Goodbye Freddie Fittler � we�ll miss ya
By Warrick Nicolson
And so passes the career of another true great of rugby league. Brad Fittler�s 336th and last first grade game may have ended in defeat in a super Grand Final, but people should not overlook the fact it was Fittler�s sixth appearance in the big one. Take nothing away from the Bulldogs who were the better team on Sunday night, but to those of us who watched the game in an objective manner (in other words didn�t really barrack for the Dogs or the Roosters); we were treated to another classy display by the Roosters captain. He was the Roosters best player by a considerable margin and in my opinion, would have been the recipient of the Clive Churchill Medal if Andrew Ryan had not pulled off the tackle of the millennium on Michael Crocker who would have scored in those amazing final seconds. Freddie left us with a game that showed just how far he had come from being the precocious talent to a genuine superstar.
Although there have been hundred of tributes to the career of Brad Fittler over the years, I figured it was worth pumping out another one to give the punter�s opinion of what has been a great career. But I also found it prudent to reflect on how I saw his career in the stages of his development to show why it has been a great career.
Penrith 1989-1995: Played in two Grand Finals as a teenager against the might of the Green Machine and he was a standout in both. He scored a try in the 1990 decider and was a pivotal part of the Panthers maiden title in 1991 and quite rightly was being hailed as the game�s next superstar. But after the unfortunate death of Ben Alexander, the Panthers team never recovered and Fittler, already a Kangaroo and NSW regular, couldn�t pull the team out of it�s slump. A slump magnified by having star halfback Greg Alexander playing out of position at fullback for the last season he had alongside Fittler. Although already a star Fittler was still very much a complimentary player to the senior members of the sides he played in. Then Super League hit and Fittler became the jewel of the ARL�s crown when Ricky Stuart turned down an astronomical offer to abandon Super League. Despite the obvious talent and ability the league had seen from Fittler so far, the mantle of the ARL�s showpiece was something Fittler would find hard to deal with.
Sydney City 1996-1999: Made immediate impact at a club that had been mired in a major dry spell out of Finals football, Fittler would help the Roosters finish 4th. The year however would feature the infamous �blind freddie� incident outside an inner-city police station and end with the Roosters losing both Finals games. The next year despite heading into the Optus Cup as co-favourites with Manly, Fittler�s Roosters only managed a disappointing 5th on the ladder. However led by Fittler the team won its first two Finals matches and came within a whisker of ending Manly�s run of consecutive Grand Final appearances, going down 17-16 in a game many people forget was as epic as the ARL Grand Final the following week. With two years under his belt at Bondi, Fittler began to emerge from the shadow of his potential and gradually embrace his role as they go-to guy on the field. A year later the Roosters made the preliminary final for the second straight season, but were outclassed by the eventual premiers Brisbane in a one-sided affair at ANZ Stadium. Heading into 1999, Fittler had established himself as the world�s best lock forward and took the Roosters to 4th spot and expectations rose again for that elusive Grand Final appearance. Despite a great performance against the Dragons in the second week of the Finals in which he scored two tries to keep his team in the contest, Sydney City fell to the grand finalists and another pair of losses put them out of contention for another year. Despite maturing into the dominant player everyone expected of him, Fittler hadn�t been able to lead his team over the hump and into a Grand Final.
Sydney Roosters 2000-2004: During this period Fittler was the most influential and complete player in the NRL. Although Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer were individually superior players, they could only get their teams to one decider over that period, while Fittler remained healthy and took the Roosters to four of the five Grand Finals played. In 2000, Fittler took the intercept that turned the preliminary final against the Newcastle Knights and propelled the Roosters into the big one against the Broncos. The 14-6 loss was a disappointment but Fittler�s troops pushed had a superior Broncos side, despite their skipper copping a knock midway through the game, limiting his effectiveness. 2001 saw Fittler retire (well the first time!) from representative football after a distinguished career that included three Kangaroo Tours, two World Cups and numerous series in the sky blue of NSW. A devastating loss to the Allan Langer inspired Maroons in the deciding game of the Origin Series sadly relegates an Ashes Series win on the Kangaroo tour to the background as his last significant representative game (insert asterisk here because as we all know he came out of retirement!). At club level the Roosters struggled in the wake of their first grand final appearance in 20 years, and were bundled out of the Finals unceremoniously by the eventual premiership winning Newcastle Knights 40-6. Two years into this period and Fittler had been playing some great football but his decision to concentrate on club football was a masterstroke and the legend of Freddie Fittler was truly set in stone. In 2002 Fittler produced one of the all time finest seasons in history, as the Roosters with a new coach in Ricky Stuart, swept all before them culminating in their first premiership since 1975. Fittler was the best player on the field and treated 80,130 (including yours truly) to a performance that just oozed big match class. Although Craig Fitzgibbon won the Clive Churchill Medal, Fittler was the difference, and images of the sheer joy on his bloodied melon will be embedded in rugby league memories forever. In my opinion Fittler was even more dominant the following season as it seemed only a serious injury or two could stop the Roosters from repeating as champions.
As luck (or lack thereof) would have it, Fittler suffered a debilitating shoulder injury only weeks before the Finals and the outstanding form he had displayed for nearly two seasons was sadly no longer achievable with one good arm. The injury robbed the Roosters of their chief playmaker and although he produced a quality display against the Bulldogs in the preliminary final he failed to recover the strength in the shoulder to be a factor against the fairytale Panthers. And we all know how that incredible game ended. Driven by a desire to end his career on a high, Fittler returned for 2004 at age 32 and he left little doubt he could still produce in the big games, even if the week-to-week dominance he had shown in the previous two seasons had ended. Coming out of his retirement for the final two games of the Origin Series at the request of mentor Phil Gould, Fittler led the Blues (with all due respect to Danny Buderus) to another series victory over the Canetoads. Come Finals time the Roosters skipper drove his team on one last charge towards a premiership. A fourth Grand Final in five seasons may have ended in defeat, but Fittler capped the golden period of his career with another supreme performance. If people want to remember Fittler in the best way possible then they should recall this stage of his career, as it was the defining evidence that he was a champion.
In summary, Brad Fittler retires as one of the finest players to have ever donned a football boot. We salute you Freddie and wish you good luck in all your future endeavours.
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