Reece Walsh says advice from Maroons coach Billy Slater has steeled him to improve his defensive efforts and put himself in the frame for a State of Origin debut after having his dream cruelly snatched away last year.
The 19-year-old Warriors custodian, in the frame with Kalyn Ponga to wear the No.1 jersey for Queensland, was set to play fullback in game two last year when he strained a hamstring in the captain’s run.
He learnt plenty from that experience about preparation and from talking to Slater about where he needed to lift.
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Walsh averages approximately two missed tackles per game and wants to get it down around the one mark like the elite fullbacks in the game. James Tedesco, for example, has a missed tackle average this year of 0.9.
“I tore my hamstring in the captain’s run before Origin last year. Now, every time I get to a captain’s run I make sure I do all my stretching. I make sure my preparation is all perfect so it doesn’t happen again,” Walsh said.
“I have worked hard on my defence with Browny (Nathan Brown) and it’s an area where I have really grown.
“I have spoken to Billy and he wants me to keep growing my defensive game and to focus on myself in all areas. If I can get better each game, then I feel it is going to help, no matter what team I am playing in. That is one of the things Billy spoke to me about.”
Slater, one of Queensland’s greatest ever fullbacks, was one of the Maroons selectors last year and was prepared to back Walsh at the selection table. He’s been assisting Walsh in the background and is impressed with the teenager’s attitude.
“I have a done a bit of stuff with Reece over his career and I’ve had some communication with him,” Slater said.
“I have got a lot of time for him. He’s a great young man and has a good desire to get the best out of his NRL career.
“There’s a lot that goes into that (fullback) position. We see all the shiny stuff that Reece is really good at. He highlighted that when he first hit the scene last year but he’s working on a lot of the stuff behind the scenes that teams really benefit from. He’s on the right track.”
Ponga made his Origin debut in 2018 off the bench and fired playing in the middle of the field rather than in his preferred position. Walsh said he would do the same anywhere in the 17.
“(Ponga) just went out there and played footy and I feel as though I am in the same boat. If Billy picks me, I will play anywhere for Queensland,” Walsh said.
“I feel like I have a pretty good knowledge of rugby league and I have played in a wide variety of positions before. There was one Queensland 18s game when I was coached by Kurt Richards where I came off the bench and played in the middle at lock.
“If I was to get that opportunity to wear the Maroons jersey I would do it for my family and my state. I guarantee I would leave everything on the field and would not let them down.”
Slater played with Darius Boyd, Greg Inglis and a host of other Maroons who didn’t play in their club position when they lined up in Origin.
“You go into it with an open mind and pick your best team,” Slater said.
“It‘s great to have players playing in the position they are going to play in State of Origin, but I have played with a number of great players that have been able to shift around positions.”
Walsh is just grateful to have the chance to work with Slater.
“Billy was an inspirational example for me. I watched all the things he did on the paddock. It is a childhood memory of mine,” he said.
“When I talk to him now I find that he is one of the smartest people in rugby league that I have ever met. He is a terrific coach and a terrific person as well.”