Brad Fittler has built an era of Blues dominance.
Brad Fittler has built an era of Blues dominance.

How Freddy set up NSW Blues for an era of dominance

Roughly 90 minutes before going viral, Bradman Best was a nervous wreck.

Or that's how the kid remembers it.

Aged 15, and with a head clouded by doubt.

Which seems unthinkable, right?

Especially now, with this breakout Newcastle centre arrived in every sense.

Only three games into this NRL season, and with just six top grade appearances all up, yet already being hyped as a potential NSW Origin bolter.

But on that Wednesday night back in 2017?

Nah, not so much.

Instead, the anonymous Woy Woy Rooster was worrying through his final minutes before not only debuting with NSW Under-16s, or playing in an Origin curtain raiser, but running out onto no less than Suncorp Stadium.

Best splashed across the back of his jersey, sure. But still, not feeling it.

"And I could see that," recalls Brad Fittler, his coach that night.

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Best turned the game for the NSW Under-16s.
Best turned the game for the NSW Under-16s.

Like in the dressing room, Freddy says, where the young schoolboy couldn't stop fidgeting.

"But mostly," he continues, "Bradman's eyes gave it away".

Which is why, only moments before leaving for that long walk down the tunnel, Best will tell you how Fittler approached him and asked: "Are you the right man for this job?"

To which, the kid nodded.

"Righto," Fittler continued, "so let's breathe".

Then together, they did.

Can you imagine it?

Only moments out from the biggest night of your young life, and suddenly this St Edwards schoolboy finds himself stood - breathing - with perhaps the greatest NSW Origin player ever.

Without it, would Best have gone viral?

Who can say.

But what we do know now is that, on fulltime - with the scores locked, the hooter sounding and NSW needing something beyond special - Best swept around behind his fullback Albert Hopoate who, picking up a missed Queensland field goal attempt, would break out of his in-goal, then away.

Best is now a contender for the Blues State of Origin team.
Best is now a contender for the Blues State of Origin team.

From there, the teenager with rugby league's best name not only combining, but completing a 110m effort which says much about the kid, his coach and breathing when it matters.

Which isn't to say that touchdown, which immediately went viral, is what made the now 19-year-old Knights sensation.

But, geez, it hasn't made him worse.

Certainly when we spoke with Best only days after that try back in 2017, and asked about what brought it to life, he went straight to that moment in the sheds - and breathing with Fittler.

"It's something we'd worked on all week," Best explained. "Freddy would get us to close our eyes and picture a scenario - catching a bomb, scoring a try, whatever - while concentrating on our breathing."

Which even way back then started us wondering.

Specifically, what sort of impact must Fittler be having on these kids?

Sure, this was still in the early years of the NSW Pathways scheme.

Back when Fittler wasn't walking NSW Origin players barefoot, but instead coaching those very same principles into both the Blues' U/16s and U/18s, while also urging Origin mates like Andrew Johns, Danny Buderus and Mark O'Meley to become involved.

So they did.

Together, the group began its work with a crew of anonymous teenagers who have, over time, included the likes of Cameron Murray, Nathan Cleary, Latrell Mitchell, Tommy Trbojevic, even Payne Haas.

The Blues have been putting in the groundwork in recent years. Digital image by Robb Cox/NRL Photos.
The Blues have been putting in the groundwork in recent years. Digital image by Robb Cox/NRL Photos.

In fact, over the past year alone, some dozen players from the pathways program have exploded into the NRL - most notably Best, Roosters halfback Kyle Flanagan and livewire Melbourne No.1 Ryan Papenhuyzen.

Which effectively puts Freddy's fingerprints everywhere.

"But to try to claim their success," Fittler stresses, "we can't do that".

Maybe not.

But good luck suggesting Best is a worse player because of his influence.

Ditto South Sydney No.13 Murray.

A fella who years before 'earthing' in NSW Origin camp, was doing the very same in those NSW Pathways camps where players also learn accountability, visualisation techniques, and other "tools" Fittler deems essential.

None of which either he, or his team want credit for.

Take Buderus, the new Knights football manager who suggests, in the case of Best, we credit the player.

"Because they have to commit," he says. "And Bradman, he never missed a NSW Pathways session".

O'Meley, meanwhile, urges League Central to also direct praise to both the Knights and new coach Adam O'Brien.

Kyle Flanagan is another graduate of the program. Digital image by Scott Davis/NRL Photos.
Kyle Flanagan is another graduate of the program. Digital image by Scott Davis/NRL Photos.

But still, we ask, how valuable that night when Freddy simply told a schoolboy to breath?

"Oh, definitely you can impact in a moment," Buderus says. "Our camps aren't going to get players running faster or passing better, but there are a lot of those little moments that matter."

O'Meley agrees, adding: "Given I'm a grown man and still hang off Freddy's every word, imagine the impact he has on these teenagers."

For Fittler himself, he's just glad to be involved.

But surely he will concede to having some influence on a kid like Best, right?

"I think we are making a difference, yes," he says. "And when you see some of those that have come through, it gives you confidence that they're listening.

