Queensland captain Cameron Smith admits it’s near impossible to replace retired great Justin Hodges but has backed North Queensland’s Justin O’Neill to absorb the pressure of filling the legendary centre’s boots.
Cowboys centre O’Neill and Brisbane winger Corey Oates were the two new faces in the 17 named for a Queensland side that will begin life without 24-game Maroons veteran Hodges this year.
O’Neill and Oates feature in a reshuffled Queensland backline also without fullback Billy Slater (shoulder) and centre Will Chambers (foot) to play the Blues in Sydney on June 1.
“It’s always hard to replace a guy like Justin – his experience is invaluable at this level,” said Smith, who will break the record for most Origin caps with 37 on June 1.
“But also his position in the team. He was the heart and soul of the team, very much respected and loved by everyone.
“But in saying that we have a quality player in the centres in Justin O’Neill.”
Not that O’Neill will be asked to become the next Hodges.
“We are not here to replace Justin. We are here to give another guy an opportunity to build his Origin story,” Smith said.
Smith expected former Melbourne teammate O’Neill to create a “formidable” pairing in the centres with Greg Inglis.
“He has played on the big stage. Just six months ago he was in a grand final with the Cowboys – he will handle it, he won’t be overawed,” Smith said.
O’Neill finally gets his Origin chance after going agonisingly close when on standby for Darius Boyd ahead of the 2013 series opener.
Towering Broncos flyer Oates has been named on the wing despite failing to complete last Friday night’s 19-18 NRL loss to North Queensland due to dizzy spells and an irregular heartbeat.
Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt was overlooked after his error-riddled display in the same clash.
Instead Maroons selectors remained loyal to incumbent winger Dane Gagai who plays for NRL cellar dwellers Newcastle.
The only Maroons incumbent dropped was interchange backrower Jacob Lillyman of the Warriors.
Lillyman is 18th man.
He made way for Brisbane prop Josh McGuire who missed last year’s record 52-6 game three series-clinching win due to an Achilles injury.
“It’s been a team hard to get into because of their success,” said Queensland coach Kevin Walters, who takes over from Mal Meninga.
“I think the two new boys have really earned their place – now it is up to them to do themselves proud.”
Walters inherits a Queensland team which have won nine of the last 10 Origin series.
Walters is under pressure to maintain their Midas touch, placing the emphasis on the Maroons starting the series with victory in Sydney.
They have won just two of six games in Sydney in the past five years.
“We haven’t got a great record in Sydney, that’s for all to see – we are out to change that this year,” Smith said.