Maroons future assured with 'emerging' stars in the wings

When the Emerging Origin program was set up in 2001 by former Queensland Maroons coach Wayne Bennett, it was to ensure a production line of players was assured for Queensland in the State of Origin arena.

A cursory glance at the players coming through the Queensland system right now in the under 18s and under 20s reveals the Maroons are well served for the future as they negotiate the biggest transitional period in their history.

When 18-year-old flyer Xavier Coates makes his NRL debut for the Brisbane Broncos on Sunday against Cronulla, it will encapsulate what “emerging” truly means and give Queensland confidence the next Corey Oates is waiting in the wings when the time comes.

Before looking at several other rising stars on the horizon for Queensland it is worth considering Coates' recent progress.

Xavier Coates in action for the Queensland Under 18 team. Photo: NRL Images
Xavier Coates in action for the Queensland Under 18 team. Photo: NRL Images

In February he made his senior debut for Brisbane in a trial in Warwick where he glided down the left touchline to score with ease. The run turned heads.

Journalists on the sideline, used to covering the NRL, turned to each other and said “what a player” and marked his name down in their notes as a future star.

Coates delivered again in Queensland’s Under 18 win over New South Wales at Suncorp Stadium, where he was man of the match in a stunning display of speed and evasiveness.

An international debut followed for PNG recently and now Coates is set to replace Oates for the Broncos.

Xavier Coates in action for the PNG Kumuls. Photo: NRL Images
Xavier Coates in action for the PNG Kumuls. Photo: NRL Images

Mark this flyer down as a winger for the Maroons in the years to come. He will “emerge”.

It is easy to imagine that we may not see another Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk on the Queensland scene for decades. Not so.

The Queensland Under 18 side boasted 17-year-old half Sam Walker, a player with the rarest of skill and strut.

Sam Walker. Photo: NRL Images
Sam Walker. Photo: NRL Images

Walker, contracted to Brisbane, is off to the Sydney Roosters next year where he will fine-tune his skills and learn from one of the best coaches in the NRL today.

He will no doubt continue to represent Queensland in the Under 20 system and in several years he will be seen in a Maroons jersey if he continues his upward trajectory.

The hope is that when Daly Cherry-Evans calls time on his representative career, Walker is putting the heat on to be considered an option in his early 20s.

Broncos hooker/half Cory Paix has just re-signed with the club and is named to play for the Queensland Under 20 side against NSW on July 10.

Paix has modelled his game on Cronk and when you watch him train and listen to him speak, the similarities in approach are clear. Like Cronk, the Toowoomba product is a character you suspect will leave no stone unturned in his quest to extract the best out of himself.

Cory Paix in action for Redcliffe Dolphins. Photo: QRL Media
Cory Paix in action for Redcliffe Dolphins. Photo: QRL Media

The Maroons will need players like Ben Hunt in the future, who can do a job as a half, dummy-half or on the bench as a utility.

That is the direction Paix will be aiming to take his game as he develops his skills at the Broncos and in future Maroons emerging camps.

In the pre-season Townsville Blackhawks coach Aaron Payne spoke about 20-year-old prop Tom Gilbert and said it was a matter of “when and not if” he would play NRL in the near future.

This season the North Queensland Cowboys-contracted rising star has played 15 games in the Intrust Super Cup and averaged 144.5 metres and 30 tackles per match.

Gilbert is a player that epitomises what an “emerging” Maroon looks like. Tough and tenacious, capable of big minutes and ready to do anything for the man beside him.

Tom Gilbert in action for the Townsville Blackhawks. Photo: QRL Media
Tom Gilbert in action for the Townsville Blackhawks. Photo: QRL Media

That is what Gilbert is about now, and in the future the Queensland Under 20 forward will no doubt showcase that mentality when he plays for the Maroons.

There are moments in past 40 years where the Maroons' depth has been tested and where it was easy to wonder where the next superstar was coming from.

In 2003 that was the case. With Queensland two-nil down and Bennett about to coach his last Origin game, he gave Cameron Smith a Maroons debut.

FOGS No.140 starred in a 36-6 win and the rest is history.