Teenager Reece Walsh has been thrust into a State of Origin debut after just seven NRL games, named at fullback for Queensland in Sunday’s must-win game two at Suncorp Stadium.
The 18-year-old Warriors phenom, who has scored four tries since a mid-season release from Brisbane, is one of two debutants named by coach Paul Green as the Maroons attempt to keep the series alive after their game one flogging by New South Wales in Townsville.
North Queensland forward Francis Molo is the other debutant, named on a power-packed bench that includes Moeaki Fotuaika and David Fifita. Cronulla winger Ronaldo Mulitalo is part of the extended squad for the first time as 19th man, with Coen Hess named 18th man.
Walsh will be the second-least-experienced player to debut for the Maroons after Ben Ikin, who was selected in 1995 during the Super League war after just four first-grade appearances.
The rise of Walsh is all the more remarkable given he wasn’t even part of Brisbane’s top-30 contract list, the Broncos allowing him to leave early after the Warriors had initially secured him for the 2022 season.
Once there Warriors coach Nathan Brown wasted no time, pushing highly-rated fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to the wing to accommodate Walsh.
“It’s a great opportunity, a great story,” Green said. “He’s passed every test he’s had to go through so far … good players in the past have come up at that level, particularly around Origin.
“He’s showed he’s got the confidence, he’s not afraid to back himself and good players, a trait is that if they make a mistake they can get themselves back in the game quickly and he’s been able to do that.”
Walsh’s selection, after injuries ruled out AJ Brimson (knee) and Kalyn Ponga (groin), means Valentine Holmes will give up the No.1 jersey and move to the wing in place of the axed Xavier Coates.
Green said 20-year-old Coates was a casualty due to his inexperience rather than his form, opting for the more senior Holmes and Kyle Feldt to run outside Walsh at Suncorp Stadium.
A hamstring injury to hooker Harry Grant means a return to Origin for St George Illawarra’s Andrew McCullough, who hasn’t played for the Maroons after appearing in all three games in 2018.
McCullough’s Dragons teammate Ben Hunt will take Brimson’s utility role on the bench with Fifita dropping out of the starting line-up to allow for Josh Papalii’s return after missing game one with suspension.
The Canberra enforcer’s selection means Tino Fa’asuamleaui moves to lock with Jai Arrow forming the second-row alongside Melbourne’s Felise Kaufusi, where Green hopes for more resilience than was on show in Townsville.
Bench forwards Joe Ofahengaue and Jaydn Su’a are the other casualties from Queensland’s game one humiliation.
“We lacked a bit of control through the middle … there’s a bit more experience, so having Josh and Christian out there for a bit longer will shore up the middle,” Green said. “It’s probably a better balanced pack.”