It doesn’t matter if it’s Brad Fittler, Andrew Johns, Phil Gould, John Cartwright, Des Hasler, Dean Pay, Pottsy, Ralph Malph or even The Fonz himself.
Whoever takes over from Laurie Daley as NSW coach will find themselves in charge of a team and culture requiring a complete rebuild. Again. Just as Queensland’s legends were finally starting to yield, as the Blues finally looked like turning this thing around, the NSWRL finds itself in complete disarray at the wrong moment in Origin history.
Happy Days? I don’t think so.
When Daley fronted the NSWRL board in late July, he had the tentative support of enough directors who were prepared to give him one final year to defeat the Maroons.
While some wanted change, they were prepared to defer to the judgment of chairman George Peponis, who had publicly declared after the game-three loss that he wanted Daley to continue.
Then Daley fronted the board. He was battle-weary and presented so poorly that they quickly changed their mind and thought it best to undertake a searching review.
What concerned them the most was that the coach didn’t know about Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson’s schooner-a-thon at a Lennox Head pub five days before the Origin decider.
While Daley and team management were unaware of the movements of their two backline stars, news of their drinking session was bouncing around several club coaches within a day. If they knew, how could Daley not? And so close to such a big game?
When Daley wasn’t given a contract extension at that first board meeting, even his closest allies conceded his time was up.
Results were chiefly the reason. NSW have lost the last three series on his watch. Few would’ve been afforded that much latitude.
So much has been made of the so-called “boozy culture” within the Blues set-up and the longer time goes on, the more stories this column hears about the disastrous consequences of staying at The Star for game two.
When Fairfax Media revealed in February that the casino ??? which is a major sponsor of the Blues ??? would be the team base, some within the NSWRL and around the team became quite nervous about what could potentially happen. Daley assured them there would be no issue. That now appears to have been a fatal decision; a blind show of faith in the players he selected to represent the state.
During their time at the casino, the playing group became disconnected and fractured. Some retreated in their downtime to the blackjack tables, others to the poker machine area, others to its bars. Keeping tabs on them was like herding cats.
The Star is a sponsor for next season, but we’re assured the board will allow Daley’s replacement to base the side wherever he sees fit. There is no contractual obligation to stay at the venue.
Without again trawling through all the wreckage of the NSW series defeat, it’s become clear certain cliques had formed within the team. “It was a weird camp, man,” is how one player described it to me.
Some reports have overblown the significance of expensive bar bills. Once again, the rugby league media misses the real story. A bar tab of $4000 for 40 people is hardly surprising. Let’s not blame team management but perhaps question the ridiculous price of drinks in this city.
Indeed, those within the Maroons set-up have been having a little chuckle about it all. “Four grand? Lightweights,” said one, pointing out that the Queenslanders could sometimes nudge five-figure tabs during their bonding sessions.
Coaches can allow players to drink as much alcohol as they want. They can run a camp however they want, as long as nobody is breaking the law, harassing the public, posting body parts on social media or trashing hotel rooms like they’re Keith Richards.
The result is all that matters.
The Maroons keep winning series after series, including this year’s when they started games two and three as distinct outsiders with the bookmakers.
Meanwhile, NSW players often return to their respective clubs after Origin unfit and disillusioned. This year, some Blues players were more concerned about talking about the contracts they just signed, or were about to sign. Queenslanders talk about eating small NSW children.
This is what clubs are talking about when they say they do not want their players being exposed to the Blues culture because in some respects the Blues culture poisons them for the rest of the season. “I’m getting underpaid,” declared one star recently to his chief executive, having listened to weeks of contract talk.
With this in mind, here comes Brad Fittler, rugby league’s answer to The Fonz. Aaaaayyyyy!
He has been the standout choice to take over as coach for the past two years. Origin needs his intensity, his intellect, his madness, his nous, his voice, his passion ??? all of it! ??? as much as NSW.
Johns and Gould and whoever he needs will soon follow if Fittler is reappointed. At some stage, Danny Buderus needs to be involved, too. But if the NSWRL think Fittler is about to walk into the job with the seat now vacant, it needs to think again. He will only come in on his terms and in the right circumstances.
Reports at the weekend suggested the NSWRL was about to make Fittler, Johns and Gould an “offer they couldn’t refuse”. We’re assuming that doesn’t mean money, because all three of them would do it for a can of Coke and a pie if necessary.
What Fittler needs is the ability to run the team however he wants, without having to hit KPIs, without having to show his face in the office every day, without having to base his side at a casino to appease management and sponsors.
NSW needs a coach, nothing more. Time to get out of the casino, cut back on the support staff and rediscover the essence of what Origin is all about and then, finally, these happy days will be yours and mine and all of NSW’s happy days once again.