All eyes may have been on recovering Queensland fullback Billy Slater on Friday as he firmed to play next week’s State of Origin opener in Sydney.
But Johnathan Thurston believes rookie Michael Morgan will be the player to watch in what he predicts will be one of the Maroons’ toughest assignments.
Slater gave weight to reports Maroons coach Mal Meninga had already cleared him for Origin I when he ran out in an opposed session on Friday night, defying a shoulder injury.
But Meninga is still sweating on star centres Justin Hodges (foot) and Greg Inglis (virus).
Hodges was reduced to light drills on the sideline as Queensland took on the Burleigh Bears at Pizzey Park.
Inglis is still quarantined at the team’s Gold Coast camp.
However, Thurston believed Morgan would be in the spotlight when the Maroons begin their quest to reclaim the Origin trophy on Wednesday night at ANZ Stadium.
Thurston expected referees to adopt the new NRL ruck speed rules, playing into interchange utility Morgan’s hands against a monster NSW side.
“The bench they have chosen shows the game is no doubt going to be played down the middle third,” he said of the Blues’ all-forwards interchange.
“(But) having Morgo on the bench gives us leg speed around the ruck.
“Plus he’s strong, he carries blokes over the line, he’s quick, got great footwork – all the attributes you need at this level.”
Thurston believed Queensland needed Morgan to shine against a NSW side still buzzing from snapping the Maroons’ record eight straight series run last year.
“No doubt it will be one of the toughest Origin series we have been a part of,” he said.
“With them winning the series last year they will be confident.
“It hurt losing the series last year – but we’ve got a good opportunity to show how good this side is.
“Game one is crucial.”
Slater ramped up his game one preparation on Friday night, wearing what looked to be a protective vest as he managed a shoulder complaint that will require post-season surgery.
“Billy will play, definitely,” Meninga told News Corp on Friday.
“To be honest, Billy has to manage it (shoulder injury), he requires surgery at the end of the year but he’s a tough competitor and he knows what to do.”
Inglis is recovering from what is believed to be tonsillitis while Hodges is nursing a “few stitches” after cutting his foot in an off-field but as yet unexplained incident.
But in an encouraging sign for his star duo, Meninga looks set to release back-up centre Dane Gagai for the Knights’ NRL clash with the Broncos on Monday night.
“I am hearing the boys (Inglis and Hodges) will be right to train over the next couple of days so all they need to do is rest up and they will be fine,” Thurston said.
“It’s not ideal but I can’t remember the last camp that has run really smoothly.
“It’s not like we haven’t been in this position before.”