NSW coach Brad Fittler's decision to play Damien Cook in the centres has been torn to shreds by Blues fans, in the wake of a 32-6 thumping by Queensland on Wednesday night that sees the Maroons retain the State of Origin shield. The Blues were always going to be up against it at Suncorp Stadium but a game-ending pectoral injury to star centre Tom Trbojevic after just three minutes made the task even more difficult.
The Maroons capitalised through two controversial tries to take a 10-0 lead - the first a questionable put-down from Valentine Holmes on the tryline and a second to Murray Taulagi that contained more than a hint of a forward pass in the build-up. Those incidents left Blues fans seething but it was Fittler's decision to throw Cook into the centres that really rankled.
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Fittler had several back-row options he could have used to cover Trbojevic, with the versatile Cameron Murray left on the bench and Cook thrust into an unfamiliar position on the edge. It meant the Blues' dual dummy half game plan was out the window, with Reece Robson forced to play a full 80 minutes at hooker and Cook unable to effect the game though the middle of the ruck as originally intended.
Commentators and fans noted that Murray even had experience playing in the centres at Australian schoolboy level, with many suggesting that an edge forward such as Hudson Young would have been a better option at centre. As it turned out, Cook was inevitably exposed out of position by the ruthless Maroons, despite scoring a sensational try for his side's only four-pointer of the night.
Twice play broke down on Cook's edge despite the Blues having numbers, while Jeremiah Nanai stepped him for an early line break. Both of Holmes' tries came in his corner, while Reece Walsh also tormented Cook's right edge to put Xavier Coates over in the second half as the Maroons romped home.
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Fittler knew his job was on the line in the must-win clash at Suncorp Stadium and the Cook move has only seen calls for his sacking grow louder. More than anything, there has been a distinct sense from fuming Blues fans that the coach got the make-up of his side wrong, and a utility like Matt Burton - who can cover most positions in the backline - should have been picked.
Damien Cook deserves so much better than what Fittler has done to him this game. Playing him at centre when you have Cam Murray there who has played in the centres before! I am dumbfounded. Not picking Matt Burton as a utility was also a HUGE mistake. #StateofOrigin #NSWBLUES
— Shante Badger (@ShanteCatherine) June 21, 2023
Appalling coaching from Fittler. Damien Cook is a world class hooker and he puts him in the centres, despite Murray on the bench. So Queensland target him all match. Fittler is gooooooone. NSW need to blood the next generation in game 3. Tedesco, Frizell etc are done
— ⚫️⚪️🏉Pommyrich🏉⚪️⚫️ (@pommyrich) June 21, 2023
Cameron Murray is one of NSW best players and Freddy still hasn’t put him on.. Cook was going to be NSW attacking weapon off the bench but he decides to play him centre. Fittler is a good guy but he has to go. Makes too many bad decisions before and during games. #StateOfOrigin
— Rugby League News (@RugbyLeagueNews) June 21, 2023
Pack your bags Fittler and never look back. Borderline criminal what he’s doing to Cook and Murray.
— V (@TicsVitsJacThic) June 21, 2023
Looks like tonight is the night Brad Fittler's #Origin coaching career ends.
Cook to centre instead of a number of backrowers.
Cam Murray picked but no game time until at least the 45th minute.
— Paul Jobber (@paul_jobber23) June 21, 2023
Fittler is a bigger dope then i thought. Totally not fair on Cook to be put at Center when you could have put Yeo or Murray out there. Glad Freddy and his mate Brandy will be gone. About time.
— Nick Lonergan (@lono89) June 21, 2023
It's hard to hate QLD when NSW's and Brad Fittler's incompetence was so glaringly obvious from the first team announcement to the 80th minute of this game. Absolutely disgraceful organisation you are @NSWBlues #StateofOrigin
— woof woof (@aussiedubsfan22) June 21, 2023
Injuries didn’t make it easy but surely the decision to put Cook in at centre has to be the final nail in Freddy’s NSW coaching gig.
— Brent Zerafa (@brentzerafa) June 21, 2023
NSW coach defends controversial move
Speaking to reporters after the game, Fittler said his side was put in an "impossible" situation after the early injury to Trbojevic and insisted that Cook did a good job playing out of position. “I spoke to Cookie [before the game to tell him] that could happen, that he could have to play centre if someone went down,” Fittler said.
“I thought he did a great job, Cookie. We had to change what we had to do out there but at the end of the day, their defence was very good. “It would have been a bit more interesting if he [Trbojevic] was out there, obviously he’s such a strike player... but I’ve got to hand it to their defence."
The Blues coach was in no mood to discuss his interchange players thought or whether it was the right call to carry two hookers on the bench for NSW. “That is what it is. It changes your interchange and what you’re trying to do... we still had our chances,” the Blues coach said.
“I’m not going to talk about interchanges. I’m not going to talk about who we chose. At the end of the day, Cookie did a pretty good job at centre. He beat Val Holmes a couple of times, once I think he got beat on the inside. You can’t cover every position. It’s impossible. We don’t have those players to cover every single position.”
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