THE Maroons have received a massive boost, with champion fullback Billy Slater declaring he will extend his representative career in a move that will see Queensland’s Big Three remain intact in 2018.
Queensland skipper Cameron Smith faced going into next year’s campaign as the only survivor of Melbourne’s champion trio as Slater and Cronk weighed up their futures in the code.
But Slater’s 12-month extension with Melbourne, and Cronk’s decision to continue his career with the Roosters, has given coach Kevin Walters an early Christmas present as he plots a remarkable 12th series win in 13 years for the Maroons.
The Big Three’s importance to the Queensland juggernaut cannot be understated. Incredibly, the triumvirate have amassed a staggering 93 Origin games between them, with Slater contributing 29, Cronk 22 and Smith standing at the summit as the ultimate ironman with 42 matches.
The NSW Origin side has been more competitive in recent years but Slater is excited at the prospect of the Maroons’ Holy Trinity combining for one last hurrah.
“That’s the good thing about Cooper and myself playing on – what it means for Queensland,” Slater said.
“Playing against him at club level will be hard, so it will be good to reunite with him for three Origin games.
“He is such an integral part of the Queensland team, so it’s a relief to know he will be back on deck next season.
“Cam is happy that we haven’t left him in the lurch. It’s been a honour to play alongside Cam Smith for such a long time.
“People don’t see how influential he is on the game, but as players internally, we certainly realise it and appreciate it. Sometimes, I just shake my head at how composed he is in games and the smart decisions he makes under pressure.
“The Blues have certainly been a bigger threat in the last few years, but hopefully with our experience, we can keep Queensland’s success going.”
When he committed to Melbourne just days after their grand-final defeat of the Cowboys, Slater considered the possibility of walking away from Queensland and Australia and dedicating himself solely to the Storm in 2018.
There is a precedent. In 2005, legendary Queensland prop Shane Webcke quit representative football to dedicate his final two seasons to the Broncos.
Slater will turn 35 next June – midway through the 2018 Origin series – so he accepts the season will pose physical and mental challenges.
But there is adequate incentive to keep going.
If he is selected for Origin I next year, Slater will celebrate his 30th game – a qualifying him for Queensland’s elite Statesmen’s Club.
“It (retiring from rep footy) is something that I definitely had to think about,” he said.
“For me, when I made the decision to play on, I also considered representative football in that.
“I am 100 per cent committed to Queensland and Australia next year.
“Sitting back watching State of Origin is not fun. I’ve been through that the last few years with my shoulder injuries and it’s made me more determined.
“As long as I’m playing, I’ll be putting my hand up for Queensland and Australia.
“It’s something I really enjoy doing. If next year is my last year, I want to go out by playing Origin and Test football.”
At rock bottom just 12 months ago following two shoulder operations, Slater admits he could not have envisaged his dream 2017 season, when he reclaimed his Maroon jumper and won the Clive Churchill Medal in Melbourne’s premiership triumph.
“It was a great year for me,” he said. “When you go through what I’ve been through and it’s taken away from you, you know your days are limited in any journey.
“The only real doubt I had was whether my body would let me play footy again. Mentally, I was as determined as ever.
“To be back playing for Queensland and Australia is something I’m really cherishing again.”