MAROONS selector Billy Slater has challenged Queensland’s young guns to step up as Wayne Bennett’s ‘Babes’ face one of the most daunting assignments in State of Origin history.
Origin celebrates its 40th anniversary with a November series, and it will be a baptism of fire for the Maroons, who have named a batch of new faces for the COVID-affected campaign.
An injury crisis has prompted Maroons selectors to name 17 uncapped players in their extended 27-man squad.
Six players were selected from the grand final teams in the wake of Melbourne’s 26-20 defeat of Penrith – Melbourne five Brenko Lee, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Cameron Munster, Christian Welch and Felise Kaufusi, as well as Panthers utility Luke Capewell.
The raft of rookies includes Titans trio AJ Brimson, Mo Fotuaika and Phillip Sami; Newcastle duo Edrick Lee and Hymel Hunt; Broncos pair Xavier Coates and Pat Carrigan and Tigers hooker Harry Grant.
Meanwhile, Jaydn Su’A and Corey Allan are bolters from South Sydney, while uncapped Jake Friend and Lindsay Collins have been rewarded for the Roosters’ fine season.
While not all of the uncapped players will make the final 17-man squad, there is no question Queensland will field one of the most inexperienced teams in their history for Origin I on Wednesday week.
Fullback legend Slater who was added to Queensland’s selection panel in 2019 and he urged the youthful Maroons to emulate the feats of Paul Vautin’s ‘Neville Nobodies’, who pulled off a stunning 3-0 series win in 1995.
“We’ve had a few injuries and we’ve had to deal with them. It’s quite an inexperienced squad – 17 of our squad have yet to taste any sort of Origin in that arena,” Slater said.
“I look back to 1995 and even 2006 (when Queensland won 2-1 in Mal Meninga’s first year in charge) to a certain extent.
“There were a lot of players in those squads that people raised their eyebrows at, but with Queensland whenever you pull on that jersey, you are expected to perform at a certain level.
“There is a certain amount of effort required and we expect no different.”
While the Blues will start hot favourites to clinch a third straight series win, Queensland still have experience in key positions in halfback Daly Cherry-Evans and prop Josh Papalii.
Friend, tipped to debut at hooker, may not have played Origin, but the 30-year-old is a premiership-winner who has played 263 NRL games.
“It’s going to be an inexperienced side but we are certainly going to lean on the experienced guys like Daly Cherry-Evans, Josh Papalii and Cameron Munster,” Slater said.
“We have players there who have played many times for Queensland and been involved in series victories.
“Josh Papalii has been in superb form this season and last season as well, he has been one of the best front-rowers in the competition – if not the best.
“I’m sure these players are really excited to get into camp and get into that Origin arena.”
Queensland will be banking on the Storm’s premiership win to act as a springboard for an Origin boilover.
Almost a third of Queensland’s final 17 could come from Melbourne, who are expected to supply Munster, Fa’asuamaleaui, Kaufusi, Welch and debutant Lee for Game One at Adelaide Oval.
In a thrilling NRL decider, Melbourne were bound for glory at 22-0 at half-time, only for the Panthers to unleash a desperate second-half surge. In the end, the Storm hung on to prevail 26-20 to clinch their fourth premiership and second in four seasons.
Former Queensland Origin skipper, Storm champion Cameron Smith, rated it one of the finest achievements of his glittering 430-game NRL career.
“I’m so proud of this side, it’s a great feeling,” he said.
“Geez we did it the hard way, Penrith were coming home in the end and who knows what happens if the game goes another few minutes.
“Along the way there was probably a handful of us that at times struggled (with the COVID bubble). And that’s understandable given the situation we were in. We didn’t go to our homes for five months.
“Never, ever in our lifetime have we ever gone through anything like this or been asked to do anything like this.
“That’s why I say this is a special group.”
The Maroons squad will be based on the Gold Coast for the three-week campaign, with Game Two to be in held in Sydney on November 11 and Game Three at Suncorp Stadium on November 18.
QUEENSLAND MAROONS 2020 SQUAD: Jai Arrow, AJ Brimson, Moeaki Fotuaika, Phillip Sami, Edrick Lee, Hymel Hunt, Valentine Holmes, Coen Hess, Xavier Coates, Patrick Carrigan, Ben Hunt, Josh Kerr, Harry Grant, Daly Cherry-Evans, Jake Friend, Lindsay Collins, Jaydn Su’A, Corey Allan, Dane Gagai, Dunamis Lui, Josh Papalii, Kurt Capewell, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Brenko Lee, Cameron Munster, Christian Welch, Felise Kaufusi. Coach: Wayne Bennett. Assistants: Mal Meninga, Neil Henry.