Cody Walker leads the list of Origin headline grabbers
BEFORE a ball is kicked or a tackle made, State of Origin 2019 has already created great theatre for the throng of salivating media to convey to the always voracious fans.
Within days of players entering camp, the list of headline grabbers was seemingly endless.
Payne Haas, just 10 games into an NRL career and a recent convert to Islam, will finish Ramadan on Origin eve; Daly Cherry-Evans, supposedly unwelcomed by his teammates this time last year, has been named Maroons captain despite not having played for five weeks; 32-year-old Josh Morris has been called out of a three-year Origin sabbatical to fill a void for the Blues; David Fifita, the first NRL player born this millennium, will play for Queensland at just 19 years of age; Matt Gillett is back after recovering from three neck fractures that sidelined him last year; Nathan Cleary has been retained by Brad Fittler despite a horrendous start to the season; and Maroons coach Kevvie Walters has forbidden his players to mention the opposition by name.
But to this ageing journo, the most compelling addendum to the upcoming series was the selection of 29-year-old Rabbitohs five-eighth Cody Walker.
Firstly, Walker is fortunate to even be in the Blues team. Had the in-form Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary not been poleaxed against the Knights a week ago, he would be donning the No.6 jumper for NSW for the first time. Instead it will be Walker, the oldest five-eighth to debut in the four decades of Origin history.
And Walker, by his own admission, is lucky he is still playing the game. He concedes he may well have joined members of his extended family as guests of the prison system had he not followed the path he has taken.
Searching for an NRL career that had beckoned since he was a livewire kid living in rural Casino, Walker had stints with the Storm, twice, the Titans, the Panthers and Brisbane Easts before finally debuting with the Rabbitohs at age 26 after being released by Melbourne.
While that contract changed the direction of his career, it was joining the Easts Tigers four years earlier that changed his life. Without a job, a car and a driver's license, he discovered his 18-year-old girlfriend was pregnant.
That was when the penny dropped. Like a nomad, his partner Nel had been by his side when he moved from club to club. He could not desert her.
Now Nel, and their boys Kian and Kade, are sharing the best part of that long, unwavering journey. And so is the rugby league-loving public.
Walker has a wonderful story, and he tells it beautifully. His eyes literally sparkle as the once pathetically shy indigenous man confidently fronts the media throng.
And while former Rabbitohs coaches Michael McGuire and Anthony Seibold can feel justifiably proud of the role they have played in Walker's rise to the top, it seems master coach Wayne Bennett has added the cream.
Irrespective of our state allegiance, and whether we agree or disagree with his stand not to sing the national anthem, I doubt anyone would not wish the likeable Walker the best for next week.