Queensland star Kalyn Ponga believes the Maroons camp is the perfect environment to shake off a groin complaint as injury concerns again surround the side ahead of next week’s State of Origin opener.
Ponga is one of three questionable Maroons stars named by coach Paul Green in an extended 20-man squad, along with five-eighth Cameron Munster (foot) and hooker Harry Grant (hamstring).
Despite Newcastle coach Adam O’Brien expressing doubt about Ponga’s chances of facing NSW on June 9, the 23-year-old has entered camp hopeful of making his return to the Origin stage after missing last year’s series due to a shoulder injury.
“Ticking boxes. I’ve got a few to tick this week to get myself ready to play but I think I’m in the best environment to do that,” Ponga told AAP.
“I’m pretty confident.
“I’m progressing pretty well … I’m in a good environment here. The best environment to be in, in terms of professionalism and standards and all that.”
Grant and Munster, who defied injury concerns to star in last year’s series win, and Ponga have all missed a month of football.
But Green said that wouldn’t count against them if the trio can prove their fitness during the week.
The coach selected an extended squad to cover the players in doubt, which also includes AJ Brimson (knee) and back-rower Felise Kaufusi who is facing a one-game ban after being charged with tripping Brisbane’s Jake Turpin.
With Josh Papalii and Josh McGuire both suspended and prop Lindsay Collins (knee) injured, Green has named Jaydn Su’A and Joe Ofahengaue as his surprise inclusions while Parramatta rake Reed Mahoney is in line to make his debut if Grant cannot play.
Green said Mahoney had nearly “peed his pants” after being told he was in the squad while Su’A is in despite being dropped at club by South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett last week.
“He (Mahoney) was fairly quiet, so I’d liked to have had a camera there once I got off the phone,” Green said.
“(Eels football boss) Mark O’Neill said he nearly peed his pants afterwards, Joe and Jaydn too were a bit shocked to get the phone call to be honest after what’s happened with them.”
The other potential debutant for the Maroons is North Queensland winger Kyle Feldt who’ll be pushing clubmate Valentine Holmes and Brisbane flyer Xavier Coates for a starting role.
He could also earn a start if Ponga is ruled out and Holmes moves to fullback.
Ponga could also play five-eighth if Munster fails to prove his fitness, although Green said he didn’t have a Plan B to replace last year’s player of the series.
“Yeah you can look at it that way (as a risk) but you can look at it that they’re fresh as well,” the coach said.
“With those guys I don’t think fitness is an issue. The bigger guys like to get that match fitness but I don’t think those guys fall into that category.”
Ponga said he’d happily don the No.6 jersey if required.
“If you have to get thrown anywhere players will do it,” he said.
“If I had to play six, I’d do it, but hopefully Munster’s alright and I can play one.”
Queensland Origin squad: Kalyn Ponga, Valentine Holmes, Dane Gagai, Kurt Capewell, Xavier Coates, Cameron Munster, Daly Cherry-Evans (capt), Christian Welch, Reed Mahoney, Jai Arrow, David Fifita, Felise Kaufusi, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Harry Grant, Moeaki Fotuaika, Joe Ofahengaue, Jaydn Su’A, AJ Brimson, Coen Hess, Kyle Feldt.