Ponga to win Queensland No.1 jersey for Origin opener
Kalyn Ponga's dramatic start to 2023 has ended with him winning the race for the Queensland No.1 jersey, holding off a challenge from Reece Walsh for the Maroons' fullback role.
Coach Billy Slater will confirm his team on Monday morning for the State of Origin series opener, with Ponga to be the first name read out.
It comes as questions were asked about Ponga's spot in the team while he battled to recover from a fourth concussion in 10 months.
Stood down for five weeks after his head knock in round two, the Knights fullback spent time in Canada for neurological testing to clear him to return.
He then battled form on his comeback to first grade at five-eighth for the Knights, prompting even more doubt over his selection as Walsh fired for Brisbane.
But Ponga has now answered his critics, starring against the Gold Coast last week and scoring a try in Saturday's loss to Cronulla.
The 25-year-old also had one final hurdle to clear when he was taken off the field for a HIA on Saturday, but passed and will be picked by the Maroons to play in Adelaide on May 31.
"We all know Kalyn's history and for him to go off the field. It wasn't great for him," Slater told the Nine Network's Sunday Footy Show.
"But the good sign was he came back on and it didn't look like it affected him. He made some big tackles in the second half. That is the good signs for Kalyn."
Ponga's retention at No.1 comes after he was Queensland's best player in last year's thrilling decider win, in what doubled as arguably his finest hour on the football field.
"It was (unbelievable)," said Maroons five-eighth Cameron Munster, who missed the decider with COVID-19.
"I was sitting in front of the TV screen and I lost my voice watching it as true home-grown Maroon. I was really excited and pumped.
"Hopefully Kalyn is good and his head is alright. If he is, then I am sure he will be ready and raring to go.
"Regardless of who is playing fullback we have got electrifying players. Reece Walsh and Kalyn Ponga are great assets for our team and provide X factor."
Ponga's selection will be one of several crucial calls made by Maroons selectors when they unveil a team captained by halfback Daly Cherry-Evans for the fifth straight series.
Melbourne flyer Xavier Coates is expected to be left out after missing the final two games last year through injury, with Selwyn Cobbo and Murray Taulagi likely to be the two wingers.
Veteran Dane Gagai has kept his spot in the side and will likely partner Valentine Holmes in the centres.
Felise Kaufusi's looming ban for a high shot will mean at least one of Jai Arrow or David Fifita will be recalled, with Kurt Capewell and Tom Gilbert locked into the back row.
Tino Fa'asuamaleaui could also have some judiciary concerns, after his forearm connected with Reed Mahoney's head in a hit up on Sunday.
Tom Flegler is also set to earn a recall for the first time since his sole experience in Origin III of 2021, as one of four Broncos alongside Cobbo, Capewell and lock Pat Carrigan.
J'maine Hopgood and Corey Horsburgh had been contenders for the other bench spots, but look set to miss out after a selection meeting on Sunday evening.
PREDICTED QUEENSLAND SIDE
Kalyn Ponga, Selwyn Cobbo, Valentine Holmes, Dane Gagai, Murray Taulagi, Cameron Munster, Daly Cherry-Evans, Tino Fa'asuamaleaui, Ben Hunt, Lindsay Collins, Kurt Capewell, Tom Gilbert, Pat Carrigan. Bench: Harry Grant, Reuben Cotter, Tom Flegler, David Fifita/Jai Arrow.