Ricky Stuart and Craig Bellamy are being touted as the leading contenders to take over as NSW State of Origin coach after Brad Fittler announced he was stepping down on Thursday. Fittler had fronted the NSW Rugby League board earlier this week to make his case for why his contract should be extended into next season, with the board leaning towards keeping him on.
But Fittler announced on Thursday night that he was withdrawing himself from contention, leaving the board to search for a new coach for 2024. Fittler reportedly wanted a two-year deal to remain in charge, but the board would only offer a one-year extension and a significant pay cut.
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Discussing the situation on Thursday afternoon, Matty Johns said there are a number of "great candidates" to take over from Fittler. The Newcastle Knights great said the board should do away with a requirement for the NSW coach to be independent of an NRL team. The belief has previously been that a full-time NRL coach doesn't have the time to also be in charge of a State of Origin team.
“They turned the sheets over State of Origin a few years ago and said it can’t be a full-time (NRL) coach, but I think the position we’re in right now, I think it should be,” Johns said on SEN radio. “(Billy) Slater’s done an incredible job with Queensland, but I do know the amount of time he puts into it.
"I just think where NSW are at the moment, we need a coach who is, for the use of a better term, ‘coach fit’. That’d be a (Craig) Bellamy or Ricky Stuart.”
Johns said he's been in the coaching box alongside Bellamy, and provided an insight into how good he is at managing scenarios on the fly. Johns referenced Fittler's decision to put hooker Damien Cook in the centres when Tom Trbojevic was injured early in Game II this year.
“Thinking on your feet, suddenly a player goes down and you’re going, ‘What the hell are we going to do here’ and a million things going on in your head and suddenly you’re putting Damien Cook on the wing,” Johns said. “I’ve been up in the coach’s box, it was a long time ago with Bellamy and the Melbourne Storm and it amazed me how intricate and complicated the interchange process was.
“They had a whiteboard there and they were shuffling players around. To get things right they had scenarios up their sleeve if a key player went down. They’re doing this every week.
“You could only imagine how difficult it would be for a part-timer to go in there and suddenly in the cut and thrust of a State of Origin game, you lose a key man. What are we going to do? I think going forward for NSW, certainly I think in the next couple of years, let’s get someone who’s coach fit in there.”
Leading contenders emerge to become NSW State of Origin coach
Veteran journalist David Riccio reported on Thursday night that he'd already heard eight names floated as possibilities to become NSW coach, including Bellamy and Stuart. “Immediately my information is that the likes of Ricky Stuart, Craig Bellamy, Michael Ennis, Paul Gallen, Matt King, Andrew Ryan, John Cartwright, Jason Ryles," he said on NRL Tonight. "There is a long list of passionate Blues and influential mentors that would be willing to take on the challenge of restoring pride in NSW.
“If you’re asking me to put my call on the line there, I would put Ricky Stuart as the firm front-runner. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blues head down a similar path where it’s almost a 'super team' of the likes of Stuart, Bellamy, Gallen, Ryles and Ennis coming together as a super coaching staff to restore state pride.”
On NRL 360, journalist James Hooper pointed out that NSWRL chairman Paul Conlon is "extremely tight" with Stuart. Hooper said the board needs to find the best candidate available, whether they're a full-time NRL coach or not.
"They just need to go and try and get the absolute best candidate possible," he said. "If Ivan (Cleary) goes and wins a third-straight grand final maybe they need to go and bump him?"
Stuart and Bellamy have both previously served as NSW coach, but their success was minimal. Bellamy was coach from 2008 to 2010, winning just two games out of nine. Stuart then took over in 2011 and 2012, winning two and losing four.
Fittler won three out of six Origin series during his tenure as NSW coach. He won his first two in 2018 and 2019, but lost three of the last four as Queensland won back-to-back series under Slater in 2022 and 2023.
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