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Smith's shock retirement exposes Maroons leadership vacuum

Could Jake Friend lead the Maroons this season? (Robb Cox ©nrlphotos.com)
Roar Guru
15th May, 2018
21

Many New South Welshmen, Kiwis and Poms are rejoicing at the thought of never having to watch their teams play against Cameron Smith again.

No more will he be manipulating officials with something as simple (and frustrating if you’re not on his side) as cool, calm and collected dialogue.

No more will he be ripping elite defences to shreds by getting his forwards over the advantage line with inch-perfect passes.

No more will he pull a 40-20 out of his backside just when his team needs it most.

Finally, his days of dominating the rep scene by coming up with the right play at the right time, every time, have come to an end.

For those who live north of the Tweed however, a sense of angst will be setting in as the first State of Origin match rapidly approaches.

On the one hand, one of their all-time greats has decided to hang up the boots. The Queensland faithful will celebrate his career and wish him all the best.

On the other hand, who the hell is going to lead the Banana-Benders around the park this year and into the future?

With no obvious answer to the above question, I – a New South Welshman motivated by nothing other than a desire to assist my brothers from north of the border – have assembled a list of leading Queensland captaincy candidates. No need to thank me Kevvie!

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Cameron Smith Queensland Maroons State of Origin NRL Rugby League 2017

Cameron Smith has retired from rep footy. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Greg Inglis
As a club captain, ‘GI’ is probably the first name that comes to mind.

His credentials speak for themselves: 30 Origins for 18 tries – the most of anyone ever. Not bad for a skinny kid from Bowraville (which is in Queensland).

But at the age of 31 and with troublesome knees, by picking Inglis as their skipper, the Maroons will probably find themselves in this same situation again within the next two years. With Inglis missing last year’s series through injury, it’s also not ideal to thrust him straight back into the side as captain.

Given his greatness, Inglis will no doubt rise to the challenge as he always does. But it’s still not an ideal situation.

Billy Slater
‘The Kid’ must be feeling more like ‘Old Man’ Billy at the age of 34. As unbelievable as it sounds now, he actually played against a NSW team that used to win more than its fair share of games.

Slater has never been a club captain, but he has always been a leader. Throughout his career he has been the defensive organiser at the back for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia. He’s also been part of the Queensland brainstrust for years, which means ascension to the role of captain would be a logical step.

What counts against Slater is his age. Like with Inglis, Slater could retire from representative football any time – many thought he would at the end of last year’s World Cup.

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On pure ability and standing in the team, Slater is probably the best choice. But it’s not smart to use such a stopgap solution – unless the Queensland selectors and coach are banking on a new leader emerging from the younger crop of players. If that is the case, they could pick Slater as a temporary captain while they groom a younger player to take over.

Billy Slater runs the ball for the Maroons in State of Origin

Billy Slater (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Matt Scott
Matt Scott is the most senior forward in the team and has single-handedly turned several games on their head – particularly when coming back into the game for his second stint. He is also a premiership-winning club captain – the only one in the Queensland team.

However, like Inglis and Slater before him, age is not on Scott’s side. At 32 years old, who knows how much longer he’ll be in the team for.

Also, like Inglis, Scott is coming back into Origin after missing last year’s series due to a serious injury.

Finally, as a front-rower, Scott will not be on the field for the entire game. While front-rowers have captained at Origin level before (most recently Paul Gallen for NSW), it’s obviously preferred that a captain play 80 minutes.

Darius Boyd
As the current Broncos skipper, Boyd is in a prime position to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Darren Lockyer, Gorden Tallis and Alfie Langer, who also captained Queensland.

Boyd is no spring chicken, however. He’ll be 31 in July, and while his injury troubles haven’t been quite as serious as that of Inglis, his hamstrings could flare up again at any time. The older one gets, the more likely it is.

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Being captain from the wing is also difficult. He could take over as fullback next year when Slater (likely) retires – although Kalyn Ponga may have something to say about that.

But that’s next year. I don’t think Kevvie Walters will want a winger as captain – even one who has played 28 games and scored 17 tries!

Michael Morgan
If Origin was played after last year’s finals series and the Queensland selectors were faced with Cameron Smith’s sudden retirement just two weeks out from the naming of the team, Michael Morgan would be a lock for the captaincy.

He’s 26, he plays in key positions, he’s played Origin and Test football before and he’s won a premiership. His off-field record is also squeaky-clean (hence Cameron Munster’s absence from this list). That’s your perfect captaincy candidate right there.

Unfortunately, Ben Hunt’s stellar start to the season, combined with Morgan’s relatively poor start, means he may not even be in the starting side for Origin 1 on June 6 at the MCG. And if Ponga keeps his form up, Morgan may not even make the 17.

I like Morgan’s long-term captaincy prospects. If the Queensland selectors were to privately back him and groom him for the role, they could pick someone like Slater or Inglis in the interim.

But it’s hard to decide to groom someone for captaincy when you can’t even guarantee him a spot in the team.

With the likes of Ben Hunt, Cameron Munster, Kalyn Ponga, Anthony Milford and Ash Taylor to be around for many years to come, this is very much the situation that Michael Morgan finds himself in.

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Jake Friend
This is definitely one out of left field, but I wouldn’t put it past those wily Queenslanders.

He might not even make the Origin side – Andrew McCullough is probably the front-runner to replace Smith as hooker at this stage – but if Friend is there, he firms as an ideal captaincy candidate.

His leadership credentials are proven – Trent Robinson is convinced that he is the best leader at the Roosters, despite having NSW captain Boyd Cordner on their roster.

Having a debutant as captain is unprecedented, but Friend has been an elite, representative-class hooker for many years. It’s his poor timing that has cost him a representative career so far – he’s the Stuart MacGill to Cameron Smith’s Shane Warne. So while he is a debutant, it’s not as if he’s inexperienced.

And at 28, he is a medium-to-long-term option if he can hold his spot in the side.

I’m not saying it’s likely, but it’s certainly an option worth considering.