It’s clear NSW needed to launch a new Origin era and the search for the next Blues coach can officially start now. There’s confirmation Brad Fittler’s time in the top job ends after six seasons.
In 2023, New South Wales produced one of its most disappointing Origin showings in the concept’s history.
And while hope can disguise reality, not a lot of observers were shocked to see Queensland run away with a 26-point, series-sealing victory at Suncorp Stadium in Game 2. The writing was on the wall. Maroons coach Billy Slater, and his staff, helped expose almost all the Blues’ shortcomings; many of which were avoidable.
While it’s up to the ones on the field, at the end of the day, far too many actions from Brad Fittler and his staff stacked the odds more firmly in Queensland’s favour this year. And that Maroons team didn’t need a second invitation.
There has never been a more transparent example of the difference coaching can make in professional sports than what we witnessed in the 2023 series. State of Origin might only be a few representative games, but it’s two very evenly talented squads going head-to-head — and that means the margins matter.
The Blues lacked leadership and cohesion. There was no evidence of a solid plan. Players were plucked from obscurity and thrown into rugby league’s most intimidating environment without the necessary empowerment and succession scheme. New South Wales players were fed to the wolves; they were set up to fail.
Skipping over each individual mistake that Fittler and his coaching staff made across NSW’s second straight series defeat, the reality was that a new Blues coaching era had to begin. New South Wales fans have been subjected to unnecessary disregard from the start of this Origin period.
Supporters deserve honesty and a straight answer — there was none of that this year. And the fractured relationship between Blues coaches and media has been more than just a microcosm of what’s gone wrong for the side in 2023. It was forgotten that this team belongs to the entire state of New South Wales.
It’s clear the next Blues coach needs to understand what this whole Origin concept is about; someone that can identify how to motivate their team the same way Queensland consistently leverages its superior spirit and culture.
The next Blues coach needs to have a proactive selection process; that offers emerging talent time to acclimatise to Origin footy, treated with care, empowerment and the necessary support. The next Blues coach should really only blood players that have prosperous representative futures ahead; where you don’t need to squint to see them reach double-digit Origin games.
The next coach of New South Wales needs to ignore the noise associated with very recent form and stick to a selection process that prioritises class, minimising gambles. Relying on one 80-minute NRL sample size to decide a spot in the team will more often than not turn out to be a mistake. Dragging unprepared and inconsistent players off the street, that have only displayed upside in small doses, reeks of desperation. It’s the action of a coach who’s grand plan is off the rails.
It’s unfortunately how Fittler’s reign as Blues coach will be remembered.
So it’s time to look forward.
Next Blues coach: Leading candidates
NSW fans will really only accept the next Blues coach to be a former player that’s donned the sky blue; that’s represented the jersey with honour and passion.
Recent former players has been recipe for success right throughout the Origin era and it’s undoubtedly working for the Maroons under Billy Slater’s reign. That’s where NSWRL should hone in its search for leading candidates.
So who fits the ‘Bill’?
The 40-year-old retired from footy five years ago; 2018. Lewis played over 300 NRL games, represented Australia 16 times and importantly played 17 games for the Blues.
The former Panther and Shark, a two-time premiership winner, has remained involved with the game as a broadcaster with the ABC. He’s given impassioned accounts of the Blues’ 2023 losses — thoughts that undoubtedly could translate into a grand plan of his own, as Blues coach.
“You could tell that in that group they weren’t for each other… I hate looking at it and saying it, but I could see it right from the start that it was all about being individual and not being a group”— ABC SPORT (@abcsport) June 21, 2023
Strong words from Luke Lewis about this NSW side. pic.twitter.com/NZ54JRrh9X
Luke Lewis has a tremendous grasp on multiple positions, plus the importance of utility and contingency players — a huge factor in Origin selection. He started NRL games at wing, centre, edge forward and even in the halves. He started games for NSW at three different spots.
Lewis was consistently able to reinvent himself as a player in new roles; opportunities to develop impeccable rugby league IQ. Nothing illustrates that better than the role he played for Cronulla in its successful premiership run in 2016, as the Sharks’ right edge forward. Lewis claimed the Clive Churchill Medal in that game, as a 33-year-old. He was a winger 13 years earlier, in the Panthers’ title-winning team.
Brett and Josh, the Morris twins, have both produced folklore Origin moments; their combined playing contribution to the Blues lasted a decade, 2009-19.
The pair both retired from NRL at the Roosters in 2021, after prosperous rugby league careers. While Josh managed over 300 NRL games, brother Brett played 281 games across three clubs.
Brett Morris is now an assistant at the Sydney Roosters — now two seasons in that role, making a swift transition after his retirement.
The Morris boys bleed Blue and have proven consistently they understand the required spirit and effort it takes to excel in the Origin arena. Brett could put his hand up as the new Blues coach and call in his brother for additional support.
Cordner was an exceptional footballer that managed 20 caps for Australia and 16 Origins for the Blues, starting 11 of them as an edge forward. Captaining the Blues from 2017-19, Cordner has already spent time right at the forefront of Origin campaigns.
Concussion issues forced the former Rooster into an early retirement in 2020, managing 183 NRL matches for the Roosters. He has moved into a coaching role with the tri-colours since then.
Quoted as saying Origin ‘still burns‘ after the Blues’ 2022 series loss, Cordner would jump at the opportunity to up his involvement. He has spent time assisting Blues coach Brad Fittler with the Junior Blues, under under-18s level; helping at camps with the state’s next generation prospects.
If Ennis can negotiate middle ground with Fox League to juggle both gigs, he would undoubtedly bring the ‘mongrel factor’ NSW might be looking for.
Ennis played eight times for the Blues, across 2009-15. He famously played for five different NRL clubs, generating an array of environments and experiences across his 274 first grade games.
He’s a credentialed footy mind and also well liked throughout the league community, like the other listed candidates.
Matty Johns (?)
Here’s a name that’s emerged as a potential replacement at times in 2023, despite all his media-based commitments.
It’s been well publicised that Matty didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on plenty that’s happened under Brad Fittler and brother Joey’s watch inside the Blues setup. On an infamous radio blowup at SEN, Matty paid tribute to what Billy Slater’s been able to build north of the Tweed and his brother didn’t want a bar of it.
The reality is, Matty Johns has already ruled himself out, so the search goes elsewhere.
"He's just so stubborn, I don't think he'll ever apologise to me." 😂— Mornings with Matty White (@MattyWhiteSEN) May 15, 2023
Matty Johns has revisited his fiery encounter with Joey from Morning Glory on Friday! @SENLeague #NRL
LISTEN | https://t.co/JvS9nqJKgG pic.twitter.com/OI4QfbGY9X
Having just retired at the NRL, Wade Graham is another name to keep on the radar. He’ll undoubtedly remain involved in the game.
Graham’s an RLPA board member and regularly shares his league expertise across various media platforms.
Wade Graham only played six games for the Blues, but has the IQ to make a decent shake of it. The timeline isn’t spot on, given he’s only just finished his playing career, it’d be worth NSWRL having a conversation about future involvement.