Hodges backs O’Neill, Gagai

Officially, he is “always available” for Queensland.

But Justin Hodges says he is more than happy with Queensland’s backline depth, endorsing Justin O’Neill as his successor and backing Dane Gagai to again shine in Maroon.

Hodges admits speculation spiralled out of control quickly when it emerged new Queensland coach Kevin Walters jokingly enquired about his availability ahead of the June 1 State of Origin opener in Sydney.

The stage did seem to be set for Hodges to become the next Dale Shearer, the evergreen utility who made a habit of a surprise Maroons comeback.

The Queensland backline stocks appeared bare after losing fullback Billy Slater (shoulder) and centre Will Chambers (foot) in the wake of Hodges’ 2015 retirement.

And Hodges admits he fleetingly entertained the idea.

However, the veteran centre of 24 Origins said he never seriously considered a comeback.

Looking at the Queensland backline Hodges supported ahead of the Maroons Origin I team announcement on Tuesday night, no wonder.

Hodges said Cowboys three-quarter O’Neill had done enough to fill the big shoes he had left behind.

“It makes sense with his combination with the North Queensland guys like JT (Johnathan Thurston) and Morgo (Michael Morgan),” he said.

“He will be a good fit.”

And he expected Gagai to be retained on the wing by Queensland despite battling away with NRL cellar dwellers Newcastle this season.

Hodges said he overlooked NRL form when considering Gagai after witnessing his sensational Origin debut in Queensland’s record 52-6 series-clinching, game three win last year.

Regular centre turned fullback Gagai was unstoppable for the Maroons, notching 104m, a line break and a try in his unfamiliar position of wing against a hapless NSW.

“Dane’s Origin debut last year was one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Hodges told AAP.

“He just came in and dominated. He was sensational.

“He will be there (for 2016 game one).”

Hodges said a Queensland call-up would reinvigorate the form of Gagai – and quite possibly Newcastle.

“Origin is a different vibe – that always makes you play better,” he said.

“And then when you go back to the club you find an extra effort you didn’t have before.

“It’s always tough when your team is not playing well and you are on the bottom of the ladder.

“But Gagai will do a good job for Queensland – I know senior players have confidence in him.”

Asked about his own Origin status, Hodges joked: “I am always available”.

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