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Queensland Maroons coach Billy Slater announces his 2023 State of Origin team to play NSW Blues in the series opener.
Queensland Maroons coach Billy Slater announces his 2023 State of Origin team to play NSW Blues in the series opener. Photograph: Darren England/AAP
Queensland Maroons coach Billy Slater announces his 2023 State of Origin team to play NSW Blues in the series opener. Photograph: Darren England/AAP

State of Origin 2023 shapes as test of nerve with new blood mixed with experience

The Queensland Maroons and NSW Blues squads boast proven experience and untried talent but there is rust and risk in both states’ selections

New South Wales have gone back to the future for State of Origin 2023, recalling a host of stars to their Game One squad while Queensland have overhauled their winning combinations from last year to blood a batch of young guns and forge a new dynasty.

Blues coach Brad Fittler was first to name his Origin squad on Monday morning, confirming the return of box-office players Latrell Mitchell and Tom Trbojevic in the centres and moving swiftly to amend his big mistake from 2022 by recalling electric Bulldogs flier Josh Addo-Carr on the wing.

Queensland coach Billy Slater, who led an unfancied Maroons outfit to a boilover 2-1 win in his first series at the helm, has doubled down in the quest for consecutive victories, dumping incumbent fullback Kalyn Ponga and axing Origin veteran Dane Gagai after their dismal showing in Newcastle’s limp loss to Cronulla at the weekend.

Both teams will head to Adelaide for Origin 1 on 31 May with squads boasting proven experience and untried talent. But there is also rust and risk in both state’s selections.

Mitchell and Trbojevic reunite in the centres after missing last year’s series, the latter catching Fittler’s eye with a three try performance in the Sea Eagles’ upset of the Raiders. Trbojevic is far from firing on all cylinders and still looks ginger in contact. Yet Fittler has snubbed the season’s form centre Rabbitoh Campbell Graham and trusted the Manly maestro to deliver on the big stage.

Mitchell delivered a largely listless performance in Souths’ shock defeat to Parramatta on Friday and looked emotionally spent from a busy lead-up into Indigenous Round. But he still has a smile on his face, magic in his hands and plenty in the tank and that will spell trouble for the Maroons. With his sublime passing game and Trbojevic’s running lines, they could combine as explosively as nitro and glycerine.

Latrell Mitchell and his Souths teammates at Allianz Stadium on Friday.
Latrell Mitchell and his Souths teammates at Allianz Stadium on Friday. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Slater has added spark and starch to his Queensland side. In-form pocket rocket Reece Walsh has been in dazzling form for the Broncos and will debut at fullback in place of Ponga while Dolphins speedster Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow swept Gagai aside in the centres. Gold Coast behemoth David Fifita and Rabbitohs backrower Jai Arrow have been recalled to duty after being overlooked for the Maroons last year.

Both coaches were blindsided by star Raiders withdrawing from Origin duties, with Blues utility Jack Wighton and Maroons hitman Josh Papali’i opting out. Injuries and suspensions will also ripple into Games Two and Three. The suspended Felice Kaufusi and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui will reappear for Queensland, while Blues tyro Jake Trbojevic is a late scratching for Game One replaced by the Bulldogs’ Tevita Pangai Junior.

It means Slater and Fittler have had to dig deeper and extend trust further to find heavy artillery up front and precision weaponry out wide. For all its talk of using established combinations, Origin is a test of nerve – back the incumbents or blood the newbies? Fittler fumbled his selections in 2022 while Slater aced his. Happily for both, the spines of the teams that fought out the 2022 series remain largely untouched.

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Fittler has again entrusted his future to his old clubmen, those who make up the Panthers’ attack axis, with Jarome Luai at five-eighth and Nathan Cleary at halfback restored trusted at No 6 and 7, teammates Liam Martin and and Isaah Yeo running off their shoulders, and winger Brian To’o as the finisher. Ex-Panther Apisai Koroisau, spark-plug for the Wests Tigers’ 66-18 flogging of North Queensland, is their No 9 with Cronulla champion Nicho Hynes debuting at No 14.

For Queensland, Cameron Munster and Daly Cherry-Evans bring fire and ice in the halves while Dragon Ben Hunt and Storm’s Harry Grant are the dynamic hooking duo. Hunt has been through the mill at St George and will relish the chance to lead a star-studded side and replicate his match-winning feats from Game Three at Suncorp last year. He has Bronco Selwyn Cobbo and Cowboy Murray Taulagi twitching in the wings.

The omissions are notable but not unexpected. Despite consistent energy for Souths, Damien Cook’s 15-game shift as NSW rake may be over while Daniel Tupou was badly shown up in the air and in defence subbing for the snubbed Addo-Carr last year. For Queensland, backrower Kurt Capewell’s struggle with a shoulder injury could be terminal and former match-winner Gagai’s defence has finally proven his weak point.

As for mercurial Maroons fullback Ponga, his time sidelined with four concussions in the past 10 months is said to have forced Slater’s hand. Despite featuring in all three games and delivering a man of the match performance in last year’s series decider, the fallen Knight’s errors in the 26-6 loss to Cronulla showed he has a long way to go before Slater hands him the No 1 jersey he made famous in 31 Origins across a decade.

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