Blues chairman admits NSW caught Maroons at right time
NSWRL chairman George Peponis has acknowledged what almost every Queenslander has pointed out since the Blues wrapped up the series at ANZ Stadium on Sunday night.
There has been so much talk, especially in Queensland, about NSW only winning the series because all-time greats Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk had called it a day.
While Peponis heaped praised on Fittler for the transformation of the Blues, he recognised the trio's retirement from the representative arena had made a huge impact on the result of the series.
"For all the good things I said about Freddy, Queensland did help us a little bit as well," Peponis admitted.
"No Johnathan Thurston, no Cooper Cronk, no Billy Slater in the first game. And the most important player of all - Cameron Smith. [When he retired] my first instinct was being shocked and surprised. My next instinct was hallelujah."
Peponis, who also credited previous NSW coach Laurie Daley for the part he played in the past few years, said Smith’s influence on a game was second to none and his absence showed when it mattered most in game two.
"I think that is the guy they missed the most, especially in those last crucial parts of the game when someone needs to take control," Peponis said.
"I don’t know if you remember the third game of last year’s series, I reckon he handled the ball five out of every six tackles. I said to Wayne Pearce - I was sitting next to him - will someone just put him on his back. Doesn’t have to be illegal, just put him on the ground so he can’t handle the next play the ball.
"He would be at dummy half, first receiver, then back to dummy half. I am just thinking someone take him out of the action for a tackle or two. I think that is the guy they missed the most - his leadership and stewardship around the field. If Freddy was to come in or whoever it was, it was probably their best opportunity. That’s not to say just because you have that opportunity you get instant success."
There’s a feeling among some that NSW weren’t too far away last year. That perhaps if the same players and coach were in place, they may have got the job done this year, too.
While there is no denying Fittler’s positive influence on the Blues with his fresh injection of youth, Peponis said Daley deserved credit.
"Laurie needs to be commended for that because a lot of the groundwork and development of pathways, Laurie did all that," Peponis said.
"We had that series won last year - 10 minutes to go we looked like winning it. Some dumb plays in the last five or six minutes cost us.
"I don’t think it is less satisfying this year [without the retired players]. I think you have to give credit where credit is due. They had half a dozen superstars in their team - players who could turn a game in an instant. Any coach would have loved to have them in their team. They won endless State of Origin series because of their ability. Times change."
Asked if Fittler had been blessed with good fortune, Peponis replied: "I think that is Freddy’s whole life."
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