Fittler going down swinging the axe as besieged coach chops and changes in bid to save his skin


It should be the case that Blues coach Brad Fittler sharpened his proverbial selection axe too late to save his job but such is the dearth of options available, there’s a fair chance the NSWRL will keep him around. 

Fittler has punted five players, brought in four uncapped players to his squad and recalled a few others in a bid to dodge a State of Origin clean sweep in next Wednesday’s dead rubber at Accor Stadium.

The decision to boot Jarome Luai after a lacklustre display in Origin II at Suncorp Stadium is at least one game too late.

For all the talk around the intangibles that the Penrith five-eighth brings to the table, he lacks playmaking skills and when Nathan Cleary is not running the show, his kicking game in particular is found wanting at this elite level. 

Recalling Souths veteran Cody Walker to line up Mitchell Moses in the halves is a band-aid solution.

He’s won just the one game in four matches at Origin level and has not been sighted in a sky-blue jersey since the 2021 boilover loss to Wayne Bennett’s ragtag bunch of Maroons that he cobbled together at short notice at the end of the pandemic-addled season. 

Whether it was Nicho Hynes or Matt Burton, a younger option than the 33-year-old Rabbitoh would have been a more prudent pick. 

As is often the case under the Fittler/Greg Alexander regime, the selections didn’t follow a pattern. 

The addition of Rabbitohs forward Keaon Koloamatangi for Knights veteran Tyson Frizell is a case of looking to the future while bringing in Knights centre Bradman Best is another gamble on a young talent. 

Stefano Utoikamanu has been jettisoned after one match where he only got 12 minutes of game time while Hudson Young has also been sent packing even though he was much better in his second match at Origin level. 

Reagan Campbell-Gillard is finally back in the front-row rotation after getting just two chances in the previous five years of Fittler’s reign while Jake Trbojevic deserves an instant recall after an impressive return from his calf injury with Manly on Sunday. 

Junior Paulo getting dropped for Jacob Saifiti seems odd when the Blues’ other starting prop, Payne Haas, was ruled out with an ankle injury.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 08: Payne Haas of the Blues is tackled during game one of the 2022 State of Origin series between the New South Wales Blues and the Queensland Maroons at Accor Stadium on June 08, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

And do the Blues need both Clint Gutherson and Damien Cook on their bench? Gutherson could fill in at dummy half at a pinch and also cover any spot in the backs while emerging Cowboys rake Reece Robson showed in Origin II that he can cut it as an 80-minute hooker.

Perhaps most confounding out of the Origin III overhaul is the return of Cameron Murray to the starting side at lock with Kangaroos vice-captain Isaah Yeo relegated to the bench.

Liam Martin is at long last being allowed to start in the second row despite everyone except it would seem Blind Freddie being able to see that he has overtaken former Panthers teammate Viliame Kikau as the game’s premier edge forward. 

Uncapped duo Scott Drinkwater and Spencer Leniu have been named on the extended bench. Leniu would have been a more impactful option on the interchange than Saifiti, who is similar to Trbojevic and Campbell-Gillard in being a worker rather than a game-changer. 

NSW are desperate to restore lost pride after surrendering the shield 32-6 in game two on the back of the 26-18 defeat in Adelaide to kick off the series.

With Tom Trbojevic out for the season after tearing his pectoral early in the Origin II loss in Brisbane last month and Latrell Mitchell still out with his calf problem, Rabbitohs centre Campbell Graham was the favourite to replace the Manly star but he was ruled out of selection due to a sternum injury.

Blues coach Brad Fittler looks on ahead of game one of the 2023 State of Origin series between the Queensland Maroons and New South Wales Blues at Adelaide Oval on May 31, 2023 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Blues coach Brad Fittler. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Haas’ ongoing ankle injury flared up in Brisbane’s victory over the Dolphins on Saturday night, which was the last thing Fittler needed with stars Nathan Cleary (hamstring) and Api Koroisau (jaw) still unavailable and the off-contract coach facing an uncertain future after back-to-back series defeats.

Fittler has made mass changes in the past to achieve dramatic turnarounds but a win next week will only achieve the restoration of lost pride. 

Whether it’s enough to earn him another contract will be determined inside the NSWRL boardroom in the coming weeks. 

Choosing an Origin coach is extraordinarily difficult for each state – it’s become too big a task for someone to juggle while in a full-time club role so that removes 17 of the best options out of the talent pool before kick-off in the standard “worldwide search” for the right candidate.

In recent years, the states have had to gamble on the likes of Laurie Daley, Kevin Walters, Fittler and Slater, who have had little to no NRL experience or the Maroons tried a premiership-winning mentor in Paul Green without success for one season before he opted out because he wanted to concentrate on getting back onto the club scene.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy would be the ideal replacement for Fittler if he had not decided to have one more year at club level with Melbourne. 

He didn’t succeed for the one time in his coaching career when he had a crack in 2008-10, losing three straight series to a Maroons side brimming with his protegees Cameron Smith, Greg Inglis, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 16: Billy Slater of the Melbourne Storm and Storm coach Craig Bellamy talk during a Melbourne Storm NRL media session at Gosch's Paddock on May 16, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Bellamy admitted afterwards that he found it hard plotting the downfall of players who he was also trying to win an NRL title alongside, but not as an excuse for his inability to bring down the Queensland juggernaut.

How good would it be for him to return to the Blues post after he retires at the Storm to give full attention to the missing piece in his resume, particularly with Slater masterminding the Maroons from the other coaches’ box? 

But he’s already offered a blunt no to the question of returning anytime soon so perhaps the Blues, out of loyalty, will stick with Fittler, who will finish his sixth year in charge with an even split of three series triumphs.

Weighing against Fittler is the feeling that he should have at least won four, given the Blues have for the most part had stronger playing talent as the Maroons rebuilt after their golden era.

If this is to be his Origin coaching swansong, he’s at least going down swinging by shaking up his team even if it may already be too late to earn another contract.

NSW Origin III team

1 James Tedesco
2 Brian To’o
3 Stephen Crichton
4 Bradman Best
5 Josh Addo-Carr
6 Cody Walker
7 Mitchell Moses
8 Jake Trbojevic
9 Damien Cook
10 Reagan Campbell-Gillard
11 Liam Martin
12 Keaon Koloamatangi
13 Cameron Murray
Interchange
14 Isaah Yeo
15 Jacob Saifiti
16 Reece Robson
17 Clint Gutherson
18 Scott Drinkwater
19 Spencer Leniu





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