Billy Slater admits he does not know a lot about Queensland’s latest Origin debutant Tom Gilbert but an emotional phone call to break the selection news convinced the Maroons coach of his passion for the state.
With Felise Kaufusi withdrawing from next Wednesday night’s series decider after flying to the United States to be with his ill father, Gilbert was named on the Maroons bench, with Cowboys team-mate Jeremiah Nanai to start in the second-row.
They are the only changes to the team beaten 44-12 in Perth on June 25, with in-form Broncos winger Corey Oates failing to unseat North Queensland rookie Murray Taulagi.
Sydney Roosters halfback Sam Walker was named in the 22-man squad after Reece Walsh was ruled out due to COVID and Slater said he was the “next one up” in Queensland’s succession planning.
After announcing the team, Slater said he like the way Gilbert celebrated any little on-field gain the Cowboys earned; whether it was forcing an error with strong defense, a good kick from his playmakers, or a try.
“The small moments are really important, especially when you get to this stage and that will be well received in our team because that is what we see as important,” Slater said.
“There is a fair bit to like about Tom. He has been playing very well and been on the radar for a while. He is that sort of player you want in your team. He works really hard in defense and keeps his feet moving.
“I am hearing a lot of reports that he is really fit. He has got good leg speed as well, a good carry and I am looking forward to getting to know him. ”
Slater had never spoken to Gilbert until making the phone call to inform the teary Dolphins-bound forward that he would be making his Origin debut before a sold-out Suncorp Stadium crowd next Wednesday night.
“One thing I did learn about Tom, I realized how much Queensland means to him and how much playing for the Maroons means to him,” Slater said.
“It was quite an emotional call and he is a player who does not hide his emotions on the field and he certainly did not do that in the phone call either.”
A Norths Devils junior, Gilbert moved to North Queensland in 2019 for the opportunity to learn from the likes of Josh McGuire and Jordan McLean, who will also make his Origin debut for NSW next week.
He was the 2019 Queensland Cup player of the year playing for the Townsville Blackhawks under Aaron Payne and earned selection in the Queensland Residents and Queensland under 20s teams before making his NRL debut in 2020.
However, a broken leg limited Gilbert to just 11 NRL appearances this season and after being given the opportunity to move closer to family in Brisbane he signed with the Dolphins for 2023 and will play alongside Kaufusi in the club’s foundation team.
Slater said Kaufusi would be a loss but he understood the Storm second-rower’s need to be with his family and he was looking forward to Nanai receiving more game time at Suncorp Stadium.
“I think he will settle into the game better so I am looking forward to Jeremiah getting the opportunity to start and playing his natural game,” Slater said.
“I have got a lot of faith in Jeremiah, I think he brings a lot to our team so it is a pleasure to give that news to someone like him that he is going to start for Queensland.”
Slater insisted he had never considered axing Maroons veterans Dane Gagai and Josh Papali’i, who has had limited involvement in the first two Origins, but was expecting more from the pair.
“There’s no doubt that individuals in our team can do better and they need to do their job better,” he said in response to a question about Gagai. “We have got a really tough footy team here, and there were some really good signs in Game II.
“Sure, there are some things we need to do better and we will identify them over the next couple of days and work on them throughout our preparation. It’s going to be a big occasion here next Wednesday night. ”
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The rookie Maroons coach also insisted he would not be seeking a meeting with the match officials before Origin III.
“There is enough on our plate. I will not be talking to any referees this week,” Slater said.
“We need to be better, there were some areas in our area that we were ill disciplined, we need to be better with the football, we need to be better defensively.
“You have got to be thinking about your footy, it is not just a bash and barge game, and the good players do that.
“You need to concentrate all the time. It’s important to get away from the game sometimes but footy is important and thinking about your footy is important.”