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21 hours ago
Queensland rugby league captain Cameron Smith believes fullback Billy Slater now possesses the all-round skills and composure under pressure to terrorise NSW in Wednesday's State of Origin series opener.
Smith, 24, said his Melbourne teammate had developed into the complete package since he was axed from the Maroons after Origin II in 2005.
"He was pretty shattered when he got dropped in 2005," said Smith, who shares the same birthday as Slater.
"I guess it played on his mind a little bit in 2006 and last year where he was probably trying to do too much to get back into the rep scene.
"With a couple of injuries and suspension that kept him out, he struggled there but he's worked really hard over the last 18 months to improve his game.
"He's a more all-round player now and he's got a bit of a cooler head where before he used to try for the big plays and win matches off his own bat.
"He's been playing really well and he's been the best fullback in the comp."
Slater said he now treasured the Maroons jersey even more following his long road back to the representative arena.
"I didn't take the jersey for granted when I first came into the Queensland side but I treasure it a lot more now than I did back then," said Slater, who's played five Origins since debuting in 2004.
"That's not disrespecting what I thought of the Queensland jersey back then.
"I think I've earned it a little bit more now. I'd only been playing for 18 months in first grade when I was picked last time."
Slater admitted he found it tough coping with the ignominy of being punted in 2005.
"I was disappointed then," said the Innisfail product.
"It's a passion of mine to play for Queensland and to get dropped hurt me a little bit.
"It's been three years since I've played Origin football so hopefully I've learn a lot out of that and I can take those lessons into this game."
Slater endured a horrible 2006 when he was suspended for 11 matches in total from three separate incidents, including a seven-game ban for kicking Wests Tigers prop John Skandalis in the head.
In 2007 Origin selectors preferred Karmichael Hunt at fullback as the Maroons won the series 2-1.
This year the absence of injured Brisbane skipper Darren Lockyer (knee), while a huge blow for Queensland, opens up opportunities for both Smith and Slater, who made his Test debut in last week's Centenary Test.
Slater is free to play fullback after Hunt was named out of position at five-eighth while Smith has edged out Johnathan Thurston and Petero Civoniceva in being handed the honour of leading the Maroons.
"I was a little bit shocked because Petero has played a lot of Origins (20) and he's been around for a long time," said Smith, who skippered Australia in the Centenary Test.
"Ever since I was a kid I've always dreamed of leading out the Maroons.
"Seeing guys like Wally (Lewis), Mal (Meninga) and Locky lead the Maroons around the field, it's a very proud moment to learn that I'm the captain."