After the opening game of the 2019 State of Origin series, and particularly after the announcement of the New South Wales Blues squad for Game 2, coach Brad Fittler faced some intense media scrutiny.
How intense? When even Buzz Rothfield – not a man prone to admitting he was wrong – is apologising, it indicates just how hot the heat had been turned up on the man they call ‘Freddy’.
Some of the criticism directed at Fittler was born out of questions about is tactics in Brisbane, especially the use of his bench. However, that was quite mild compared to what followed when the Blues named their team for Perth.
Many fans and experts were genuinely stunned that so many changes – some drastic – were made to a team that only narrowly lost to Queensland in Game 1.
Without question, the change that earned the most ire was the dropping of centre Latrell Mitchell. Though it had been rumoured for a little while, it still came as a shock, and the fallout was immediate. Yours truly even questioned if someone other than Fittler was behind Mitchell’s axing.
New centres, a new five-eighth, and changes to the bench, all signalled a massive change in direction for the Blues, and many – myself included – wondered if a touch of panic had set into the NSW camp. At best, it was a bold selection strategy for Game 2.
As ever with bold selection strategies, those in charge of the decisions have to live with the blame if they fail. Yet they also deserve immense credit if they succeed. Sunday’s 38-6 trouncing of the Maroons is sweet vindication for Fittler.
Though NSW still need to finish the job in Sydney, for now it’s kudos to Freddy, and plenty of egg applied to the face for many of us.
Though the last few weeks probably haven’t been the easiest time for Fittler, they do say a lot about the man, let alone the coach.
Fittler was a truly great player. If anything, he’s actually slightly underrated, historically. His name rarely gets mentioned when talk of the “next Immortal’ comes up, yet he deserves to be in those conversations.
Listing all of his achievements here would take up far too much space, but his resume is extremely healthy when compared to almost anyone else in rugby league history.
Debuting in first grade while he was still in high school, Fittler played for NSW when he was just 18, and remains the Blues’ youngest ever Origin player. He also represented Australia that same year, being a great player from start to finish in an extremely decorated career.
He was always calm and level-headed on the field, rarely getting flustered. He never looked worried, playing with extreme poise and maturity, which, coupled with his considerable physical ability (who can forget Freddy’s amazing left-foot step?!), ensured that he will be remembered as an all-time great.
He also had the confidence and courage to try things on the footy field, which regularly came off. Lastly, he was a fantastic leader with an unrivalled record, captaining his state 14 times, and his country 20 times.
All of these amazing qualities that he displayed during his playing days have stayed with him, and are now present as NSW coach.
Despite the heart-breaking loss in Game 1, Fittler didn’t worry, remaining calm and poised. Knowing he would cop flak for dropping Mitchell, Fittler had the maturity to call it the “hardest thing he’d done”, but the confidence and courage to do it anyway.
He’s the leader that NSW need after years of Origin disappointments.
Though it’s just one game, the win in Perth certainly quieted a lot of detractors. Fittler is far too modest and relaxed to say this himself, but the victory screamed “I know what I’m doing, guys!”
The additions to the squad all vindicated their selections, and in doing so, vindicated Fittler.
Recalled winger Blake Ferguson made one memorable mistake when he dropped a high ball, but otherwise provided exactly what the Blues needed and what was missing in Game 1: hard metres bringing the ball back out of his own half, giving his forwards a valuable rest.
Jack Wighton’s elevation to the starting side in the centres gave NSW muscle in both attack and defence, and much like Ferguson, he did some occasional dirty work for his forwards.
Tom Trbojevic’s roaming style, instincts, and nose for the ball, netted him a hat-trick in his return to Origin football, despite playing out of position at right centre.
Dale Finucane exhibited muscle and grunt in the middle of the park, and was a surprise starter, instead of coming off the bench.
Likewise, Daniel Saifiti was sensational upfront for the Blues, looking right at home in Origin football by handling the physicality very well, while Tariq Sims was a solid performer from the bench, making 85 metres from nine runs, and not missing a tackle.
Lastly, Jimmy Maloney – though not Fittler’s first choice as a replacement for five-eighth Cody Walker – expertly led the team around the park, providing experience, direction and a brilliant kicking game.
All of them more than repaid their coach’s faith, and in doing so, got everyone off Fittler’s back.
The fickle nature of Origin football means it may only be for a week or two, but it’s better than having the media and fans baying for your blood.
Not that Fittler would be even remotely worried.
And that’s part of what makes him a good coach.