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'Pretty emotional': Tears flow after Maroons debutant's bittersweet journey from tragedy to Origin

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27th May, 2024
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J’maine Hopgood spent his first afternoon as a Queensland Maroon telling Billy Slater how it could have been very different.

The hard-running Parramatta tackling machine, with an offload to boot, was ready to give up on rugby league and become a carpenter when he left school as a 15-year-old.

The Hervey Bay talent, whose dad Dale died of a heart attack after playing a game when his son was just seven, kept at it though.

A cameo as part of the extended Maroons squad for the final game of last year’s series was a nice taste of things to come. 

Now the 25-year-old lock will get his chance off the bench in the State of Origin opener in Sydney on June 5.

“I ran Billy through the story,” Hopgood, who began his career at Penrith in 2021, told journalists on Monday in Brisbane. 

“Fifteen years old, dropped out of school, started my apprenticeship playing club footy in Caloundra – and wasn’t even going to play that.

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“Even playing SG Ball at Penrith when I was 18, I didn’t think I’d play first grade. So to be standing here with all you, it’s been a long journey.”

His father’s sudden death, on the same day Hopgood played his first game of under-7s, will make turning out for the Maroons a bittersweet occasion. 

“A little bit; it’s a dream come true and if you’d asked a little eight-year-old kid if he would be standing here today, I wouldn’t know what to say to you,” he said.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 27: J'maine Hopgood poses for a photo during the Queensland Maroons State of Origin Media Opportunity at Suncorp Stadium on May 27, 2024 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

J’maine Hopgood. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

“Just a young kid from Hervey Bay, the first kid born and raised there to play first grade, let alone Queensland.”

Growing up a North Queensland fan, Hopgood counts Matt Bowen’s famous Origin intercept in game one of 2005 as one of his favourite childhood moments.

He said spending time in camp last year had made the experience of getting called up a smooth one – not that the wait for a phone call from Slater on Sunday was any less excruciating.

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“It was pretty emotional. I was sitting by the phone most of the day trying to keep busy,” he said.

“My daughter was getting ready for bed, it was close to bedtime, she was getting a bit angry (and) then the phone called.

“I quickly told my missus to mute the TV. We sat there with it on speaker…. she cried before me and I was just in a bit of shock, and that’s been the last 12, 24 hours for me. Being here, it’s a dream come true.”

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