Reuben Cotter made for Origin as Queensland usher in a new era of superstars

Queensland Origin camp will feel very different this series with a group of young, in-form players putting the heat on the Blues, writes PAMELA WHALEY.

Reuben Cotter leads a new era of Queensland stars is primed to inflict pain on the NSW Blues. Picture: NRL Imagery
Reuben Cotter leads a new era of Queensland stars is primed to inflict pain on the NSW Blues. Picture: NRL Imagery

Todd Payten reckons Reuben Cotter would tackle a goalpost if he thought it would save a try and that’s why he’s perfect to play State of Origin.

Fox Sports stats counted 60 tackles from the North Queensland forward in a 22-0 loss to Penrith on Friday night. They lost the game but Cotter won more admirers for his rock solid defence and relentless work ethic.

When Queensland coach Billy Slater names his team for Origin I on Monday morning, Cotter’s name will be among a group of rising young Maroons stars flying into this series with a confidence that was missing last year.

His Cowboys teammate Jeremiah Nanai is also a chance to be there. And not, he’s up next.

Reuben Cotter’s relentless defensive efforts are placing him in the sights of Maroons selectors. Picture: NRL Imagery
Reuben Cotter’s relentless defensive efforts are placing him in the sights of Maroons selectors. Picture: NRL Imagery

“Reubes will tackle the goalpost if it means stopping a try. His leg speed is a real threat through the middle… he possesses a pass, and if Billy wants to build a team on effort, then [Cotter is] going to lead that,” Payten said.

“He won’t let them down. Jeremiah, he’s an elite kid, still growing, and I think (the Panthers game) was a real lesson for him. Fifty tackles for a 19-year-old kid, he was tired. That’ll put him in good stead for Origin if he gets called up.”

Cowboys teammate and Queensland back Valentine Holmes backs up the calls to pick Cotter.

“I think he’s the perfect fit for Origin level, he’s pretty much the perfect mould for what Origin is all about,” he said.

“He’s tough, tenacious, he can play 80 minutes, he can play several positions. A true Queenslander. I think he’d be close to being picked.”

Cotter’s teammates at the Cowboys believe he has what it takes to receive a call up from Queensland. Picture: NRL Imagery
Cotter’s teammates at the Cowboys believe he has what it takes to receive a call up from Queensland. Picture: NRL Imagery

It’s been a remarkable rise for 23-year-old Cotter this season. Back-to-back ACL injuries kept him out of the game for three years before he was able to make his NRL debut in 2019. Since then he’s battled other injuries too – 2022 being his first consistent season of first grade. He holds the time-trial club record at the Cowboys too, and his commitment to fitness means he’s able to punch out big minutes and remarkable tackle counts the likes of which he racked up against the Panthers.

Versatility is his other superpower. This year he’s playing prop for the Cowboys but he’s typically a dummy half. He can also slot in at lock. He makes the perfect bench player.

“He had a few setbacks there with knee recos at a young age and he’s done well to put that behind him and play some outstanding footy for us,” Holmes said.

“It’s a massive credit to him and he’d definitely deserve that jersey if he does get selected.”

Versatility and fitness levels could set Cotter apart for selectors. Picture: NRL Imagery
Versatility and fitness levels could set Cotter apart for selectors. Picture: NRL Imagery

Along with Cotter, Nanai has been one of the breakout stars of the NRL season in a year where Queensland is sprouting new talent every week. Selwyn Cobbo. Murray Taulagi. Pat Carrigan. Tom Flegler.

The Queensland derby in round 12 between the Gold Coast and the Broncos was another example. Brisbane’s come-from-behind win showed there’s fight in Queensland’s youth.

Holmes, who has only ever played on the wing or at fullback for the Maroons, says this year is different for two reasons. He’s had a positional change and he’s getting his mojo back.

“Obviously I’m playing centre now so it’s a different position for myself,” he said.

“Hopefully, I just want to be in the team somewhere, I’m happy to play wherever, but if I do get to wear the centre jersey I’ll definitely be playing the way I’m playing [with the Cowboys] and it’ll be about just making the right defensive decisions.

“The team that Queensland can pick … the attack can come, it’s just about defending. People like [Cameron] Munster and Kalyn Ponga, they can create tries.”

Jeremiah Nanai has been one of the 2022 season’s breakout stars. Picture: NRL Imagery
Jeremiah Nanai has been one of the 2022 season’s breakout stars. Picture: NRL Imagery

It’s a new Queensland where Brisbane and the Cowboys are showing some form, giving Slater and the selectors something to work with.

Strangely, a 22-0 loss to the Panthers wasn’t as bad as the score sounds. Without their best player in Jason Taumalolo, the Cowboys showed incredible defensive resolve to hold out the premiers for 28 tackles in the red zone in the first half, and kept the second half damage to just one try. Usually it takes Penrith just eight tackles in an opposition’s 20-metre zone to score.

Holmes said he noticed the Cowboys were showing better resilience this year when they came-from-behind to beat Canberra in round six. It’s when everyone else took notice too, before they went on to beat competition heavyweights Parramatta and then Melbourne in the weeks to come. They’d won six-straight before travelling to Penrith.

“I know we had a couple of wins before that but we were down 12-0 at halftime and we kept them scoreless and put on 18 points and I felt like we built resilience from that. I feel like that’s when we started our run of a few wins,” he said.

“From that week on you could see it from everyone and at training, but this brings us back to earth a bit. We’ve set ourselves up for a good period around Origin time.”

Holmes is hopeful his positional change might see him pulling on a different numbered jersey for the Maroons this year. Picture: NRL Imagery
Holmes is hopeful his positional change might see him pulling on a different numbered jersey for the Maroons this year. Picture: NRL Imagery

The Maroons will have a group of players feeling confident coming into camp this series. And it could spell danger for NSW.

This time last year the Cowboys were seventh on the ladder with six wins from 12 games and Brisbane were second-last with just three. This year the Cowboys are third, Broncos are fourth.

Suddenly Queensland feels like the sunny state again.

Pamela Whaley
Pamela WhaleyStaff writer

Pamela Whaley is a Sydney-based sports journalist with more than a decade of experience in the industry. Starting out as a cadet at The Daily Advertiser in Wagga Wagga, Pamela moved to Sydney in 2014 and began writing features and news for the NRL's magazine, Big League. She has since worked at Fox Sports as a managing editor of digital NRL content and with Australian Associated Press as a sports journalist, covering A-League, cricket and NRL. She grew up playing soccer, touch football and netball but her true passion lies in storytelling, particularly involving rugby league.