"I mean, with the amount of experience we have in those camps - with the likes of Joey, Bedsey, Ogre, Steve Menzies, Craig Fitzgibbon - you're talking thousands of NRL games, hundreds of Origins and Test matches.

"So I'm just grateful the players are listening to them."

Indeed, while footy fans may only see NSW Pathways in operation three nights a year, there is far more at play than earning bragging rights in some Origin curtain raiser.

"We're setting the players up with tools," Fittler explains. "That way if they do make it (in the NRL), they can stay there.

"That's really it.

"If these players do get a shot, if they're good enough, dedicated enough and get that little bit of luck, they will then already have the tools to stay there."

Which means what exactly?

The Blues have dominated junior football in recent years.
The Blues have dominated junior football in recent years.

"We talk about the mind a lot," he continues. "Talk about habits, and getting into good ones."

So a holistic footy approach?

"It's not so much teaching what line to run," Fittler says, "as why you run it".

According to Buderus, the NSW Pathways program also creates a 'licence plate' for each player - allowing the state to not only keep data on a rising star like Best, but also monitor his progress while using said numbers for future comparison.

"So there's a science to it," he says. "But Freddy is also really big on mindset - on teaching the players breathing, earthing, meditation, all those other things he now uses as Origin coach."

For O'Meley, a key element is the running of three-day camps, where players are split into positions and mentored by some of the greatest Blues ever - including Johns, Steve Menzies and Anthony Minichiello.

Quizzed on the role of Fittler on these camps, selections, everything, he says: "Massive … Freddy has a key say on it all".

Which again, isn't to suggest Fittler is responsible for making Best, who tonight faces Brisbane in a Thursday Night Football showdown at Central Coast Stadium.

But dust the kid down, and his fingerprints are there.

Take that Origin night in Brisbane three years ago.

When also working for Channel Nine, Fittler was required to not only leave the coach's box in the dying minutes, but then race down to be sideline at full-time to start conducting pre-game Origin interviews.

"And just as I reached the sideline," he recalls, "Bradman raced by, right in front of me.

"Honestly, it was awesome.

"One of my absolute highlights."

NEXT GENERATION BLUES

BRADMAN BEST

Newcastle Knights

Age: 18

A viral sensation in his first year of NSW Pathways in 2017, thanks to an incredible 100m try on fulltime to help NSW under-16s beat Queensland. Stayed in the system three years and is currently a Future Blues squad member.

BLAYKE BRAILEY

Cronulla Sharks

Age: 21

A member of the NSW under-20s in 2018, has since been signed by Cronulla to a three-year deal that, ironically, saw him push older brother Jayden out to Newcastle.

MATT BURTON

Penrith Panthers

Age: 20

Playing NSW under-20s last year, Burton scored two tries and set up another, earning MOM honours. Currently an Emerging Blues squad member.

Burton played NSW Under 20s last year. Digital image by Robb Cox/NRL Photos.
Burton played NSW Under 20s last year. Digital image by Robb Cox/NRL Photos.

STEPHEN CRICHTON

Penrith Panthers

Age: 19

Part of the NSW under-20s side last year, the teenage centre has since risen so quickly through the Panthers ranks he forced another young star Brent Naden out of the backline.

KYLE FLANAGAN

Sydney Roosters

Age: 21

The son of 2016 Cronulla premiership coach Shane Flanagan, Kyle joined the NSW Pathways program in 2018 - with the new Roosters No.7 now an Emerging Blues squad member.

EMRE GULER

Canberra Raiders

Age: 22

Spent three years in the NSW Pathways system from 2016 and is now increasingly making his presence felt off the Raiders interchange bench. Currently in the Emerging Blues.

TEX HOY

Newcastle Knights

Age: 20

The son of Australian surf legend Matt Hoy, Tex played NSW U/20s side last year is quickly growing his reputation as a Knights Next Big Thing.

Hoy has impressed in his initial forays into first grade. Digital image by Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos.
Hoy has impressed in his initial forays into first grade. Digital image by Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos.

RYAN PAPENHUYZEN

Melbourne Storm

Age: 22

A NSW Pathways player since 2016, Papenhuyzen was rated by Brad Fittler long before many NRL scouts, having since become not only an Emerging Blue but Australian Nines player.

REECE ROBSON

North Queensland Cowboys

Age: 21

Part of the NSW Pathways system for three consecutive years, this Endeavour Sports High product has had an immediate impact with the Cowboys after signing on for four years.

TOMMY TALAU

Wests Tigers

Age: 20

The son of retired New Zealand international Willie Talau joined the NSW Pathways program in 2018, and within 12 months was called into first grade by Wests Tigers coach Michael Maguire.

BRIAN TO'O

Penrith Panthers

Age: 21

Unveiled his freakish ability to find a tryline two years ago, when contorting his body to score the most extraordinary of tries for NSW under-20s. Within a year was enjoying a blockbuster NRL debut season with Penrith.

SAM VERRILLS

Sydney Roosters

Age: 21

Was so seen keen to be part of NSW Pathways system, the young hooker convinced Rooster coach Trent Robinson to let him represent NSW U/20s just four days after an NRL match last year. Now part of Emerging Blues squad.

 

Originally published as How Freddy set up NSW Blues for an era of dominance

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