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Tallisha Harden in Game II camp. Photo: Scott Davis/QRL

Next person up.

When the Harvey Norman Queensland Maroons take to the field at Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville on Thursday, veteran forward Tallisha Harden will be wearing the No.18 jersey, but will go into the series decider knowing that at any moment she could be called upon.

Harden – who has five appearances for Queensland under her belt – missed selection in Game I as she continues to work her way back from a lengthy knee injury and rebuild her form.

But with star centre Julia Robinson suspended for Game II and former 18th player China Polata earning a promotion to the starting side, the reliable Harden has been called back into the fold, bringing with her a raft of experience and the much-needed mentality that if she is needed, she will be ready.

Tallisha Harden in Game II camp. Photo: Scott Davis/QRL
Tallisha Harden in Game II camp. Photo: Scott Davis/QRL

“I was absolutely stoked when (coach Tahnee Norris) called but it was also bittersweet because doing the math, I knew it meant Robbo was out of Origin,” Harden said.

“With China moving into the starting side and me going to 18th, it meant Robbo had missed out. It’s one of those uncontrollables.

“But in the Maroons, we’ve always had a mentality of the next person up. China is going to do such an amazing job and I’m there to be the best 18th man I can be.

“You always have to be ready, just in case. One of the reasons Tahnee did bring me in is because I have experience.

“It’s the nice word for being old but I have the experience at that level so if I do need to fill in, I can do that, or if they need an extra set of eyes, I can add information.”

Tallisha Harden back in the Queensland Maroons fold. Photo: Scott Davis/QRL
Tallisha Harden back in the Queensland Maroons fold. Photo: Scott Davis/QRL

The 30-year-old has been on the comeback trail from a problematic left knee for most of 2023.

Harden tore her lateral meniscus and suffered cartilage damage in 2021.

She pushed to play State of Origin that year – with her struggles highlighted in the documentary A League of Her Own – and she did her rehab with the Brisbane Broncos in the NRLW before playing throughout 2022 with the help of cortisone to get through.

However, during Australia’s World Cup campaign, Harden felt like the injury had returned.

When she joined Wynnum Manly for this year’s BMD Premiership season, she was sent for scans and it showed she had once again torn her lateral meniscus.

“It’s a tricky injury,” Harden said.

“The first one in ‘21 was a lot more rushed because I had a three or four week turnaround before State of Origin.

“I’ve had more time to do things this year but it’s challenging as you get older, managing these injuries.

“It’s always a mental battle when you come back from injuries. It’s learning to trust your body again and knowing things are okay structurally.”

Harden is full of praise for the help she has received in rehabilitating her leg through the Brisbane Broncos, Wynnum Manly and the Queensland Maroons.

She also joined the North Queensland Cowboys 2023 NRLW pre-season earlier this month and has found immediate support as she works her way back to her peak.

Harden said when Norris had to deliver the news ahead of Game I that she would not be playing in Sydney, it also helped her trigger some lifestyle changes to make sure she was recovering in the best way possible.

“Tahnee and I had a really good chat,” Harden said.

“Her message to me was to get healthy, get my knee better. She obviously knows me really well having coached me for Burleigh and Queensland so she knew I wasn’t at 100 per cent through BMD.

“Just with the way the competition is at the moment you can’t be less than 100 per cent going into an Origin. We also have a great bunch of young forwards who are fighting fit and playing really well.

“I went away from that conversation and worked on some rehab stuff. It gave me a chance to go away, focus on myself.

“A lot of it was also my own realisation that I couldn’t keep doing things the way I was doing them. I had to make changes to my eating, the way I was recovering.

“Being up in the Cows, in a different environment, has given me an opportunity to do that. I’m not working as much and am able to narrow my focus on my knee without the outside distraction.

“The Cowboys have been great and the knee is feeling a lot better.

“With the Origin jumpers, they’re always earnt, never given. I’ve never, ever felt safe in that jersey.

“You’re the caretaker for that game or that year. Every year you have to come back and earn it and fight for it.

“With the way things went with my knee and the form of some of our other girls, I totally respected Tahnee’s decision.”

But, despite the Game I omission, Harden is now back among the squad and soaking up the experience of the week-long camp in Townsville.

Her adopted home throughout the upcoming NRLW season, she said she can feel the excitement in the air in North Queensland, especially at Saturday’s Harvey Norman Queensland Maroons fan day.

She has slotted back in comfortably into the squad, bonding with 19th player and her Wynnum Manly teammate, Sienna Lofipo, and offering encouragement where she can.

With Queensland currently up 1-0 in the series, Harden said it is clear the team is focused on getting the second win on Thursday and locking up the 2023 title as theirs.

“To be in Townsville in Origin week has been pretty special,” Harden said.

“I know how footy and community-orientated Townsville is. Regardless of whether you’re male, female, junior, senior, boys or girls, they love their footy up here.

“People are so excited and keen to get behind the women’s State of Origin.

“I love the girls and getting around them again. I have a great appreciation of their skillsets and what they can do. If I can lend a hand or an ear or be a bit of an extra set of eyes this week, I will.

“We’ve been really lucky for a long time to have a great culture within the team. Year to year, no matter who comes and goes or retires, there’s always a great energy and feel to the camps.

“Tahnee has reinforced the whole time that on Thursday we control the controllable and make sure we’re playing for every moment, every minute, every set with the intensity that we should.

“We want to win the game. That’s the focus, is to win the game. You never go into a footy game wanting to lose by a certain amount.

“We want to win. We want to win in front of our families and our state.”

Acknowledgement of Country

Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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