Fittler silences critics to avoid Origin coaching blues

Source

Brad Fittler and his Blues were an 80th-minute Mitchell Pearce cutout pass away from becoming another slab of Origin roadkill.

Had the Pearce pass not been thrown, had another redemption story in Blake Ferguson not held his balance long enough to send James Tedesco on his way to the series-winning try, there would be questions about Fittler’s coaching, just as there are now about his Maroons counterpart, Kevin Walters.

Instead, NSW are basking in back-to-back series triumphs, and Fittler has now leapt into the ranks of Origin coaching elite.

Of the 26 men who have coached either Origin team in a series since 1980, Fittler’s winning percentage of 66.7 ranks him third, along with Terry Fearnley (NSW) and Mal Meninga (Queensland).

Ahead of them are only Ron Willey (NSW, 71.4 per cent) and Arthur Beetson (Queensland, 68.4). Of these top five, all have a superior Origin win percentage compared to their club coaching records.

For Fittler, like a category of Origin coaches before him - those without significant success as club coaches - there were the questions from within the coaching ranks: is he a good enough coach for Origin?

Origin's a beast, it chews people up and spits them out as much as any sport I’ve seen

Paul Vautin

Does the happy-clappy, sideline-leaping, childlike Fittler really have the coaching cred? Is he good enough?

Origin coaching is not for the thin-skinned, but another who faced those questions, former series-winning Queensland coach Paul Vautin, is adamant Fittler can coach.

"Origin's a beast, it chews people up and spits them out as much as any sport I’ve seen," Vautin says. "But just because Brad Fittler’s not traditional doesn’t mean he can’t coach.

"He picked players out of position, he took risks, he backed himself and his players … if he loses the calls would come that he’s got to get sacked."

Brad Fittler has proved the naysayers wrong after masterminding back-to-back Origin triumphs.

Brad Fittler has proved the naysayers wrong after masterminding back-to-back Origin triumphs.Credit:AAP

Vautin knew there would have been seasoned club coaches questioning his ability to lead the Maroons in the 1995 series.

"I can only imagine in 1995 that some club coaches probably said our series win was a fluke, million to one," he said.

"Club coaches also are probably saying Freddy’s breezing along, taking the Mickey. But many club coaches for NSW have tried and not been successful."

Leading that list are club coaching luminaries like Craig Bellamy (Origin 22.2 v club 68.4), Tim Sheens (33.3 v 50.8), Frank Stanton (33.3 v 52.5) and Ted Glossop (20 v 55.4).

The greatest anomaly is Bellamy. With four club premierships at Melbourne (two of which were later stripped) he deserves to be ranked as a supercoach.

But he’s struggled at Origin level, and admits it took him until his final series in 2010 to get a handle on it.

Ironically, his club coaching helped shape key players who would lead the Queensland domination of the past decade: Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, all the way to the current Storm Origin reps Cameron Munster, Will Chambers, Felise Kaufusi, Josh Addo-Carr and Dale Finucane.

Even the original supercoach, Jack Gibson, won just 33.3 per cent of his six Origin games in charge, versus a club win rate of 62.2 per cent over a marathon 394 games.

But Origin coaching is a sprint, not a marathon.

"An Origin coach has got a team for six weeks, you've got to get them to believe in themselves, and believe in you," Vautin said.

"The NSW players love Brad, he’s a good human being and knows what he’s talking about when it comes to rugby league, and more importantly State of Origin."

Maybe that humility is an underrated Origin coaching asset.

Fittler’s only 47, or as he said last year. "I’m now ... only just understanding what it takes to be a coach".

Like developing a hard edge when touchy-feely isn’t working.

Ahead of Origin II, restrictions on mobile phones were among key discipline rules. Some players disobeyed, others were late to training. So Fittler stood in front of them at a team breakfast and read them the riot act.

There was no sign of the Blues scarf-wearing jolly joker. But along with his selections, strategy and mental preparation, he got the message across, and the result in Origin II.

Ahead of the series Fittler was adamant he would hold to his principles of picking on club form and those without off-field baggage.

Then, for Origin I, he instead stuck loyal to his winning 2018 side, and picked an out-of-form halfback in Penrith’s Nathan Cleary, and a troubled young star in the Roosters’ Latrell Mitchell.

It didn’t end well.

Fittler was unafraid to make the big calls, including dropping Latrell Mitchell after a lacklustre performance in Origin I.

Fittler was unafraid to make the big calls, including dropping Latrell Mitchell after a lacklustre performance in Origin I.Credit:AAP

Fittler is quick to say his coaching is still a work in progress, and in this case he learnt fast that some rules need to be broken. He made some tough and defining calls for the second clash, ones that could have been Origin coach-killers.

He dumped Mitchell, due to attitude and fitness concerns. He brought back a reformed Blake Ferguson, previously cast aside due to attitude and fitness concerns.

And also a proven Origin winner in James Maloney, despite being another who broke Fittler’s prior rule on good club form.

Strategically, he changed tact from game one and went with two attacking fullbacks in James Tedesco and Tom Trbojevic, with devastating effect.

Then there’s Pearce and Origin III.

"There was an energy when I came into this team,” Pearce said after Wednesday night’s decider. “The boys haven’t got any ego …"

Fittler didn’t just bring back Pearce for the decider, but instilled (along with mentoring from Blues legendary No.7 Andrew Johns) the belief and mindset amongst Pearce and the squad to “just play”.

Which is what Pearce did when he threw that cutout pass in the 80th minute.

"It was like he was in a park playing touch instinctively,” Vautin says. "That’s Freddy’s influence right there.

"And probably the biggest call Brad had to make was the dropping of Latrell, surely you give him another chance?

"But by the end of his career he will be one of NSW's greatest players. It’s almost like Brad’s given Latrell a life mission."

A bit like then-Panthers coach Phil Gould had to do to a cocky, overweight and partying teenage Fittler almost 30 years ago at Penrith.

The stats are only stats - they don’t reflect the talent arsenal at each coach’s disposal, nor the quality of the opposition. Origin performance stats for coaches and players could almost do with an asterisk, ranking the quality of who they played with, and against.

Regardless, it wouldn’t surprise if Fittler’s disciplinary investment in Mitchell returns dividends when he eventually returns to the Blues fold, helping NSW - and Fittler - improve that winning percentage.