Extra tackling practice with the Burgess brothers and South Sydney's off-season coaching upheaval have helped prepare Cody Walker to become the oldest State of Origin debutant to wear the NSW No.6 jersey at Suncorp Stadium next Wednesday.
Blues coach Brad Fittler revealed Walker had been under consideration last season but there were concerns over his defence. He told the 29-year-old he needed to improve in that area.
Fittler has also noted Walker’s increased leadership role at Souths and within the game, which has been highlighted by the Indigenous All Stars captain's decision not to sing the national anthem before matches.
“I know some Souths players and they were really complimentary of him and the role he has at the club,” Fittler said.
“It was more than just what he is doing on the field.”
Labelled by former Queensland captain Darren Lockyer as the form player of the NRL, the South Sydney five-eighth is the Telstra Premiership’s leading try scorer with 11 in as many games and been responsible for eight try assists.
However, it is his improved defence that has really impressed Fittler.
Walker revealed he had been doing extra tackling practice with the likes of Rabbitohs teammates Sam, George and Tom Burgess, John Sutton, Cameron Murray and Liam Knight.
“I spoke to Freddy in the pre-season and just told him I really want to be part of the Origin arena and asked what I needed to do,” Walker said.
“He spoke about my defence, working as an edge together and making more tackles, and it has obviously worked.
“I’ve just been doing some extra wrestling and getting big guys running at me at training and those sort of things. I suppose talking to Freddy reiterated that I needed to do something about it and it was good to know that he was honest with me.
“Anyone who plays rugby league wants to play in these arenas so I went back and worked on my game.”
Fittler said Walker’s combination with hooker Damien Cook and Murray were obvious and he had also been working well in attack and defence with the other players on the Rabbitohs’ potent left edge.
“We actually spoke about Cody last year and I feel he is working better with his other players,” Fittler said.
“It just seems like he is stronger. I think he is making a lot more tackles and making it a lot more personal.
“There was a part of the game that he had to work on and he has. I spoke to him last year and we spoke about defence because people are going to keep running at him.”
Walker’s selection for NSW is a remarkable story, as he only made his NRL debut as a 26-year-old with Souths in 2016 after previous stints at Gold Coast, Penrith and Melbourne, as well as Brisbane Easts in the Intrust Super Cup.
He captained the Indigenous All Stars team this season and is a member of the Rabbitohs' leadership group under Wayne Bennett, whose arrival at the club occurred during an off-season of uncertainty for the players over the future of Brisbane-bound coach Anthony Griffin.
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“I remember being asked a couple of years ago and I probably wasn’t ready for that type of role but as you get more experience and trust within the group it is quite important – especially being a half,” Walker said.
“When I first came into first grade I was a fairly old rookie as far as age was concerned so I had to find my place in the team and be confident in finding my voice.
“Over the pre-season, going through everything with the coach, we as a leadership group got together and spoke a fair bit. I was speaking to Sam a fair bit and voicing our opinions on what was happening and all that sort of stuff.”
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Captaining the Indigenous All Stars also played an important role in Walker’s development into a leader.
“It was a huge step in my life and it was such a proud moment,” he said.
“It was so good to not only represent my people but my family, my club and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around Australia. It was an awesome occasion to be a part of and I think that grew my leadership that little bit more.”
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Indigenous All Stars teammates Latrell Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr will play alongside Walker on the NSW left edge, along with captain Boyd Cordner.
While Queensland’s left edge was always an area NSW had to work on stopping as that is where Greg Inglis played, the Blues are just as potent and Mitchell is keen to play outside Walker.
“It’s a deadly edge that one. GI and I guess Darius Boyd back in the day were try scorers and there is a bit of that going on here at the moment. I think we can go really well,” Mitchell said.
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“Cody is an instinctive player, he just loves to play footy and he is one of those talented fellows who knows the game. For him coming into this is only going to take his game to another level, which is scary.”
The long journey
Walker’s only previous representative jerseys were with Country Origin in 2017 and the Queensland Residents team in 2013, and he was never selected at state level as a junior growing up in Casino.
Stints with the Titans and Panthers didn’t lead to NRL opportunities but after his partner Nellie Bell became pregnant with their oldest son Kian, Walker knew he needed to make something of his career.
After winning the Queensland Cup player of the year award in 2013, Walker joined the Storm the following season before being lured to Souths in 2015.
“If I didn’t chase my dream hard enough, how can I teach my kids to do the same if I gave up so easily? That’s a big message in my fathering and in my life," he said.
Match: Maroons v Blues
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“The journey that I’ve been on has been so long, and there have been so many setbacks. I moved around a fair but and I have to give a lot of credit to my partner. As a young girl, she was pregnant at 18, and we moved to Brisbane, moved to Melbourne, moved to Sydney and the Gold Coast. We have been everywhere and she was by my side the whole time.
“I suppose throughout the journey it always floats through your head about whether something like this will come. Now that I’m here I don’t want to give it up. It is something I want to hold on to for a long time.”
Even when he played for the Queensland Residents side, Walker joked he wore a blue shirt under his Maroons jersey.
Walker went to Palm Beach-Currumbin High after signing with Gold Coast as a 16-year-old and it was suggested in a Brisbane newspaper last weekend that Queensland should claim him.
However, Walker is so passionate about the Blues that he went to lengths to ensure Nellie gave birth in NSW and not Queensland.
"She is a very big Greg Inglis fan so she was obviously a Queensland supporter," Walker said.
"I said you're not having this baby in Queensland, for obvious reasons - she goes for Queensland and she would have run with the story of him being born in Queensland so probably about two weeks out from the due date I had her stay at my parent's place in Casino to make sure she didn't have the baby in Queensland."
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Growing up, Walker’s Origin heroes were Fittler and Bradley Clyde, and he would make the annual pilgrimage to Lang Park with his brothers and parents, Bernie and Linda, to cheer the Blues.
“We’d get into the Tarago - the Silver Bullet - with Mum, Dad and my three brothers,” Walker said.
“Sometimes Mum wouldn’t go and it would be just us boys. It was a great time of the year. We’d stay at one of our uncles' houses in Brisbane and drive back the next day.”
Linda won’t get to see Walker fulfil his dream of playing for the Blues after dying of a heart attack last year but he writes ‘Mum’ on strapping tape on his wrist during every game, along with ‘Nel’ and the names of their two sons, Kian and Kade.
“She would have been beaming,” he said of his mother.
“I do feel she’ll be watching over me somewhere. I just want to keep making her proud. Obviously it’s been a hard time in my life, it’s still very raw and it feels like it happened yesterday.”
As the captain of the Indigenous All Stars team, Walker was thrust into the political spotlight when asked at the post-match press conference about the players declining to sing Advance Australia Fair before kick-off.
The issue created public debate, with Australian coach Mal Meninga calling for a referendum on the national anthem.
Rugby league has a proud tradition of leading the way on Indigenous issues and the NRL this week publicly supported the Uluru Statement, calling for the establishment of a First Nations voice in the constitution.
Walker has confirmed that he will again decline to sing Advance Australia Fair before Origin I and other players are expected to do the same but the Indigenous team did not discuss a boycott before the All Stars game.
“I think it is important that everyone be entitled to have their own opinion,” Walker told NRL.com.
“I didn’t go into that game thinking those sort of issues would come out. I just answered a question and that’s my belief. I will stand by that opinion.”