State of Origin 2017: Kevin Walters and cautious Maroons swim against turning tide

Sweating the big decisions: Queensland coach Kevin Walters at a Maroons training session. Photo: Getty Images
Sweating the big decisions: Queensland coach Kevin Walters at a Maroons training session. Photo: Getty Images

Kevin Walters barely slept during the first few nights of Origin camp. The Queensland coach doesn't shed tears for show. Since he was a kid, he's worn his heart on his sleeve, and the non-selection of Billy Slater would cut right to the bone.

Walters and his selection panel had sweated over the call for weeks. When it finally came down to pulling the trigger, it hit harder than any of them could have imagined.

When the NSW tabloids sunk in the boot with glee, thanking Walters for leaving out an Origin great, it left him wandering the hotel corridors in the wee hours, wondering if he'd pulled the right string.

It came down to a matter of rugby league philosophy: pick the best players and cram them in, or opt for specialists who know the role like the back of their hand. They favoured the second, so when it came down to Slater or Darius Boyd, it meant only one could be left standing.

Now for the acid test. In many ways, this has been the theme of Queensland's preparation for game one at Suncorp Stadium. NSW arrive with an array of familiar faces, boosted by bullish fans who firmly believe this is the time to launch their own dynasty.

Why wouldn't they? Matt Scott, the bull of the Queensland pack: hurt. Greg Inglis, historic destroyer: injured. Billy Slater: left in the shade. Corey Parker, who would run and tackle until his lungs burst: retired. And Johnathan Thurston: left shattered by a shoulder injury that would see him finally miss a match after playing in 36 straight.

Those who have taken their place have everything to prove and, in truth, even the most seasoned Queenslanders are curious to find out how it will all unfold. NSW, too, have approached with caution, knowing that false words can lead to egged faces in Origin, no matter who lines up on the other side of the field.

With Boyd Cordner apologising for having nothing nasty to say, the closest Queensland came to a prickly barb was to suggest that Jarryd Hayne, while an excellent player, may not always make the best defensive reads at centre. "Rats and filth" this was not.

With some superstars gone, others will have to rise in their place. In Origin, that doesn't always eventuate. Many have tried at that level and failed to cash in on their promise. The myth of the "Origin player" lives on, and on Wednesday some home truths will be delivered.

In the Mal Meninga era, the bullishness of the coach on occasion spilled over to the players. His demands for respect and raw passion for the Origin series could blur the lines. His arch-nemesis, Ricky Stuart, helped take the rivalry to new levels of resentment and paranoia.

Walters treads far softer and plays a straighter ball. Those expecting acts of misdirection have up to this point been sorely disappointed. Thurston was never going to play and Milford will start as per program.

His reluctance to delve into grandiose statements is rooted in the reality that this Queensland side marks the beginning of a new era, and the end of one that will never be rivalled in its dominance.

The Maroons are back to taking baby steps before embarking on another leap forward. It remains to be seen whether this will level the field enough for NSW to sweep all before them, or whether a new Queensland champion will emerge from the mist.