PASSION, pride and loyalty have been the foundation stones that Queensland has built its State of Origin house on since 1980, and Maroons coach Kevin Walters showed that nothing has changed when he named his team for the first game of this year’s series.
Walters nearly broke down into tears when trying to explain the heart-wrenching decision to omit Billy Slater from his 18-man Maroons squad, which was possibly the most contentious of a number of selections that caught the attention of Queenslanders.
Settling on a fullback for Queensland was the ultimate in tough decisions.
On one hand, you have the player regarded as the best fullback to have ever played the game in Slater, who has bounced back from two shoulder reconstructions to recapture his scintillating best form.
On the other hand is Darius Boyd, who has shown just as much bravery in fighting back from his own battles to establish himself over the past two seasons as the first-choice fullback for Queensland and Australia.
Do you choose the player who has done the job so well in the past, and only los his spot because of injuries?
Or do you stand by the player who has not put a foot wrong as his successor, and allowed the team to carry on without skipping a beat in the absence of one of its biggest stars?
Whichever way they went, Walters and the Queensland selectors were never going to please everyone.
It was a unique situation where, whatever the decision, there would be an enormous upside, but a massive downside as well.
Ultimately, Boyd won the right to keep his Maroon No.1 jumper.
But watching Walters explain the decision at the team announcement, it was clear the Queensland coach had just endured the rugby league equivalent of Sophie’s Choice.
“It was a really tough decision we had to make around Billy,” Walters said.
“Darius was Queensland’s best player in last year’s series.
“It was also just a little bit unfair on Billy to put him under pressure for Game One of the series.
“It’s been hard. Even when he wasn’t playing, from a coaching point of view I thought he went above and beyond what he was meant to do, so it was pretty tough.
“I wish we could play two fullbacks, cause (if we could) they’d both be there.
“He was obviously disappointed and felt he had every right to believe he was a chance, but we’ve gone with Darius (Boyd) for Game One and Billy has accepted the decision like the true Queenslander he is.
“He’s more than a player, he’s been a friend of mine for a couple of years now. I worked with him at the Melbourne Storm and I know what he has given for Queensland.’’
FOGS Executive Chairman Gene Miles, who is also the Queensland chairman of selectors, said the decision to leave Slater on the sidelines was the toughest call he has made in nearly two decades as a selector.
Miles put a consoling and comforting arm around Walters as the coach struggled to keep his composure while discussing Slater’s omission, and lauded Walters’ character for personally calling each player that missed selection to inform them of the decision.
“It’s 17 years (as a Queensland selector) and that is without doubt the toughest decision we’ve had to make, probably the best fullback I’ve seen,” Miles said.
While the battle between Boyd and Slater was clearly the most emotional decision faced by the selectors, it was by no means the only tough call they were forced to make.
Incumbent Test winger Valentine Holmes, Jarrod Wallace – having the season of his career with the Titans – and North Queensland’s ultra-impressive Coen Hess all missed out on an Origin debut, while Cowboys backrower Gavin Cooper missed out despite being part of last year’s series.
Johnathan Thurston seems likely to break his streak of 36 consecutive games for Queensland by being ruled out with a shoulder injury, but was named as 18th man and joined the camp to give him every chance to prove he is right to play.
Rising Brisbane star Anthony Milford will now almost certainly make his Origin debut in the Queensland jersey worn by some of the greatest players in league history.
On the other side of the coin, Walters made it clear he would reward the players who had done the job for him in the past – sticking solid with experienced players Nate Myles, Jacob Lillyman, Aidan Guerra and Justin O’Neill despite critics of their NRL form questioning whether they were playing well enough to handle the heat of Origin.
QUEENSLAND, GAME 1:
1 Darius Boyd
2 Corey Oates
3 Will Chambers
4 Justin O’Neill
5 Dane Gagai
6 Anthony Milford
7 Cooper Cronk
8 Dylan Napa
9 Cameron Smith (c)
10 Nate Myles
11 Josh Papalii
12 Matt Gillett
13 Josh McGuire
14 Michael Morgan
15 Sam Thaiday
16 Aidan Guerra
17 Jacob Lillyman
18th man: Johnathan Thurston