Queensland assistant Michael Hagan has backed captain Cameron Smith to rise in the face of great personal challenge in Wednesday night’s State of Origin decider.
Smith has been affected by public criticism from Alex McKinnon over his on-field behaviour following the tackle last year that has left the Knights forward wheelchair-bound.
The Queensland Origin camp have been so protective of their skipper that media were told the Maroons would abandon their traditional pre-match team walk on Wednesday morning if Smith was approached for comment on McKinnon.
McKinnon’s comments on Sunday night’s 60 Minutes program has taken the focus off Smith equalling Queensland great Darren Lockyer’s record of 36 Origin appearances.
“Mentally Origin is always tough,” Hagan said.
“The events of the last few days just makes the challenge greater.
“Cameron has been through a fair bit but he is mentally stronger than most I have come across.
“He will lead the team like he always does and I think the team will respond accordingly.”
It has also been an emotional time for Queensland centre Justin Hodges who was presented with his final Maroons jersey ahead of his 24th and final Origin by teammate Greg Inglis at a team ceremony on Tuesday night.
“We had a bit said last night ahead of Justin Hodges’ last game – Greg Inglis presented his jumper and said what it meant to play alongside him,” Hagan revealed.
“They have been integral to our team for such a long time so I think both Hodges and GI will be up for the game tonight.”
Hagan believed coach Mal Meninga would also inspire in his 30th Origin at the Maroons helm – and on his 55th birthday.
“I don’t think you are going to see (a coach reaching 30 games) again in Origin – the players will respond accordingly,” he said.
There was speculation 33-year-old Hodges’ farewell would spark an exodus of Queensland veterans next year if the Maroons lose game three and a second straight series.
But Hagan claimed age “doesn’t really matter”.
“It is about the effort you give in the game – Hodgo is a good example,” he said.
“Senior players understand it is the effort, not so much the birth certificate.”
Hagan admitted rookie winger Dane Gagai would be in the Blues’ sights on Wednesday night.
“It is a big occasion on debut and we have got no doubt he will be targeted,” he said.
“But he has some good players around him and we think he will do a good job – he will handle it in his stride.”
Hagan expected Mick Ennis to be NSW hooker, not the injured Robbie Farah.
“I don’t think you can have surgery and play in seven days medically,” he said.