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Walsh in doubt, Ponga withdrawals from NRL All Stars clash

Andrew Mathieson -

Queensland coach Billy Slater recently hosted preferential fullbacks Reece Walsh and Kalyn Ponga during an impromptu but brief State of Origin preseason camp in Brisbane.

Both men look set to fight out for the No.1 Maroons jersey later this year after Ponga, who proved in 2022 to be the difference maker, pulled out of the 2023 series to focus on playing for Newcastle following a series of head knocks the year before.

Walsh's move from the New Zealand Warriors to the Brisbane Broncos coincided with a brilliant debut series last season in a time his state needed the Origin rookie the most.

Slater would not rule either player from running around together in the same team at the same time after realising how impossible it would be to axe the incumbent Walsh in spite of Ponga's Dally M winning season last year, and vice versa.

"Everything's a possibility," former star fullback Slater said at a media conference on Saturday.

"(Ponga and Walsh) both contributed immensely to both the 2022 series and the 2023 series, and they're both Queenslanders.

"I'm sure they'd love to be teammates one day as well."

Both nimble fullbacks are also eligible for New Zealand – and both are even eligible for the Maori All Stars in the NRL's annual cultural clash on February 16.

But Walsh, through his Murri background, is also able to play for the Indigenous All Stars.

That on paper, at least, could have set up a tantalising fullback showdown should the multi-Indigenous Walsh calls on what blood represents his abilities.

That is all because the 21-year-old Walsh is yet to appear in one of the highlights on the rugby league calendar.

But Ponga has walked away from that confrontation in an encounter that represents a cultural origin series of sort that sometimes can rival the state battle for intensity at times.

"I am not making myself available for the Maori All Stars," Ponga explained to Triple M radio.

"It's a special game, but my focus is on the Knights and State of Origin this year."

Such is Broncos sensation's pulling power, both of the All Stars camps have appealed to Walsh to play for them in a decision that could sway the result of the match in Townsville with one fullback already gone.

Time will tell when the Indigenous All Stars are expected to name their squad on Tuesday.

But according to Walsh's club coach, Kevin Walters does not expect the aspirational Walsh to play for either side amid his fourth season in the NRL system without a cap.

"We'll have a few boys playing, but I don't think he'll be one of them," Waters said more than a week before selection.

Walsh at this stage hasn't publicly said whether he will miss his first All Stars match or not, regardless of which side's colours he would rather wear.

The fact that the Broncos are one of four teams heading to Las Vegas in a blockbuster opening showcase for the 2024 season has the club wanting to restrict players from performing in additional fixtures off a limited preseason since last year's World Cup.

Sydney Roosters have already asked the NRL could every one of their eligible All Stars skip the game ahead of the March 3 battle with Brisbane and chairman Peter V'landys responded with a defiant no answer to bailing on the occasion a fortnight earlier.

An extra distraction is Walsh's requirement to explain to US immigration officials about a 2021 guilty plea to cocaine possession on his visa application to gain entry into the nation.

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