Queensland star Billy Slater, regarded by many as possibly the greatest rugby league fullback ever, has ruled himself out of tomorrow night’s State of Origin opener with a hamstring strain. In a massive boost for New South Wales, Queensland will be without any players from their “big four” champion spine of Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater for the first time since game 2, 2003.
The Queensland Maroons will have 150 less caps than the team that ran out for game 1 last year. The only player in the side with more than 10 Origin appearances to his name will be the captain, Greg Inglis, who will need to step up and show real leadership to make up for Slater’s absence.
There are two possible replacements in the squad for Billy Slater, and both have been sent an SOS to fly down to Melbourne. Kalyn Ponga has been a superstar at Newcastle this year, and could come into the side to make his Origin debut. Anthony Milford from Brisbane could also come into the squad.
Ponga looks like being the next long term fullback for Queensland, so coach Kevin Walters may be tempted to give him a baptism of fire tomorrow night. Michael Morgan could also come into the starting side, to allow Ponga to enter the game of the bench.
If Milford is chosen he or Morgan will probably start at fullback, with the other acting as a utility off the bench. Inglis could also shift to the back, which would allow him to better direct the team. In this case either Morgan or 5/8 Cameron Munster will shift to centre to cover Inglis, with Morgan or Milford playing at 5/8.
The simplest option looks like a straight swap between Billy Slater and Ponga or Milford. In any event, the late injury has thrown Queensland preparations into disarray. New South Wales coach Brad Fittler and his team of rookies will be watching on with glee.