THE Maroons’ juggernaut has received a boost with coach Kevin Walters confident inspirational skipper Cam “Ironman” Smith will continue his Origin career next season.
The most dominant outfit in Origin’s 37-year history is facing generational change, with champion five-eighth Johnathan Thurston having drawn the curtain on his Queensland career after shoulder surgery cruelly rubbed him out of this year’s decider.
Walters is also bracing for life without Thurston’s scrumbase partner Cooper Cronk, who will quit the Storm at season’s end and is no certainty to return to the NRL in 2018.
As part of his rebuild, Walters blooded eight rookies during a 2017 campaign which gave Queensland an 11th series win in 12 years, but there is no succession plan in place just yet for his skipper.
Playing a record 42nd Origin match in the decider this year, Smith showed no signs of decay, producing one of the finest performances of his career to consign NSW to another year of misery.
Off-contract next year at Melbourne, Smith is on track to captain Australia at the World Cup in October and Walters is plotting a third consecutive series win in 2018 with his Storm champion in the No.9 jumper.
The 2018 NRL finals series sees Smith become the longest-serving player in the history of the game, after he equalled Darren Lockyer’s mark of 355 appearances in the last game of the regular season.
But Walters believes Smith is not done yet.
“I can’t see any reason why Cam won’t play on next year,” Walters said.
“He’s been a great player for Queensland but he will become even more important for me next season – if that’s possible.
“We have some issues to confront over the next couple of years. Johnathan Thurston is moving on for sure and I’m not sure where things stand with Cooper – the World Cup at the end of the year will tell us a lot more about his rep future.
“A lot can happen over the next 12 months, but Cam is showing no signs of slowing down.
“His form this year for Melbourne has been exceptional and I’ll be looking to his leadership with so many young players coming through for Queensland in the coming years.”
Walters had begun contract extension talks with the Queensland Rugby League last month when the departure of coach Neil Henry at the Titans ignited a push for the Broncos legend to rescue the Gold Coast.
Walters is keen to launch his NRL coaching career at some stage, but feels there is more to achieve with the Maroons.
Walters blooded the likes of Anthony Milford, Valentine Holmes, Cameron Munster and Dylan Napa this season and is motivated by the transitional challenges facing Queensland.
“I want to provide stability,” said Walters, who is currently contracted until the end of next year.
“I know we have some real battles ahead and I want to see us through that period.
“I’m definitely keen to go on beyond 2018. I’ve really enjoyed both series so far. They have been different in many ways, and I want to be around for that transition when all the older guys do retire and we have to start with a new group.
“There’s no doubt it has been stressful at times and Origin is a tough period.
“We got a towelling in game one (a 28-4 loss at Suncorp Stadium) and that put some heat on me, but I took on the Origin job knowing that would be the case.
“There were some sleepless nights, that’s for sure.
“Things don’t always pan out how you want to in coaching, but we got the job done and won the series which is what we set out to do.
“I can’t be prouder of the guys and what they stand for in the Queensland jumper. As a side, I have ideas which I think can make us even better.”