It is easy to understand why New South Wales fans hold Brad Fittler’s series-clinching try from 2004 close to their hearts. For tens of thousands of them it was the last time they witnessed a Blues series victory in the flesh.
It was not the best try Fittler scored for the Blues but it was perhaps the most significant; a four-pointer that sealed a win in his last game in the light blue jersey and went a long way towards erasing the painful memories of his first Origin farewell three years earlier.
The try came inside the last 10 minutes of a game that the Blues dominated from go to whoa. Desperate to work the play outside Queensland territory, Maroons captain Darren Lockyer opted for a clearing kick early in the tackle count but Fittler was awake to the ploy, charging at Lockyer and knocking the ball down. It sat up perfectly for him and despite the efforts of winger Billy Slater, Fittler was off for the prize. He raised his left hand in triumph as team-mates rushed to congratulate him.
The final act of a stellar 31-game Origin career is one of Fittler’s fondest footballing memories. And having recently recreated the moment for The Footy Show, it was especially easy for Freddy to recount for nrl.com:
“At that particular stage of the game the only way they could get out of their own end was with a kick and I remembered back in 1998 Kevvy Walters did it to us. He kicked over and Ben Ikin got it [Queensland went on to win the game with a last-minute try]. So when Locky got in position I just knew he had to try something so it was quite an easy play, really.
“When he got into the motion I just got myself in the road of the ball. When you’re really focused things tend to work slowly for you so I just remember the moment I hit the ball I realised it was going to be there to be picked up. It bounced straight up into my hands. I think Billy [Slater] was coming across but he was in no position to tackle me and it was a short stroll.
“It was amazing how I felt in 2001 when I retired to how I felt right then. As I came around [behind the posts] I could see the whole team just running towards me and I think Mark Gasnier was the first bloke there. That was one of the best feelings because all of these young blokes were coming and I was right at the end. To see all these young blokes smiling was something I won’t forget.”
The Blues claimed victory in the series opener that year after the most diabolical preparation imaginable. Gasnier had been selected to debut in the first game but was sensationally stood down for disciplinary reasons following a team bonding night that got out of hand.
The Sydney opener made history as the first Origin game decided in golden point and five-eighth Shaun Timmins emerged the hero after landing a field-goal from almost 40 metres to break an 8-all deadlock. But the win came at a cost. Halfback Craig Gower tore a medial ligament late in the contest and was ruled out for the rest of the series. Making matters worse, Timmins was unavailable for Game Two after he hurt his neck playing for St George Illawarra.
Already missing Trent Barrett (hamstring) and Andrew Johns (out for the season with a torn ACL), coach Phil Gould was limited in his options in the halves. He conceded that the Blues were lucky to get away with the first game and they faced almost certain defeat in Brisbane unless he could find experienced replacements in the halves.
Gould urged selectors to recall Brett Kimmorley at halfback and he convinced them that he had the answer at five-eighth. Gould called on Fittler, who would have been an obvious first-choice at five-eighth had he not opted to retire from representative football at the end of the 2001 season to devote his energies to club football with the Sydney Roosters.
Gould was aware that Fittler’s career with New South Wales had ended on a sour note when a Queensland team, turbo-boosted by the return from England of Allan Langer, soundly thrashed the Blues in Brisbane, and Fittler’s hopes of a fairytale Origin farewell were dashed.
This was the chance for Fittler to rewrite the ending and a call from Gould was all the convincing he needed.
But the plan to wrap up the series at Suncorp Stadium began to unravel even before the team took the field. Kimmorley broke down with a hamstring injury in one of the final training sessions, Barrett was sounded out but declined on medical advice and next choice Matt Orford was almost immediately ruled out with a calf injury.
Finally, Sydney Roosters halfback Brett Finch was called in at little more than 24 hours’ notice to make his State of Origin debut. On top of the disruption in Sydney, the Blues were pushing their luck to expect that further upheaval would end with another positive outcome.
And so it played out. A slashing two-try performance by Billy Slater, including his now famous kick-chase effort, helped the Maroons to a 22-18 victory that leveled the series.
Blues selectors made a raft of changes for Game Three, recalling Barrett at halfback to partner Fittler and choosing St George Illawarra pair Matt Cooper and Mark Gasnier in the centres. It was a New South Wales side with outstanding balance, propped up by Jason Ryles and Mark O’Meley in the middle and a back row of Timmins, Nathan Hindmarsh and Craig Fitzgibbon. The bench included Canterbury giant Willie Mason and Knights back-rower Ben Kennedy. Out wide was powerful winger Luke Rooney and his 20-year-old Penrith team-mate Luke Lewis. The lone member of the Blues side of 2013 who has experienced victory in a series decider, Lewis shapes as a key man for New South Wales on Wednesday night.
He will be aiming to create a memory as special as his old team-mate, Freddy Fittler.