One of Queensland’s greatest fullbacks, Gary Belcher, admits he is excited about the prospect of Kalyn Ponga and Valentine Holmes duelling it out this season for the Maroons No.1 jersey.
The dust had barely settled on the State of Origin career of the fullback ranked as perhaps the greatest of them all – the mercurial Billy Slater – before the exuberance and brilliance of Ponga made it seem like Queensland had found a long-term heir to Slater’s throne.
But Ponga’s clear path to the fullback jersey has been clouded by the return of Valentine Holmes to rugby league after a stint in America’s NFL.
Holmes, himself a proven powerhouse at Origin and Test level on the wing, has joined the North Queensland Cowboys for the 2020 season as fullback, and will now go head-to-head with Ponga for the Maroons spot.
Belcher – FOG No.47 who played 16 games at the back for Queensland between 1986 and 1993 – said that no matter who wins the race for the No.1 job in Kevin Walters’ team, the Maroons would ultimately be the winners.
“I am just really excited to see them both in action, and try to outdo each other in the race to Origin selection,” Belcher said. “You’ve got two guys at the peak of their powers, both brilliant attacking players, and whoever gets the job is going to have to be playing very, very well.
“In a different time and place, you would also have Cameron Munster in the mix for the fullback job as well – he’s said before that fullback is his preferred position – so we really are in pretty good shape for fullbacks at the moment.
“It is so hard to predict how it is going to pan out before a ball has even been kicked this season. But I guess there are a few things working in Ponga’s favour.
“The first is that he is the incumbent, and Queensland always stick by the players who have done the job for them in the past.
“Secondly is the fact that he probably has that better passing game in his arsenal because of the time he has spent in the halves, whereas Val has really played most of his footy on the wing.
“That play-making role is such an important part of being a modern fullback, and Kalyn is probably at this stage a bit stronger in that regard.
“The final thing is what Kevvie plans to do with the outside backs. We will obviously be short of numbers for centres again this year, so which direction Kevvie goes there will play a big part in what the team looks like.
“Valentine, or even Kalyn for that matter, might find themselves in the centres or, depending on where they play Dane Gagai, Valentine might be Queensland’s best option on the wing.”
Despite the difficulty former Blues fullback Jarryd Hayne had in transitioning back to league after a stint in the NFL, ‘Badge’ has no doubts that Holmes will hit the ground running in Townsville.
“Valentine is prepared to do the work, and you can see how much he has already put in – getting his body shape back to the optimum for rugby league and building his endurance,” Belcher said.
“I think Val is an excellent signing for North Queensland. He will be so good for them, and so good for Queensland as well.
“He is still only 24. He has scored eight tries in five Origin games, and scored 11 tries in two Tests at the World Cup before he left for the NFL, and I don’t think we have even seen the best of him yet.
“Moving to fullback will really take his game to another level, and that is great news for the Cowboys and the Maroons.”