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2020 vision: Why Fittler focused on versatility and ball-playing talent

“Pass. Pass. Pass.”

That is the word Brad Fittler most commonly screams at the television when he is watching an NRL game on his lounge.

Therefore, it should come as little surprise that the NSW coach has chosen a team loaded with ball-playing talent and versatility for next Wednesday night’s opening State of Origin encounter.

Fittler has been stewing over the disappointment of his first series defeat since taking charge of the Blues in 2018 for six months, and planning for every contingency after losing Boyd Cordner, Cameron Murray and James Tedesco during Origin matches last year.

The side selected for Origin I in Townsville has versatility and strike across the park, with three of the game’s superstar fullbacks – Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell – in the backline and a trio of leading locks – Murray, Jake Trbojevic and Isaah Yeo – in the forwards.

Gone are the days when NSW would pick the likes of Beau Scott at centre for the sole purpose of countering Greg Inglis. Before Inglis, it was Mal Meninga or Gene Miles that the Blues tried to stop.

Instead, it is now Queensland who will be hoping to contain Trbojevic and Mitchell by naming Penrith’s Kurt Capewell in the centres.

Fittler looking to unlock Wighton’s running game

However, the best indication of the type of expansive game that the Blues will look to adopt is the selection of Jake Trbojevic at prop and ball-playing front-rowers Junior Paulo and Payne Haas on the interchange.

The bench also includes Jack Wighton, who can play any position in the backline but is most likely to be used as a roving back-rower, as hooker Damien Cook is only likely to come from the field if he is injured.

Fittler has a contingency plan for that too, with the choice of Penrith hooker Api Koroisau as 18th man ahead of a utility player like Clint Gutherson or Jack Bird being a strategic selection.

“I’ve always loved people passing the ball,” Fittler said. “I know that we dwell on completions and they have such a big bearing on the game but to be able to pass the ball, and complete, is the real weapon.

“I sit there and watch games of footy and the only thing that comes out of my mouth normally is, ‘pass, pass, pass’. They don’t a lot but we have got good players in Origin, so you want to see a good brand of footy.”

Jake Trbojevic is considered a playmaker in a forward’s body, while Paulo is one of the best exponents of the off-load in the NRL and Haas also has the ability to create an attacking opportunity for his team by slipping a pass in a tackle.

Haas, who is confident of overcoming a knee injury to take his place in the NSW squad, said he was excited about the adventurous style the Blues are expected to employ in the series opener on June 9 at Townsville’s Queensland Country Bank Stadium.

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“I think if we've got it, why not use it,” Haas said. “I'd love to see us throwing the ball around.

“We've got strong ball-runners like Latrell and Teddy who can play off the back and through the middle if we get those passes going.

“And I think some of the forwards can take some pressure off the halves. It could give them a bit more time and space if we can get some passes going in the middle.”

Jake Trbojevic added: “The style of footy has changed with the way the game has gone so I guess he has picked a team for that."  

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The best attack includes defence

The introduction of the six-again rule last season and the crackdown on high tackles has tilted the scales in favour of attack but defence is still crucial in Origin.

While Tom Trbojevic and Mitchell are renowned for their attacking ability, Fittler said they were chosen in the centres because they are also good defenders.

“They are out-and-out strike players, but Tom saved three tries yesterday so I think the best players realise these days that the huge plays come from saving tries most of the time - not scoring them,” Fittler said.

“I don’t think scoring points is going to be the problem. We have got to make sure we have the team to stop them and we work well together. That is what the start of the week is going to be about.”

Second-rower Tariq Sims, who has been recalled to the NSW side after making one Origin appearance in each of the 2018 and 2019 winning series, expects the Blues to practise defending with 12 or even 11 men in case a player is sin-binned or sent off.

“The second phase plays such a big role in the game now with these new rules so to have some really good ball-players in our team is going to be really beneficial to us,” Sims said.

“But you have got to adapt to any scenario and the good teams are the ones who adapt the fastest so I am sure during the week we are going to train like we have got one bloke in the bin or even two blokes in the bin, and we might go into defence mode.”

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Blues covering all their bases

Fittler admits he and the Blues didn’t get it right in last year’s series, with Murray injuring his knee in the opening match at Adelaide Oval and Cordner also ruled out following a head knock that has sidelined him since.

Tedesco took over the captaincy from Cordner in Origin II but was forced from the field in the series decider after failing a HIA, with the scores locked at 6-6.

With four forwards on the bench, Fittler was forced to make a hasty backline reshuffle in which Yeo came on at centre and Clint Gutherson switched to fullback.

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The Maroons won 20-14 to regain the State of Origin Shield for the first time since 2017 and Fittler was determined that NSW would have better options this year.

“The one thing this time is that we feel like we have everyone covered,” Fittler said. “Cookie was the only one, and that is where Api Koroisau probably came into the conversation as 18th man over everyone else – just in case from an illegal play something happened to Cookie.

“We feel like everything is covered and we feel like the players are good enough to play in those positions if we need to make changes during the game. That’s the beauty of a lot of these players that we have selected.

“Jack Wighton can play anywhere and he would want to be prepared for that because we don’t where he is playing.”

Wighton's new role has singular focus

The selection of Wighton on the interchange also enables Fittler to pick Jarome Luai at five-eighth alongside his Panthers halves partner Nathan Cleary.

With Canberra losing six of their past seven matches and speculation about off-field issues following the axing of English halfback George Williams last week, Fittler believes Wighton may be better suited to the utility role.

“It was hard to ignore what Penrith are doing at the moment and for Jack I think it might be easier for him just to go out and play footy -  not to worry so much about the tactics and just allow him to do what he does best just by running the ball hard and playing aggressively,” he said.

Fittler was disappointed in the way he managed the Blues campaign at the end of last season and has been planning for this year’s series virtually since it ended in late November.

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While the Maroons now have the advantage of the first two matches being played in Queensland after the decision to shift the series opener from the MCG to Townsville due to the COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne, Fittler believes NSW are prepared for almost any scenario that may arise.

“The good thing is that because we were prepared early we don’t have to worry as much about things happening here, so if we had to move we were ready to do it,” he said.

“I always look back and see directly what I could do differently and there were just things I saw last year with whatever was happening at the time that I wasn’t at my best.

“I don’t know what it was, but I feel a lot better now and I think both sides go into this series knowing they can win if they get their style of footy right.”

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.