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How Fittler has redefined value of Blues jersey

Brad Fittler stood behind the NSW bench at Optus Stadium in torrential rain on Sunday night so he could witness his dramatic overhaul of the Blues team up close and experience the atmosphere of the historic State of Origin match in Perth.

Fittler understands Origin better than anyone who has ever been involved with NSW campaigns and players said he was cheering like a fan on the sideline as the Blues romped home to level the series.

In just five matches as NSW coach, Fittler has redefined the value of the Blues jersey in a similar manner to that achieved by Mal Meninga with the Kangaroos and he is poised to become the first Blues coach to enjoy back-to-back series wins since his mentor Phil Gould in 2003 and 2004.

Fittler, who played a record 31 Origins for NSW, came out of representative retirement to lead the Blues to victory in second and third matches of the 2004 series, and he knows the effort and attitude needed to beat Queensland.

To be selected for NSW, Fittler requires his players to not only perform in the State of Origin arena but play well for their Telstra Premiership clubs, come into camp free of any outside distractions and always put the team first.

With each Origin series being the best of three matches, players are also aware that there are rarely any second chances for those who don't meet expectations on and off the field.

It's why Fittler and his brains trust of Danny Buderus, Craig Fitzgibbon and Greg Alexander, made seven changes for Sunday night's Origin in Perth after the Blues lost the series opener 18-14 at Suncorp Stadium.

From a distance, the changes may have looked like panic but Fittler has a way of instilling confidence in his players and they backed his plan.

According to insiders in the NSW camp, there was a positive vibe within the team before their crushing 38-6 defeat of Queensland at Optus Stadium and the players all got on well.

There were no massive egos in the Blues squad and recalled players like winger Blake Ferguson and five-eighth James Maloney knew what was expected of them after being overlooked for the series opener.

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Nothing compares to Origin in terms of the level of scrutiny and there is much more at stake than just interstate bragging rights.

Up to $1 million in tickets for the July 10 decider at ANZ Stadium were sold within hours of it becoming evident that NSW would win Origin II and level the series as Blues fans rushed to secure their seats.

NSW has not achieved successive series wins since Ricky Stuart guided the 2005 team to victory after taking over from Gould.

Since then the Blues have been coached by Graham Murray (2006-7), Craig Bellamy (2008-10), Stuart (2011-12), Laurie Daley (2013-17) and Fittler, with the only interruption to Queensland's era of dominance during that period being in 2014 and last season.

Had NSW lost Origin II and the series, Fittler's position would undoubtedly have come into question and the Blues could have been looking for yet another coach next season.

After taking over the NSW job last season, Fittler chose a record 11 Origin debutants for his first match, with only second-rowers Boyd Cordner and Tyson Frizell, prop David Klemmer, five-eighth James Maloney, fullback James Tedesco and lock Jake Trbojevic retaining their places from the 2017 team.

Josh Addo-Carr, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Nathan Cleary, Damien Cook, Angus Crichton, Jack de Belin, Latrell Mitchell, Tyrone Peachey, James Roberts, Tom Trbojevic and Paul Vaughan were the new faces.

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"We put reputations aside and these blokes have been the best in NSW this year," Fittler said after announcing his first Blues side. "The thing we spoke about on day one was the team comes first."

It's a mantra Fittler has stuck to and after also handing Cronulla prop Matt Prior and St George Illawarra second-rower Tariq Sims their Origin debuts during the 2018 series triumph he hasn't been afraid to make further changes this year.

Nick Cotric, Payne Haas, Cameron Murray, Cody Walker and Jack Wighton made their debuts in the series opener, while veteran centre Josh Morris was recalled, and Fittler made seven changes for Origin II after being disappointed with NSW's performance.

Among them were two more Origin rookies in forwards Dale Finucane and Daniel Saifiti, while Maloney, Ferguson, Sims, Tom Trbojevic and Wade Graham were recalled.

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Meninga has achieved success after adopting a similar approach as Australian coach since becoming Kangaroos coach in 2016.

The former Queensland mentor, who guided the Maroons to nine series wins in 10 years from 2006 to 2015, took over a Kangaroos team which had lost their three previous Tests against New Zealand, including the 2014 Four Nations final and 2015 Anzac Test.

It was the first time the Kiwis had beat Australia in three consecutive Tests since 1953 and Meninga set about rebuilding the Kangaroos brand as well as restoring the team's ranking as No.1 in the world.

Under Meninga's coaching, the Kangaroos won the 2017 World Cup and have been beaten just once in 13 Tests – against New Zealand in Auckland at the end of last season.

The team which beat England in the World Cup final boasted just six members of the Kangaroos side Meninga coached in his first Test 18 months earlier as he implemented a significant changing of the guard. 

It's no coincidence that both he and Fittler have become successful representative coaches after enjoying long player careers at Origin and Test level, with Meninga's 32 appearances for Queensland being a record when he retired in 1994.

Meninga also played 45 Tests for Australia, a record only surpassed by Darren Lockyer (59) and Cameron Smith (56), while Fittler is sixth behind Graham Langlands and Petero Civoniceva (both 45), with 40 Kangaroos appearances. 

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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