The surviving link between Queensland State of Origin eras says Billy Slater has restored the team’s famous belief after returning as coach to haunt NSW again.
Dane Gagai debuted in 2015 alongside fullback Slater and on Wednesday played his 20th game for the Maroons, scoring a try in the 16-10 victory in Game 1 in Sydney.
Four players debuted under the rookie coach, who played 31 games for Queensland as part of a dominant outfit that also included his current assistants Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith.
Slater’s clever use of his mostly unproven bench, bold selection calls and game style showed his aptitude in a new role.
But Gagai said the cultural impact remained his biggest achievement as they eye a series win in Game 2 in Perth on June 26.
“He’s achieved so much in the game but I believe he’s got a long career in coaching,” he told AAP.
“He’s definitely brought back the Queensland spirit in this camp and it showed with the closeness of the boys and it translated onto the field.
“Everyone turned up for each other.”
Gagai recalled his own first taste of Origin camp and considered parallels that are being drawn with the current crop.
“Going into camp day one (of my Origin career) and watching them (Slater, Thurston and Smith) sit down and go through some video and the three started speaking up about how they wanted to play.
“I remember sitting at the back of the room thinking ‘this team doesn’t even need a coach’.
“Then big Mal Meninga got up and spoke and I understood what a Queensland coach does.
“It’s putting that belief in his players, that confidence to make you think if you need to run through a brick wall, you can do that.
“And Billy’s got that in spades.”
Slater awarded Gagai the Dick ‘Tosser’ Turner Medal for reaching 20 caps for Queensland, an award named after the side’s inaugural manager.
“Dane has never let Queensland down in any one of those 20,” Slater said.
“He was outstanding, does whatever the team needs him to do, he’s an Origin player.”
Wednesday’s try broke a drought of eight Origin games without a four-pointer for Gagai and came after he’d averaged one try per game in his first 11.
“Like I’ve said from the very start, I’ve never gone into an Origin thinking how many tries can I score or what can I do to cross that line,” he said.
“It’s always about how I can help my mate next to me.”