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Freddy following in Mal's footsteps to Origin coaching record books

Three series wins in four years does not a dynasty make, but with each passing triumph it's clear Brad Fittler and his men are singing from the same song sheet Mal Meninga carried in his back pocket during Queensland's decade of dominance.

Since taking the helm in 2018, Fittler's only series defeat came in 2020, courtesy of a disastrous second half in Adelaide in the Ampol State of Origin series opener and a liberal sprinkling of wily Wayne Bennett's maroon magic dust.

Prior to the Blues' most-capped player assuming the coaching reins, NSW had lost three series on the bounce after briefly stopping the Maroons juggernaut in 2014.

When the call went out to Big Mal in 2006, Queensland were also coming off three consecutive series defeats and things were getting desperate.

The similarities between Meninga's ascension to the top job and Fittler's rise 12 years later are uncanny, as these insights from long-time Maroons selector Gene Miles in Rugby League Week in 2012 reveal.

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"The QRL were going to engage Craig Bellamy to coach Queensland and that's when 'Tosser' [Dick Turner] got involved and he pulled a few of his closest people together such as 'Choppy' Close and Arthur [Beetson] and Wally Lewis was involved. That's when we asked Mal if he was keen to coach," Miles said.

"We were in the doldrums and facing four consecutive series defeats. It was desperate times and we had to make the right decision.

"We knew Mal was the right choice. He wasn't looking to get back into NRL coaching because he'd obviously had a gutful of that after his stint in Canberra."

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The man who captained the Maroons in the 2004-05 series defeats, Darren Lockyer, was adamant the new coach had to be one of their own and one of a kind. 

"At the time we were looking for answers.

"We were changing our team regularly and looking for a six and seven to settle on. We were chooks with our heads cut off," Lockyer said.

"But the thought of a NSW person coaching the Queensland team goes against what the team has been built on. We acknowledge that it is a professional sport now and teams are often coached by people from different states and countries, but Origin is different.

"It has been a great advantage to Queensland and a real revelation to have Mal as a stand-alone coach of the Origin side.

"It allowed him to plan and put in place his system .... and we saw immediate benefits of that. Everything was done professionally.

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"Mal has that aura, and it grew and grew the more series he kept winning as our coach. There was already a level of respect for his playing deeds, then throw in winning all those series and the respect just skyrocketed."

It's the kind of respect Mal and Freddy earned through a combined 86 Tests and 63 Origins. Not the kind you think you can simply demand because you're the coach.

Fittler's impact on his men was summed up perfectly by former Blues skipper Boyd Cordner in his emotional retirement speech last month.

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"I can remember at the start of 2018 and there was talk and calls from some people about my spot in the Origin team, should I play or should I be sacked," Cordner recalled.

"I remember you came out straight away and said I was your captain and I was first picked, and the confident that gave me, words can’t describe. You will never know the impact that had on me and my career at that stage.

"I just wanted to go out, I didn’t want to let you down, and that’s what you do to your players, you make them believe and that’s why you’re so successful."

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It's a sentiment echoed by many of Meninga's maroon warriors but even his most ardent backer could scarcely have envisaged the golden era he would oversee between 2006-15, winning nine series and catapulting the likes of Greg Inglis, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston and Darius Boyd into Origin superstardom.

Meninga's series tally has him three clear of NSW's most successful coach Phil Gould on six, while Wayne Bennett has five and Fittler three and counting.

The only other coaches to have won multiple series in the 41-year history of Origin are Arthur Beetson (four) and Kevin Walters (two), further emphasising the magnitude of Meninga's achievement and the opportunity that awaits Fittler if his all-conquering Blues continue to play like they did in Townsville and Brisbane.

Just as Meninga called on a cavalcade of Maroons legends including Allan Langer, Trevor Gillmeister and Steve Walters to inspire his troops, so too Fittler is surrounded by Blues royalty, with Andrew Johns, Danny Buderus and Craig Fitzgibbon on his coaching staff and Greg Alexander his trusted advisor.

"You could see right from the start that Mal would have an impact on these players, just with his stature," Miles continued in RLW.

"They just don't want to let him down. He has made these guys aware of the tradition of Origin and how it is their turn to stand up, make a mark and continue that on.

"Mal brought in numerous former players to have dinner with the current guys and talk to them. It's like they are handing over the baton to these guys, so they can set the standards for the players to come after."

NSW coach Brad Fittler cops a dunking after Origin II.
NSW coach Brad Fittler cops a dunking after Origin II. ©Grant Trouville /NRL Photos

When it comes to the folkore of footy's fiercest rivalry, there could be no one better than the 13th Immortal to pass it on to Generation Next.

Equal parts mate, motivator and man manager, Meninga set the standards, set records and set in motion a Maroon juggernaut that steamrolled all before it until the revered and respected Fittler got in its way in 2018.

With an uber talented playing roster at his disposal and a fierce desire to help them write their own piece of Origin history, Fittler stands on the verge of a golden era few Blues fans dared to dream of when Meninga's men were owning Origin.

 

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