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So the great Cameron Smith is gone, and millions of people in bright blue afro wigs breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Smith’s retirement from representative football was the last thing we’d expected to hear while arguing about Origin team selections.
I know I hadn’t given the Queensland hooker position a second thought, and I’m pretty confident that anyone who tells you they didn’t have Cameron Smith in the number 9 is lying.
He was the very definition of a ‘fixture’, missing only one Origin match since scoring on debut in Game 3 of the 2003 series. It’s a remarkable record.
Queensland’s captain, kicker and hooker, gone, all in one press conference.
Strangely though, Smith’s decision to frame his rep jerseys for the pool room seems to have unleashed a mass case of amnesia across the league world.
Many, many people are so excited at the prospect of a Smith-less Queensland, they’ve completely forgotten New South Wales are in the early stages of a full-scale, knockdown rebuild operation.
Phil Gould went on the record earlier this week saying that new coach Brad Fittler was wiping the slate clean and “anyone who’s been there that’s lost is not coming back”.
Does Smith’s absence bring Queensland back to NSW ever so slightly? Of course it does. It has to. But does it doom Queensland and give the Blues a genuine shot at winning the 2018 series? Give me a break.
Here’s a quick memory refresher…
In last year’s decider, Queensland did the Blues over to the tune of 22-6. Thanks to injury and circumstance, coach Kevin Walters had to bring eight new players into his squad – not an ideal scenario for the biggest game of the year.
There’s a pretty notable list of absentees from that game, too: no Greg Inglis, no Matt Scott, no Darius Boyd, and guess what? No Johnathan Thurston.
Queensland’s halves were Cooper Cronk and a first gamer, Cameron Munster. Now Cronk is gone, but his likely replacement, Ben Hunt, was covering him from the bench.
That’s the same Ben Hunt who is halfback for the team sitting atop the NRL ladder. He’s in the top few for try assists, line break assists and kicking metres.
And how about this list of surnames? Slater, Gagai, Inglis, Hess, Chambers, Papalii. You know what their first names are.
Has all of this proven Origin quality all of a sudden lost the ability to play because Smith retired?
As if to prove how Smith’s decision has sent people mad, there’s already reporting bouncing around that Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and even Smith himself might be receiving an emergency call if things go belly-up.
There’s certainly precedent for this (on both sides of the border), but it’s not happening.
Smith will be properly saluted for his contributions to Queensland and Australia in time, but for now we need to look at what Walters does from here.
Who takes the number 9? Thanks to Smith’s durability, it’s likely that whoever dons the jersey will be playing their first Origin match.
The heavy favourite out of the gates is Brisbane Broncos rake Andrew McCullough. He’s already got Wayne Bennett spruiking him out on the hustings and the fans seem to agree, because McCullough handily leads all the online polls that came out yesterday.
McCullough is known for sticking his tackles and while he can work through 80 minutes without too much trouble, he’s had a few bad injuries in the last 18 months. He’s still pretty fresh from recovering from a knee reconstruction but he’s also technically still supposed to be missing after he damaged his elbow ligament against the Storm.
From the outside, Queensland’s Smith succession planning looks a bit underwhelming, maybe even non existent.
Walters didn’t have any hookers in his newly streamlined ‘Emerging Origin’ squad earlier this year, but North Queensland’s Jake Granville was in the 2017 version.
Granville understands how to work with elite halves, winning the 2015 premiership feeding Thurston and Michael Morgan (coincidentally, against McCullough).
Roosters dummy half Jake Friend started 2018 pretty well, hit a fairly deep trough, then came back strongly last week against the Warriors.
Working in Friend’s favour is that he’s been in and around the Queensland setup already as injury cover for Smith. That’s important from Walters’ point of view.
This weekend McCullough and Friend go head to head, a match-up that takes on a whole new complexion given the week’s events.
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As for the next Queensland Origin captain, there’s a plethora of options. The Maroons pride themselves on having leaders all the way up and down from positions 1 to 17.
But teams do need a figurehead and, for me, the choice is obvious: Greg Inglis.
Inglis is back as fit as he can be and State of Origin is the place where he imposes himself on a game with a presence greater than Darius Boyd, Billy Slater or anyone else.
It’s a running joke every year that Queensland try to cast themselves as the underdog and Smith’s departure has given them every reason to try it on again. Don’t buy that talk, even for one whole second.
State of Origin rarely fails to deliver for drama, controversy and intensity. In 2018 we can add unpredictability. This is shaping as one of the most interesting series for a long time.