Slater sparks Gagai’s Origin debut

A message from childhood hero Matt Bowen may have given Queensland winger Dane Gagai a shot in the arm.

But Gagai credited another fullback for inspiring one of the great Origin debuts in Wednesday night’s 52-6 win over NSW – Billy Slater.

He may not have played but Slater still ensured he had a major impact on the series decider after taking rookie Gagai under his wing in Queensland camp.

Veteran fullback Slater caused a backline reshuffle for game three after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Origin II.

But he had a bigger impact on Gagai after bonding with the youngster while visiting their game three camp on the Gold Coast.

“He was unbelievable,” Gagai said.

“He came up to me before the game last night and he was in my ear making sure my positioning was good.

“He gave me a lot of confidence. He had a lot to do with the way I went tonight.”

Gagai already had a spring in his step thanks to his Origin hero Bowen.

“I loved watching Matty, just his footwork and speed,” Gagai said of Bowen, who played the last of his 10 Origins in 2006.

“On Instagram (on Wednesday morning) I see he had messaged me, saying good luck, congratulations I had earned it.

“To get that from a guy I looked up to meant a lot to me – I didn’t want to let anyone down.”

Queensland coach Mal Meninga hailed Gagai after notching 104m and scoring in the 15th minute on debut.

“Dane is an extraordinary footballer and he is only going to get better for the experience,” Meninga said.

In the biggest compliment, Gagai even received Hodges’ blessing.

He said the Newcastle flyer was a ready-made replacement in a new-look Queensland backline that will feature Will Chambers filling Hodges’ centre vacancy next to Gagai on the wing next year.

“I leave the team in unbelievable hands with Will Chambers and Dane Gagai ready to go,” he said.

“Those guys are going to be unbelievable on the right side together with Greg (Inglis) going back into the centres (and Slater back at fullback).

“He (Gagai) always had that talent, (but) to play the way he did in a decider is unbelievable.”

The feeling was mutual.

“I would like to take a few things from his game, playing in the centres back at the club,” Gagai said of Hodges.

“You see him coming out of dummy half, everyone knows it is coming but there’s a difference between knowing what he is going to do and stopping it.

“He’s an unbelievable player and to play outside of him was an honour.”

The signs were ominous for Gagai who knocked on a Mitchell Pearce cross-field kick in just the third minute.

“Mal said to me make sure my first action was a positive one,” Gagai said.

“I went up for the ball, thought I had it but lost it at the last moment.

“I just let that go. I didn’t want to be that winger who let the boys down.”

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