DANE Gagai has ditched fast food and said bye-bye to burgers as the Queensland Origin flyer looks to stave off a challenge for his beloved Maroons jumper this season.
Gagai’s focus is representative of the entire Maroons playing group, who now have a definite target to zero-in on following the announcement that this year’s State of Origin series will be played across a blockbuster 14 days in November – the 4th, 11th and 18th.
The Women’s State of Origin series will be played on Friday November 13.
Being back in Maroon in November would be like Christmas come early for Gagai.
While there are sometimes question marks over Gagai’s week-to-week consistency in the NRL, his record for Queensland is simply remarkable.
There can be no doubting his ability to fire in the code’s toughest arena.
Since his Queensland debut in 2015, Gagai has been the Maroons’ Mr Reliable on the wing, scoring 11 tries from 13 games – including a hat-trick in just his third match in Queensland’s 26-16 win at Suncorp Stadium in 2016.
But suddenly the competition for backline berths in the Maroons’ set-up has intensified. Broncos star Corey Oates, who played all three Origin games last year, will always be in the selection frame because of his hulking 105kg frame and ability to be used as an extra forward on kick returns.
Then there’s the fresh threat provided by new Cowboy Valentine Holmes.
Before his 12-month stint in America last year chasing an NFL contract, Holmes was Gagai’s wing partner for the Maroons, having scored eight tries from just five games.
Now Holmes is back in the NRL, a scenario that gives Queensland coach Kevin Walters a selection headache as he confronts squeezing three top-quality wingers into two spots.
For that reason, Gagai is leaving no stone unturned.
The Rabbitohs flyer looked sharp at the NRL Nines tournament in February and says a bumper off-season has laid the bedrock for a successful 2020 season.
“I am the same weight but I’m a lot leaner and I’m lifting well in the gym,” Gagai said. “I couldn’t be happier with where I am at the moment.
“I know people tend to chuck the word around that it’s their best pre-season ever, but this has been one of my better ones.
“I’ve got my fitness up and changed my diet up a bit. Everything off the field is going well. I’m really enjoying the company of the Souths players.
“I’ve just tried to cut out bad foods. I’m not giving myself too much of a window to take it easy.
“After a game, you tend to easily swing through a fast food store, but I’ve cut out that and having a decent meal now. I’m going for a steak rather than Maccas after training, so I’m staying on top of my diet and it’s helped my recovery.”
Such is Gagai’s potency in Maroon, he is already the fifth-highest try-scorer in State of Origin history.
Only Greg Inglis (18 tries), Darius Boyd (17), Dale Shearer and Billy Slater (12) have crossed the white stripe more than Gagai in four decades of interstate contests.
Former NSW star Jarryd Hayne took 23 games to score 11 Origin tries. Gagai reached that total in 10 fewer games.
“I just love wearing the Queensland jumper,” he said. “The Origin arena brings out the best in you as a player and my attitude has always been to put the team first. I don’t like letting my Queensland teammates down.”
At Souths last year, there were rumours Gagai was unhappy playing on the wing following the signing of Broncos speedster James Roberts, who walked into a centre spot at Redfern.
But over summer, after a punishing Souths boot camp, the 29-year-old made a decision not to fret about where he plays for the Rabbitohs, Queensland and Australia.
“The first year I was at the Bunnies in 2018, a lot of our attacking shifts were to the left side (away from Gagai on the right side) and my role was pretty much kick-chase and I got pretty good at that,” he said.
“I wanted to have more involvement in attack but then I got shifted to the wing (when Roberts arrived) and I was focusing too much on trying to get that centre spot back.
“Now the best thing I have done is having the mindset of not caring where I play on the field. I just want to be the best player I can be for my club and state and enjoy my footy a lot more.”