensland are likely to need 3 new faces in the backline within a couple of years. One of those spots seems destined to go to Will Chambers, who will debut on the wing tonight as Tate’s replacement. Newcastle’s Dane Gagai has enjoyed another solid season and will surely come into calculations if forgiven for his transgression in a pre-season camp, whilst Bronco Dale Copley has enjoyed his best year of first grade after coming back from a serious injury and has been touted as a candidate for Origin football. Melbourne’s Justin O’Neill has become something of a forgotten man due to injuries and inconsistent form, but at 23 he still has plenty of time to get his career back on track. Also, given that Queensland’s success began with giving talented youngsters a shot, Canberra cousins Edrick and Brenko Lee might get their shot sooner rather than later.
First choice halves Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk probably still have another three or four years in them, but the Maroons have already shown their hands here with Daly Cherry-Evans already a regular part of the squad and Bronco Ben Hunt almost debuting in Game Two this year due to injuries. Watch also for Anthony Milford, who is likely to play five-eighth when he moves to Brisbane next year but can also cover fullback, although at the moment it seems that Luke Keary will be forced to represent the Blues if he develops into an Origin footballer.
Front row is an interesting position for Queensland, as they’ve moved away from the traditional four-man prop rotation over the last couple of years to rely more on backrowers pinch-hitting for short spells. Some claim that this tactic is part of the reason Queensland have been off the pace his year, however despite seemingly irresistible claims Josh McGuire was only able to snare 19th man duties for tonight’s game. While he’s the obvious next cab off the rank at the position, there’s little else coming through at the position for Queensland, with only Rooster Dylan Napa getting a mention. Martin Kennedy looked a likely candidate a couple of years ago but his career has regressed significantly this season. At 29, Ben Hannant and Brenton Lawrence may be called upon over the next few years as Queensland wait for the likes of Bulldogs youngster Lloyd Perrett to develop. Fortunately, starting trio Matt Scott, Nate Myles and Jacob Lillyman still have some good years left in them.
At hooker, captain Cameron Smith is now 31, but he is the sort of player who could conceivably play on until his mid-30s. Still, the Maroons have started integrating Rooster Jake Friend into the Origin setup, whilst Bronco Andrew McCullough has had a hugely impressive year, so Queensland look well-stocked at the position regardless of how long Smith plays on.
And finally, whilst the back row position looked extremely healthy not so long ago, the advanced age of Corey Parker will open a starting spot, whilst Ben Te’o also looks likely to be unavailable due to a rumoured move to European rugby. Also, whilst hardly an established Origin star, Dave Taylor is also rumoured to be a target for the 15-a-side game and may be another one to scratch from the list. Still, with Aidan Guerra impressing in his first couple of Origin games and the likes of Matt Gillett, Chris McQueen, Josh Papalii available they have a good young nucleus around Sam Thaiday, but ideally they’d love it if guys like Corey Oates and Ethan Lowe can step up and establish themselves as Origin-calibre players.
We’ve become so accustomed to seeing the same players turn out for the Maroons over the last few years that the thought of a new-look side within the next couple of years may seem a scary one for Queensland fans. While the names listed above suggests that there is still enough talent to ensure the Maroons stay competitive for years to come, the majority of them still have much to prove before they can be considered Origin-calibre, and if even a few of them fail to live up to expectations it’s entirely possible that the Blues may be about to embark on a golden era of their own.