As Brad Fittler entered what could potentially be his final days as the coach of New South Wales, his unwavering smile presented a stark contrast to the widespread criticism he has faced. Despite the relentless scrutiny surrounding his team selections, tactics, and overall performance, Fittler has managed to unite the New South Wales State of Origin squad for what could be their last outing together.
The atmosphere in Coogee leading up to the dead rubber match was unique compared to the previous two games. Game I always carries an air of anticipation, as the winter chill hasn’t fully set in and there’s still a glimmer of hope in the air. It feels like ages ago since those heady days in late May when Fittler’s gambles seemed like they could pay off. The passage of time has caused everyone to feel much older.
Game II intensifies the anticipation, with the stakes being significantly higher. It embodies a “do or die” mentality, elevating the prevailing atmosphere. The air itself feels denser, heavy with the magnitude of what lies ahead for the team. The outcome of this match holds the series in its balance, ready to tip in one direction or the other. It’s palpable.
However, for a dead rubber match, things are quieter and colder. The speculation surrounding team selections still lingers, but it doesn’t carry the same deafening volume. News teams no longer camp outside the team hotel, desperate to catch a glimpse of the players’ arrivals. People just aren’t as desperate to know the details.
This is the current state of the Blues and where Fittler, in all likelihood, will conclude his Origin coaching career. A defeat will certainly seal his fate, and even a victory may not be a strong enough case for his continuation. Yet, Fittler’s smile persists. He acknowledges that things could always be worse.
“I could be laying bricks. I’ve seen that at my house recently and it looks like hard work. I love it [coaching the Blues], it’s fantastic,” Fittler remarked, maintaining his positive attitude. Despite the team’s current predicament, he finds excitement in having debutants representing New South Wales and the return of players who still have a promising future in Origin. Motivation is plentiful.
Ultimately, the actions of the team during the forthcoming week will be the ultimate judgement of their preparations. Fittler eagerly awaits that moment and is optimistic about what his players will bring to the match.
Restoring New South Wales’ tarnished reputation will not happen overnight, even if they were to secure a victory in the upcoming match. The public sentiment towards the team might be sour, but the significance of the Blues jersey should not be undermined. Its legacy carries weight, and disregarding it would jeopardize future series just as much as the current one.
Rebuilding and returning to the pinnacle of the sport requires a starting point. This dead rubber match can act as that foundation. If Fittler has one final gift to offer the state he excelled in as a player and had his fair share of ups and downs in as a coach, it should be the promise of a brighter future.
This is where players like Bradman Best enter the equation. Best’s selection for the squad surprised many, considering other available options such as Kotoni Staggs from the Brisbane Broncos. However, Best’s talent is undeniable. Four years since his NRL debut, he continues to develop and explore his potential, and he has plenty of room to grow.
Physically imposing like a coalminer, Best exudes maturity beyond his 21 years when discussing Origin. He understands the significance of a dead rubber match and is determined not to let down his state, eagerly anticipating the electric atmosphere within the packed stadium. Best’s childhood memories of Queensland dominating New South Wales fuel his deep-rooted commitment to the Blues.
“The future of the Blue jersey rests with players of Best’s generation,” but not solely. It’s important to remember that as New South Wales embarks on the arduous journey out of their current predicament. Every player, regardless of age, has the potential to make a substantial impact. Cody Walker‘s recall to the squad at the age of 33 illustrates this point. Walker’s childlike joy and sense of unfinished business upon his selection are evident.
“I walked into the room where my kids were and started celebrating with them, they didn’t understand what I was celebrating but then I showed them who had called me and we all started jumping around and carrying on,” Walker revealed with immense excitement. “There were times where I thought I missed the boat. I haven’t played my best footy in the sky blue jersey, and this is an opportunity for me to make amends.”
There is still a future worth fighting for, regardless of victory or defeat in this match. It may not carry the same stakes as previous encounters, but the journey ahead for the Blues remains challenging. Not all players will reach the end destination. Eight members of the 2016 Blues squad that played in a dead rubber match never wore the jersey again.
However, there is hope. Some players will make it back to the glory days, basking in the warm sun’s embrace as they witness the circle of success come full circle during future series. Perhaps this is why Fittler continues to smile, even in the face of potential departure. There is still work to be done, even when the odds seem stacked against them.