If there’s two things Maroons debutant Reece Walsh can count on from coach Billy Slater it’s an honest appraisal of where he stands and some of the best fullback tutelage any young No.1 could wish for.
Two years after a hamstring tweak in the captain’s run robbed him of an Origin debut at the tender age of 18, Walsh is back at the summit and ready to grab his opportunity with both hands in next Wednesday’s series opener in Adelaide.
Walsh was just seven games into his NRL career at the Warriors when he was drafted into the Maroons squad for Game 2 in 2021, with some questioning whether he was physically and mentally ready for the Origin furnace.
As fate would have it, that question was never answered, but Slater is strong in his belief that having to wait two more years to fulfil a dream has been a blessing for the Broncos whiz kid.
“I believe there’s two things you need to play State of Origin, for us, for Queensland, the first thing is you need to be capable, and the second thing is you need an opportunity,” Slater told media on Monday.
“To be fair, I think Reece probably got his opportunity before he built that capability in his game and he didn’t get to play because of his hamstring, but now he’s a much more capable player and he’s a much more rounded player.
“Like I said, he’s only going to get better, but he’s certainly put them both together now, he’s got the opportunity and he’s really capable.
“It was a great phone call, they are the good ones, he gets to play his first game for Queensland, it was a pretty emotional sort of phone call.”
The lone debutant in the Maroons squad for the crucial first game, Walsh admits to shedding a few tears when his phone lit up on Sunday night with Slater’s name on the screen.
His sizzling form for the Broncos had demanded he be in the mix for selection but he took nothing for granted given Kalyn Ponga was player of the match in Game 3 last year at fullback and has never let his state down.
“Those sorts of calls are the ones you remember for a long time. To have Billy Slater call your phone to ask you to come and play for Queensland is pretty special,” Walsh said on Monday.
*I shed a couple of tears because as a young Queenslander all you want to do is play for the Broncos and play for the Maroons and to get that call from someone like Billy, it hits you in the heart.
“I called my dad first, he was proud. I could hear my mum, she was next door with some of the neighbours having a chat and I could hear him calling out to her to come back so he could tell her I’d been picked.
“To have my family’s name on the back of my jersey and to go out there representing them is going to be exciting.
“Billy spoke about opportunity and earning it and he felt maybe in 2021 it came before I had earned it and this time I have.
“Everything happens for a reason and I feel a lot more ready this time. It was a tough lesson last time hurting my hammy in the captain’s run and having it taken away from me, but this time I will make sure I do everything I can to prepare and I can guarantee something like that won’t happen again.”
A key figure in the Broncos’ 8-4 start to the season, Walsh has racked up four tries, 13 try assists, 61 tackle breaks and eight line breaks to make an irresistible case for Queensland selection.
He will join forces with Broncos teammate Selwyn Cobbo, Dolphins flyer Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Cowboys speedsters Val Holmes and Murray Taulagi in a backline that brimming with tryscoring potential.
On hand to help hone their skills and share some yarns of past Origin glories will an array of Maroons legends including Johnathan Thurston, Allan Langer, Cameron Smith and Slater, who played 26 times in the No.1 jeresey Walsh dons for the first time in Adelaide.
“Billy is a freak, when we chat on the phone I could sit there for hours and talk about footy, but the best thing about Bill is first thing he asks is how is everything off field and how’s the family,” Walsh said.
“It’s a bonus for me that he played fullback and I get to learn off one of the best fullbacks the game has seen.
“It’s pretty crazy to be in camp and rubbing shoulders with guys I watched on TV for so many years and to be wearing this amazing jersey.
“I have the confidence in myself that if I work hard and keep doing my job then there’s no reason I can’t be here for a long time.
“If I was in here and doubting myself and not confident then I’m doing Queensland and the jersey a disservice.
“Kalyn is a wonderful player [and he’ll want to come back] but I have the opportunity right now and it’s mine to lose. I don’t want to be here for one game only.
“I have sacrificed a lot this year and I’m trying to be more professional on and off the field and to be standing here today I’m proud of myself.”