Rugby League

Slater backs Hopgood after edging Fifita for Maroons spot

May 27, 2024 12:12 pm

[Source: NRL]

Queensland coach Billy Slater has backed J’maine Hopgood to deliver on debut after he edged David Fifita for the final position on the Maroons bench.

The decision was the most contentious in a talent-laden team for next week’s State of Origin opener in Sydney.

While Fifita starred for the Titans in Sunday afternoon’s upset victory over the Broncos, it wasn’t enough to sway Slater after a slow start to the year.

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“Dave created a really high standard for his footy last year, he hasn’t quite got to that standard this year,” Slater said. “I spoke to Dave last night, he’s taken the disappointing news like a true Queenslander.

“He wishes the best for the footy team. He further reiterated that with a text message after that. I’ve got no doubt Dave will get back to the footy he played last year and I’m sure he’ll wear a maroon jersey in the future again.”

Fifita’s absence was one of few shocks in Slater’s squad, with Tom Dearden named to play alongside captain Daly Cherry-Evans in the halves.

Ben Hunt will start as hooker, with Harry Grant to be injected off the bench, while Reece Walsh returns to the No.1 jumper after missing Game Three last year through suspension.

Hopgood’s debut comes after a breakout year with the Parramatta Eels in 2023, his first with the club after he received limited opportunities in two seasons with the Panthers.

The forward was part of Slater’s extended squad in 2023 and the coach backed Hopgood to make an instant impact in his first State of Origin appearance.

“You know when a player goes silent on the other end of the call how much it means to them,” Slater said. “J’maine’s journey started back in Hervey Bay growing up playing the game he loves.

“Then he embarked on a journey down to Sydney. He spent some time at Penrith, many probably thought he stayed a little bit too long, but I love that about J’maine. He plied his trade, worked on his game in a great system down there, then moved across to Parramatta to get an opportunity.

“He earned his way into camp last year in Game Three. It wasn’t just for an experience. When one of those players is [brought into camp, they are] held in a regard that if [they’re] wearing a Maroons jersey, they’ll do Queensland proud. I’m looking forward to seeing J’maine go out there and represent his state.”

The other surprise was the decision to pick outside back Selwyn Cobbo on the interchange.

It’s in stark contrast to NSW, where coach Michael Maguire named four forwards on the bench, with Matt Burton as 18th man.

Slater said Cobbo’s exact role is still to be determined but pointed to recent injuries to outside backs in explaining the selection.

“In four of the last six Origin games we’ve had to replace an outside back,” Slater said. “He’s certainly there as a bit of cover but at the same time, Selwyn can play various positions. We might even create one for him, who knows.

“We’ll build that plan as the week goes. He’s a wonderful player, we’ve only seen the surface of what Selwyn can do. It’s really exciting to have him back in the team.”

Maroons name strong Origin squad for Game One

Queensland coach Billy Slater has named his 20-man squad for Game One of the 2024 Ampol State of Origin series to be played at Accor Stadium.

Eels forward J’maine Hopgood will make his debut for the Maroons after winning a spot on the bench ahead of incumbent Titans star David Fifita – the only debutant selected by coach Slater for the series opener.

He joins a versatile bench selected by Queensland alongside hooker Harry Grant, prop Moeaki Fotuaika and outside back Selwyn Cobbo, with Ben Hunt named to start at hooker and Cowboys forward Reuben Cotter shifting to the front row.

Jaydn Su’A has won a recall to the side for his first Origin game since 2021 after he was named to start in the back row alongside Jeremiah Nanai, while Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow will once again shift into the centres with Reece Walsh at fullback.

Suspended in the lead-up to last year’s series before being overlooked, veteran Dolphins forward Felise Kaufusi returns to the squad as 18th Man while Broncos duo Ezra Mam and Brendan Piakura also join the side as cover.

The Maroons will begin their preparations in Brisbane before heading south to the Gold Coast for their traditional camp – heading to Sydney early next week as they look to clinch Game One in New South Wales territory for the fourth time in a row.