Queensland coach Billy Slater can’t pick Kalyn Ponga despite sly Origin call

As Queensland coach Billy Slater ponders a State of Origin three-peat this year, the Maroons mentor yesterday mulled unleashing a dangerous double-act: bringing Kalyn Ponga into the squad alongside incumbent fullback Reece Walsh.

Ponga has represented Queensland seven times – and was key to their 2022 series win – but sat out last year’s campaign due to concussion issues.

Yet the Knights’ No. 1 has been in stellar form this season, with the reigning Dally M winner joint-top of this year’s standings alongside Viliame Kikau.

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Slater yesterday declared “anything’s possible” and that he’ll “look outside the box” to evolve his team in the hunt for a third-straight Origin triumph.

“My attention right now is just watching players, watching the habits that they’ve got in their game. You know, watching the standards they hold themselves to not just each game but each moment in each game,” Slater said.

“That’s really important because that sort of habit is what they’re going to fall back on when they get tired. And I can guarantee you they’re going to get tired in the game that they’re playing if they were in a maroon jersey.

“You know, I wouldn’t close any opportunities down and I’m one to look outside the box on how to play our game. I’m not against doing things a different way. And if it suits our team and it suits the strength of our team, well we’ll look at it. Anything’s possible.”

QLD coach Billy Slater open to Walsh-Ponga Origin duo

But the big question is how to deploy both into an already-loaded Queensland side.

Speaking on Fox League’s NRL 360, Paul Kent asked: “If you pick them both, this is gonna be the issue – how do you play them both?

“You’re not going to replace your fullback … do they send (one) on in the famous number 14 role for Queensland where he just plays that middle forward and walks around?”

Daily Telegraph journalist David Riccio said: “Walsh will start, I think Kalyn Ponga comes off the bench. He’s given a licence to be a roving 13. Mind you, if you go back and have a look at Kalyn’s debut for Queensland – he did the exact same role.”

But that would likely require getting rid of 34-year-old Origin stalwart Ben Hunt, a 17-cap Maroons veteran.

Brent Read said: “I think the big issue there is that would involve disposing of Ben Hunt. That’s a bit harsh on Ben. He’s been a real loyal servant for a long time. His form’s not down.”

Two-time Origin series winner Braith Anasta interjected: “They won’t do that. I don’t think Billy will do that.”

“I don’t think they will,” Read replied. “I don’t think Kalyn Ponga makes it – I don’t know how Kalyn makes it.”

But Riccio declared: “Kalyn Ponga has to be in that Queensland team. His form’s irresistible.”

“It won’t happen,” Anasta hit back. “They’re not going to drop Ben Hunt.”

Crucial in Queensland’s last two series wins has been the rotation of Ben Hunt with Harry Grant at hooker – taking up a potential bench spot that Ponga could inhabit.

Riccio said: “The last time Kalyn did come off the bench they had an 80 minute hooker, Queensland – Andrew McCullough was playing 80 at the time.

“With Ben Hunt in the team, he’s not playing 80. Harry Grant still sits on the bench and comes on.”

Read replied: “Harry can play 80, though.

“I just don’t think they’ll go down that path because Grant-Hunt combo has worked so well over the past couple of years. I’m not sure you can afford to just dispense with that. Kalyn will get a chance at some point this series.”

Read pondered: “Could he come on and potentially play on the wing if someone gets injured? Maybe at centre? Why not?”

Would Latrell have played centre even if not suspended?

But the prospect of Queensland’s livewire fullbacks – as well as Storm star Cameron Munster – running riot against a tiring opposition forward pack is certainly an enticing one.

Riccio said: “Could you imagine how damaging it would be if Reece Walsh and Kalyn Ponga and Cameron Munster are out on the footy field at the same time. In the final 25 minutes of that game, when the Blues forwards’ backsides are hanging out and gaps are starting to open up, and Kalyn Ponga’s coming down the left-hand side.”

But Anasta said: “It’s not just about having all the superstars on there. Queensland have won series after series without the superstars, or without as many as NSW. It’s about fitting them into the game plan and executing it the right way.

“Ben Hunt suits Origin, because he’s not only skilful, he’s tough, he’s fit. He can play 9, 7, 6, 13.

“Kalyn is a great player and he’d be in every team around the world. Unfortunately, Walsh is a great player too and he’s playing in good form and Queensland pick and stick.”

Originally published as ‘It won’t happen’: Queensland can’t pick Ponga despite sly Slater call

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