‘Use Maroons’ Billy blueprint’: Ponga push amps up
QUEENSLAND great Gary Belcher has urged Maroons selectors to use the Billy Slater blueprint and bring Newcastle sensation Kalyn Ponga into the Origin set-up sooner rather than later.
While coach Kevin Walters is struggling to find enough fit forwards to fill his engine room, he has a multitude of alternatives in the halves and in the outside backs.
The consensus among experts is that Dragons No.7 Ben Hunt has the jump on Michael Morgan to partner Storm five-eighth Cameron Munster in the halves and there are a host of wingers putting pressure on Maroons veteran Darius Boyd.
In his first full season in the top grade Ponga leads the NRL in tackle busts (49) and is tied for fourth for both line breaks (seven) and try assists (eight), coming up clutch in the big moments for the Newcastle Knights.
It's led many to suggest that he should usurp Morgan as Queensland's super sub on the bench, a prospect Blues coach Brad Fittler described as a potential "nightmare" for the New South Wales defence.
With his incredible skill and versatility even Queensland captain Cameron Smith spoke to Ponga's value as a utility player, admitting that he was "hitting the panic button" every time the 20-year-old touched the footy when the Storm played the Knights in Round 6.
But rather than having him riding the pine for the opening half-hour of the contest, Belcher believes Ponga could follow the trail blazed by Slater before eventually taking over his mantle as the Queensland fullback.
When he made his Origin debut for Queensland as a 20-year-old in 2004 Slater played all three games of the series on the wing and in 2008 was used twice off the interchange bench.
Broncos winger Corey Oates and Dragons flyer Nene Macdonald both make compelling cases but as Boyd continues to battle a hamstring injury, Belcher believes the better long-term option is to introduce Ponga as soon as possible.
"We've got to find a spot for him like we did with Billy when he was a young player on the wing," Belcher told foxsports.com.au.
"He's just got to be there. I think he's going to be our long-term fullback for the next 10-12 years.
"I'd like to see him get a run this year, either on the bench or on the wing. Find a spot for him somewhere.
"Darius has had to shelve his running game because of his hamstring. His passing game is still immaculate but with his hammy he's no threat when he runs the ball at all.
"I'd have Ponga next in line after Boyd."
Walters remained loyal to Boyd as his fullback for Game One last year but after the Maroons suffered a record defeat at Suncorp Stadium rushed Slater back into the team for the following two games.
Boyd missed the Kangaroos' World Cup campaign in order to allow his troublesome hamstring to recuperate but he continued to be troubled by it through the pre-season and for the first couple of games of the season.
With 17 tries in 28 games for the Maroons Boyd is unlikely to be jettisoned for Game One but a loss on June 2 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground may yet force Walters' hand.
With Slater guaranteed the No.1 jersey and Greg Inglis and Will Chambers almost certain to be named in the centres, the two wing spots remain the most contentious.
In addition to Boyd, Walters will have to consider reigning Wally Lewis Medal winner Dane Gagai, Kangaroos incumbent Valentine Holmes, Ponga, Oates and Kyle Feldt as his men on the flanks.
Coaches will tell you that it's a good headache to have, but it's a headache nonetheless.