The appointment of Brad Fittler as NSW State of Origin coach has made the hairs on the back of Kevin Walters’s neck bristle.
“If he can coach the way he played, then we’re up against it,” said the Queensland coach, who has been up close and personal with Fittler many times.
They toured together with the 1990 and 1994 Kangaroos but between 1989 and 2000 regularly opposed each other at Origin and club level, including as opposing skippers in the 2000 grand final between the Sydney Roosters and Brisbane Broncos.
Fittler was appointed by the NSWRL last Friday to be the successor to Laurie Daley, who guided the Blues to victory in 2014 but lost four other series in his five-year tenure.
“Freddy and I played a few games together at international level. He’s a really talented footballer and a really good fellow,” Walters told NRL.com.
“We probably opposed each other more than we played alongside each other. He always kept you on edge because Brad, like Laurie, could pull something out of nothing – regularly.
“With all due respect he is a little different to Laurie, but Laurie was a great NSW player who had a good football brain too. Freddy is in that category as well. They both know the game really well; know the players really well. But he presents a big challenge for us next year. We will have to keep improving.”
Walters also has the added pressure of not knowing if Test players Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk want to be part of the Maroons next year. The 34-year-olds will be playing club football for the Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters respectively, but have not definitively stated their position on representative football.
“We’re not sure about Cooper or Cameron yet as they haven’t indicated whether or not they’re playing on,” Walters said.
“Hopefully they will and we get Greg Inglis and Matt Scott (both knee reconstructions) back from injury. Our talent pool is not as large as NSW, so while we have got some good talent there we need to keep developing more. And we still need to keep the older players in those leadership roles as that’s been a huge part of our success. They lead the way for our playing group and provide plenty of energy.”
Walters has dealt with the retirement of Corey Parker, Johnathan Thurston and Nate Myles. He also made the tough decision to overlook 30-somethings Sam Thaiday and Jacob Lillyman after Origin I last season.
But he will in no way rush Smith and Cronk, who have played a combined 64 Origin matches.
“It’s been a big season for them already with the premiership and then the World Cup on the back of that,” Walters said on Monday. “They’ll need a rest, which they’ll be getting, and we’ll see how they are tracking at the end of March-early April.
“The decision will be theirs of course. But we’re hopeful they continue to play on and help me and the rest of the coaching staff through the transition period.”
That desire is amplified by the fact Fittler has already indicated he’s looking at the next generation of Blues players to step up, like halves Nathan Cleary and Mitchell Moses, winger Nic Cotric and forward Angus Crichton.
“He’s done an extremely good job with Lebanon because as the tournament progressed, they got better and better and that would be his influence largely,” Walters said. “We all knew he was a great coach anyway but he presented those credentials again at the international level.
“His ability to take a bunch, largely of unknown players, and get them to a quarter-final speaks highly to Freddy’s abilities. Laurie set up some good foundations at NSW. They were two minutes away from winning the series in game two.
“So NSW is already doing a lot of things right. We’re very cautious of Freddy adding to that. We know they’ve got some talent coming through. You can only hold that back for so long.