QUEENSLAND coach Kevin Walters has refused to guarantee Kalyn Ponga the No.1 jumper as he declared the race for the Maroons’ coveted fullback spot this season is wide open.
Underscoring the greater depth of the Queensland set-up, Walters concedes the fullback position is one of the state’s most contentious areas with Ponga, Cameron Munster and the returning Valentine Holmes locked in a thrilling three-way battle.
Ponga is one of the code’s superstars and was widely expected to have the Queensland No.1 jumper sewn up for a decade, only for the Newcastle young gun to suffer a calf injury which ruled him out of last year’s Origin decider.
Ponga’s setback opened the door for Munster, who made a superb transition from five-eighth to fullback in Origin III, emerging as Queensland’s best player in their crushing 26-20 loss to NSW in a Game Three thriller at ANZ Stadium.
And now there’s Holmes, who is back in Origin contention after his 12-month dalliance with the New York Jets failed to deliver an official NFL debut, prompting him to return to Queensland this season with the Cowboys.
While Holmes has been superb on the wing at Origin level, scoring eight tries from five games, he will play fullback for the Cowboys in 2020 and ultimately sees himself terrorising the Blues from the backfield.
It is the ultimate selection headache for Walters and one the Queensland coach welcomes, believing the fierce competition for spots will extract the best of Ponga, Munster and Holmes this season.
“When you have competition, that’s when you get the best football,” Walters said.
Asked if he will assess Holmes as a fullback, the coach added: “At the moment, I see Val as a great Origin player.
“It would be good to see him back in clubland for the Cowboys getting some volume into his legs. He has had 12 months out of the game, so that will take some time for him to adjust.
“Knowing Val I expect him to adapt quickly. What position he plays with Origin remains to be seen, but it’s very comforting from my point of view to have guys like Val.
“The thing I like is the competition for spots. We have three fullbacks really with Ponga, Munster and Holmes and that’s not even mentioning a guy like Michael Morgan, who has played fullback for us in the past.”
The 21-year-old Ponga is under pressure this season to bolster his natural brilliance with week-to-week consistency in the NRL, with the Maroons ace losing his way at the back end of last season as the Knights bombed out of finals contention.
Ponga has shown some magical touches in his embryonic three-game career for the Maroons, but Walters admits the attacking whiz has only scratched the surface of his talent in the representative arena.
“Kalyn Ponga hasn’t had a huge impact at Origin level, so his best football is in front of him,” he said.
“I won’t put too much pressure on Kalyn.
“We’ve had a conversation around where he is at with his football and this year they have a new coach at the Knights (Adam O’Brien) and I’m sure they are very excited about their future.
“When the Knights are playing well, Kalyn is playing well, so I’m excited about the season ahead for him.”
Holmes shares family ties with Cowboys utility Michael Morgan – they are married to sisters, making them brothers-in-law – and Walters believes that bond will help the former Sharks flyer’s quest to wear Maroon again.
“I’ve had a few talks with Val, he was with me last weekend for our pre-season camp,” Walters said.
“He has adapted well at the Cowboys. Speaking to some of his teammates, he has slotted in nicely, and I’m particularly happy with his combination with Michael Morgan.
“They are great friends off the field, and it will translate on the field.
“It only takes one moment in a game for something special to happen, and I think Val and ‘Morgo’ can develop a relationship and understanding on the field for the Cowboys. That will augur well for the Maroons as well.”
With the Blues to host Game Two of the 2020 series at ANZ Stadium, Walters admits it is crucial the Maroons draw first blood in the opener in Origin’s debut at Adelaide Oval on June 3.
“I’m not concerned what’s happened in the past two years (series losses to NSW),” he said. “I know the hunger and determination of this Queensland side, and I know we will win the first game at Adelaide Oval. The guys can’t wait to play there.”