New NSW Origin coach Brad Fittler has delivered a none-too-subtle warning to underperforming Blues incumbents: the next generation are ready to go.
Speaking at the announcement of this year’s Hogs for the Homeless charity drive, Fittler made no secret of his disappointment in how senior players fared in the team’s 2017 capitulation in games two and three from a near unassailable position.
Fittler declared all available positions are on the table, praised the depth of young NSW players now featuring regularly in first grade, questioned the efforts of a cohort of senior players in the game two and three losses, and suggested star pivot James Maloney needed to improve on his 2017 form to be considered.
However he said he would not be looking to build a team for the future, instead selecting a side based on who was best-placed to defeat Queensland in 2018.
“I don’t think you can build teams or make plans (for future seasons), you’ve got to aim to win,” Fittler said.
“Our fans have been very patient. They’ve kept showing up, they’ve kept cheering. We need to win… Everyone’s available.
“One of the best things is we’ve got so many young players playing first grade. There’s up to about 14 players about the age of 20 or younger playing first grade. I don’t think NSW has had that in an awful long time.
“That in itself puts pressure on everyone else to play good because these kids are ready to go, they are hungry, they are fit and they’re smiling. They’ve got no distractions at the moment so they’re just primed to step up in class.”
Fittler was also adamant he would not be looking to start picking players until May but, pressed on the claims of young Panthers half Nathan Cleary, delivered some glowing praise.
“I was out there [at Penrith] watching them train the other day and they looked sharp,” Fittler said.
“Jimmy [Maloney] coming off the World Cup, I don’t think his season last year was fantastic. I think he can improve on that and if he does I think Penrith can do better as well. It’s a big year for them too. Nathan, for his age he’s an incredible listener, he can learn a lot off Jimmy.
“His combination with Jimmy, if Penrith are sitting at the top of the comp, who knows.”
The stocks are deep in the halves though, perhaps deeper than they have been for a long time, with Eels and Lebanon playmaker Mitch Moses developing out of sight and, along with Cleary, providing a genuine next-generation option behind stalwarts Maloney and Mitch Pearce.
“Without a doubt [there is depth]; blokes like Josh Reynolds who no-one seems to be speaking of at the moment. You know if you give him an opportunity, he was there at five-eighth when they won it. There’s a lot of players. The stocks are deep,” Fittler said.
Fittler was unsure where Tongan representative Andrew Fifita was placed in the pecking order but added his explosive game one performance last year had drifted in the memory given what had happened in the rest of the series.
“I’m not sure what Andrew’s doing. I think Andrew said he was going to play for Tonga so I haven’t spoken to Andrew as yet but I’m sure we’ll have a conversation at some stage. I’m not sure when they have to [make a decision],” Fittler said.
“He was very good [in game one last year], there’s no doubt it was one of the better performances I’ve seen but across the board, game two and three for everyone wasn’t that great. No-one’s got a position.”
Asked about one-time Blues squad member Bryce Cartwright’s off-season move to the Gold Coast, Fittler said he hoped it would rejuvenate the talented back-rower.
“I think without doubt he’s had a pretty challenging couple of years. It’s all been quite heavily followed in the media. Maybe him going up north might be the best thing for him,” Fittler said.
“Without a doubt he’s a really talented football player. I think he’s going to play lock forward, I think the coach came out and said that, that will be interesting. Without a doubt a player I’ll be definitely watching.”
Fittler hadn’t closed the door on any of his senior players though and suggested the wave of contract disruptions may have played on their minds. Among recent Blues reps, Maloney, Pearce, Matt Moylan, Josh Dugan, James Tedesco, Jarryd Hayne, Aaron Woods and Jack Bird have all switched clubs for this year.
“A lot of the [club] changes have been good changes,” Fittler said.
“If you go through the series last year a lot of our blokes were distracted by possible change, contract talks and it showed in our game. A lot of our [players’] futures have been put to put and there’s a good chance they can concentrate on their footy. I look forward to seeing how they’re going.”