Written by John Davidson
Replacing Cameron Smith is no easy feat.
The ageless hooker will go down as one of the greatest ever to pick up a Steeden for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia. 2017 was Smith’s last State of Origin series, the last time he skippered his state to a series win.
Since then the Maroons have lost two series in a row. Andrew McCullough started in hooker in all three games in the 2018 series, and then Ben Hunt did the same in 2019. Both filled in admirably, but were unable to replicate Smith’s tremendous impact.
In this year’s Covid-affected season we have Origin to look forward to in November. And if Queensland are to avoid a NSW hat-trick, then getting the right hooker is paramount to that challenge.
Luckily for Kevin Walters, he has a glut of in-form number 9s to pick from.
Jake Friend is one of the most underrated players in the NRL. He’s won everything in his 13-year career, claimed three premierships and played a Test for the Kangaroos. At 30 years old and with 257 games to his name, he has waited a long time for a crack at Origin.
Friend is certainly ready for it. He has been a key cog in the success of the champion Roosters for years. He is experienced, talented and tough. He wouldn’t be overawed by the occasion and pressure.
Then there’s Parramatta’s Reed Mahoney.
Like Friend, Mahoney is from Nambour. He is only 22 and only in his third year of first-grade. But the Eel is a real talent. He has helped Parra to the top of the table with some gusty performances. Mahoney is ranked third in the competition for tackles, 13 more than Friend, and is dependable and consistent.
He would be a worthy Maroon.
Then there’s past Queensland hookers McCullough and Hunt. McCullough has been reinvigorated with his move from Brisbane to Newcastle. He is in fine form and has scored a try each in the past two rounds.
Then there’s Hunt. Moved from halfback to the bench and then hooker, after the Dragons and his own poor early season form, Hunt is finding his feet again. He looks more comfortable at the back of the ruck where he can direct traffic.
And finally there is the new sensation Harry Grant.
The Storm loanee to the Tigers has been on fire since he joined the joint venture. He’s played less than 10 NRL games but has been a sensation. A Smith-like clone, the 22-year-old has a huge future in front of him.
Queensland rarely have the strength in depth that NSW do. But at hooker now, the Maroons have an embarrassment of riches.
Friend, Mahoney, Grant, even McCullough or Hunt, there are some able forwards to call from. What will be fascinating is whether Walters goes short-term, and picks Friend, or decides to invest in the future with a Grant or Mahoney.
Most importantly is for Queensland to break the Blues hold on the series. Whatever the call, it’s a decision those north of the Tweed river cannot afford to get wrong.