In the craziness of this 2018 NRL off-season, the retirement of Billy Slater has really gone under the radar.
The game’s best fullback, possibly ever, redesigned the way number ones across the competition played the game.
His loss will be massively felt across all three levels of the game, with the Storm, the Maroons and the Kangaroos all looking for new number ones.
The man most likely to take over the Origin and even Roos jersey long-term has left the game, at least temporarily, opening up an amazing race for the vacant custodian role.
Interestingly, three of the players most likely to battle for the jersey aren’t even full time number ones, with a fourth expected to move into the halves in 2018.
The fifth almost ruled himself out in an interview just yesterday.
As always a late contender could always emerge out of nowhere to steal the jersey, but as it stands I can only see five men in the race.
Kalyn Ponga: The overwhelming favourite to lead the Queenslanders into the new era from the number one is Knight’s ace Kalyn Ponga. He debuted in the 2018 series and almost turned the series on its head from a utility role in the front line.
This would be almost a no-brainer if not for one huge factor, Ponga looks set for a permanent move into the number six jersey for the Knights in 2019 and beyond.
His ball playing skills are amazing and a move into the halves looks like a natural progression. Simply put the Knights’ best chance of playing finals footy is Ponga’s hands on the ball as much as possible.
A shift back to the number one jersey in Origin is far from impossible but it’s a big ask. For all his talent and Dally M points Ponga is still only 20 years of age and won’t have played 40 NRL games by the time Origin One comes around.
It’s a huge ask to ask a player with that little experience to change positions in the biggest arena our game offers.
That said, if anyone can do it, it’s the freakishly talented Ponga.
Michael Morgan: Another who may be asked to shift position for Origin. Morgan made his name as a fullback and remains arguably the game’s best utility player. It’s not a stretch to imagine the Cowboys premiership winner to be back in the one for the Maroons.
Morgan, if fit, will be in the squad somewhere. With the likes of Ponga, Anthony Milford, Ben Hunt, Cameron Munster and Daly Cherry-Evans and co in the reckoning, Morgan may have to play fullback or revert back to his utility role.
I’m a huge fan of Morgan playing from the bench as it offers a degree of utility that no other player or team can offer. If you’re going to move someone out of position, I think Ponga to fullback and Morgan off the bench looks the most likely.
Again though, Morgan is a far more experienced player across every level of the game than Ponga. It might be asking a bit much of the youngster, allowing Morgan to run on in the number one.
The real X-Factor here is the fact that Munster may be playing fullback once again for the Storm. Although I can’t see them shifting their star number six, rumour has it he wants to play fullback, and he looks the best option for those in purple if he wants the position.
If Munster is playing fullback full-time, I can’t see a better option at one. DCE and Ponga will play six and seven with Munster at one.
If Munster doesn’t make the move and stays in the halves for the Storm, he’s the incumbent number six for state and country and surely you wouldn’t move your number once choice out of position.
Although he played centre during 2018 the talk is he may move back to fullback under Wayne Bennett.
Whether or not this happens, you have to believe that the Maroons captain will have the final call on where he is positioned come the 2019 series.
Inglis was Qld’s best during the 2018 series, despite suggestions otherwise, and if Kevin Walters and Inglis himself believe his best position is at one, he’ll play in the one.
Whether or not his body can withstand a full season, plus three Origin games, at fullback is another story.
Ben Barba: The wildcard. Ben Barba, in 2016, was the game’s premier fullback. Before Storm fans jump down my throat it’s worth remembering that Billy Slater was injured.
Barba lead the Sharks to a title in 2016 from the number one, and was by a long way the Super League’s best player last season.
It was strange that Barba was so down on his chances. If not for the presence of Billy Slater, I have no doubt that Barba would have a few Origin caps to his name by now.
If he can return in top form, he may possibly be the only contender playing at fullback full time and therefore must be a look in.
Of course form plays a huge part, but the QLD’ers have five amazing options without taking into consideration a late run from the likes of a Moses Mbye who may open the season breathing fire.
Right now my money is on Ponga but a lot will depend on where each of the above players line up for their club.
Ponga for mine.