Billy Slater in action against Canberra on Sunday. Photo: Mark Nolan
It is a sure sign of how much pressure Billy Slater is under to retain his No.1 Australian jersey for the May 3 Test against New Zealand when former Kangaroos captain Darren Lockyer and Queensland coach Mal Meninga feel the need to publicly defend his form.
While it's hard to imagine Slater being dumped for the Test, Fairfax Media has been told there are genuine concerns among the Kangaroos hierarchy about his form for Melbourne this season and moving Greg Inglis from left centre to fullback is a genuine option.
The return of Brisbane centre Justin Hodges after he was forced out of last year's World Cup by injury has given the Australian selectors an obvious replacement if they were to shift Inglis to fullback in place of Slater.
Otherwise, they will not be able to accommodate Hodges, as Parramatta's Jarryd Hayne cemented his place during the World Cup and has been in outstanding form for the Eels this season.
After injuring his right knee during the World Cup quarter-final against the United States, Slater worked around the clock to be fit for the final and scored two tries in Australia's defeat of New Zealand at Old Trafford.
However, he underwent surgery after returning home and battled to be fit for Melbourne's opening match against Manly after missing most of the pre-season. After last Monday's performance against St George Illawarra, ABC commentator and former Dragons halfback Mathew Head tweeted: ''Billy Slater drops a few bombs these days. Is that normal for him?''
He was safe under the high ball in Sunday's 24-22 loss to Canberra but had both knees strapped. His form has also caused speculation about his place at Origin level but Lockyer and Meninga backed him to regain his best for the Maroons.
''Slater's recent injury woes with his knee, coupled with Melbourne's solid, if not superb, start to the season, has enhanced GI's claims to wear the Maroon No.1 jumper,'' Lockyer wrote in Brisbane's Sunday Mail newspaper.
''Given his disrupted pre-season, Billy is probably a bit underdone. He's not quite 100 per cent at the moment. Sometimes, seasoned rep guys can have a tendency to play well in club levels, all the while knowing they can find another gear for the Origin arena. Slater may now be in his 30s, but I believe he still has that extra gear.''
Meninga also dedicated his column to concerns about the form of Queensland players at a number of clubs, including the Storm. ''We are fortunate the bulk of our squad have been there and done it so many times in Origin that they know what is expected of them when it comes to playing for Queensland,'' he wrote. ''We also have is a massive amount of self-belief.''