JARROD Wallace admits he was “gutted” to be axed by the Maroons for last year’s Origin series and is hoping a bumper fightback with the Titans this season can catapult him back into a Queensland jumper.
Wallace has carved out a reputation as a quality NRL front-rower, having amassed 152 first-grade games since his debut as a 20-year-old for former club the Broncos in 2012.
But as he approaches almost a decade of service in the NRL, the 29-year-old has some burning questions he wants to answer at State of Origin level.
Is he finished as an Origin player? Can he truly fire for Queensland in the code’s toughest arena?
It is a personal examination sparked by his devastation at last year’s omission, when he was snubbed by Queensland coach Wayne Bennett for the historic Origin series in November.
While Titans teammates and rookies AJ Brimson, Moe Fotuaika, Phillip Sami were surprise call-ups, Bennett could find no place for Wallace in his extended 25-man squad despite his experience having played six Origin matches across three campaigns.
‘Bennett’s Babes’ responded with a magical series upset of the Blues, the emotion of which has only fuelled Wallace’s desire to wear Maroon again in 2021.
“I was really shattered to miss Origin last year,” Wallace said.
“I love wearing that Queensland jumper and I was gutted not to be part of that epic series win.
“It was awesome to see Queensland win. Whether I was playing or not, it’s always good to see us beat NSW in the Origin arena.
“But in another way, I felt some relief (to miss out) because I was pretty emotionally and physically tired.
“COVID was a massive challenge for all the NRL players last year. We spent a lot of time away from our family, there were times where I didn’t see my kids for two or three weeks because I was stuck in the bubble.
“So when the season ended, it was nice to get some time off and live normally again.”
Wallace hopes to ride the momentum of the Titans’ rebirth as a finals threat to force his way into calculations for this year’s series, which begins at the MCG on Wednesday June 9, before heading to Suncorp Stadium (Sunday, June 27) and Sydney’s Stadium Australia (Wednesday, July 14).
Since his Queensland debut in 2017, Wallace has struggled to parlay his consistent, metre-eating charges for the Gold Coast into big numbers in the Origin arena.
Overlooked for the series opener in 2019, Wallace was recalled for Origin II in Perth. On a wet night, he made just seven runs and 47 metres off the bench as the Blues belted the Maroons before 59,000 fans at Optus Stadium.
In the wake of Queensland’s 38-6 hammering, Wallace was dropped for that year’s decider. He is determined it will not be his last Origin hurrah.
“I’ve got some unfinished business in that arena,” he says.
“My performances for Queensland haven’t always been up to my standard.
“Part of that is to do with the limited minutes I’ve played at that level, but I certainly want to improve as an Origin player and I believe I can.
“What’s happened to me over the last 18 months has been a wake-up call for me.
“At club level, I was getting bashed every week in a team that was losing, and you can only stay positive for so long. But Justin (Holbrook, Titans coach) has done a great job and he has really brought some enjoyment back to my football.
“I want to get that Origin jersey back, but first I have to keep my Titans spot and make sure I’m not in and out of the starting side.”
Wallace concedes the pressure is on at the Titans this year.
He failed to cement a regular starting berth in 2020, playing nine of 17 games off interchange, and the off-season signing of big-name recruits David Fifita, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Herman Ese’ese has triggered fierce competition in the forwards.
“I can’t afford to rest easy this year. No-one is safe at the Titans,” he said.
“The depth in our forward pack is a lot stronger this year, since I’ve been at the Titans we haven’t had the level of competition that we have this season.
“In the past, we’ve had to throw young kids in and ask them to play 10 or 15 games before they were ready for that.
“Now we have genuine NRL players in the squad and there will be some good first graders who will be at (feeder clubs) Burleigh or Tweed this year because there are only so many NRL spots.
“The competition at training is intense, but I feel good in body and mind. The Titans have given me a good break and now I’m back refreshed and ready for a big year.”