“If I ever get it, can I count on you to be there with me?” he asked.
“Yep,” Brandy blurted out, without even hesitating, such is his fondness for the sky-blue jumper but mostly because of his loyalty to Fittler.
As it turned out, the job went to Laurie Daley before Fittler took over last year and won the series at his first attempt. Alexander was by his side in the coach’s box, the pair of them jumping about like they’d just won the Winfield Cup in 1991.
Notwithstanding all the important cogs in the NSW machine, a critical part of the state’s rebirth as an Origin force comes down to two former teammates bonded by premiership success and then unfathomable tragedy.
The death of Ben Alexander — Greg’s 20-year-old brother, Fittler’s best mate — in a car accident in 1992 has been in sharp focus this week as the Blues and Transport for NSW combined to launch a TV campaign for road safety. It features Alexander and Fittler talking about Ben.
Ben was a very strong, charismatic person. He would’ve been a great coach or administrator today. He made a lot of sense.
Brad Fittler on Ben Alexander
When the ad was being shown inside North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club earlier this week, as NSW players like Boyd Cordner fought back tears, Fittler and Alexander went for a walk. They don’t want to see the ad because it stirs up too much emotion.
«I’ll never watch it, mate,» Fittler said. «I can’t.»
In truth, the retelling of that night, while necessary and important, has been quite draining on both of them this week.
“We were just all very close at Penrith,” Fittler says. “I went out with Brandy’s sister, Linda, when I was 15. Ben was my best mate because we went to school together in the same year. And Mark Geyer went out with Megan.
“Brandy just got shit done. He was at the top of his game when I started. And Ben was a very strong, charismatic person. He would’ve been a great coach or administrator today. He made a lot of sense. He had more sense than most others, especially at our age. Especially me. I was a lunatic. He had a definite strength that I didn’t have.”
Freddy was a star player but he had to graduate into being a star leader. And he did that.
Greg Aexander on Brad Fittler
Ben’s death shaped both men’s lives, of course. We will never know exactly how good Greg Alexander could’ve been as a player because Ben’s death struck when he was at the peak of his powers.
“I don’t know how I handled things because I was just lost in my world,” Alexander says. “I look back at that period and think, ‘Did I handle things well or should I have handled them differently?’ I don’t don’t know. I didn’t notice anyone.”
What Alexander did notice in those years after Ben’s death, as Fittler went to the Roosters before becoming NSW and Australian captain, was how his little mate developed into a leader of men.
“Now, as a coach, he’s very similar to how he was as a captain,” Alexander says. “I think he’s been one of our great captains, whether it’s for the Blues or for Australia. Freddy was a star player but he had to graduate into being a star leader. And he did that.”
Indeed, NSW players and other coaching staff tell you how direct Fittler is with his messaging. There are no Churchillian speeches, no channelling of Pacino in the final scenes of Any Given Sunday.
He talks to them like men. Tells them what he wants them to do. He expects them to do it.
It’s a bit like the way they played at Penrith all those years ago. Says Fitter: «MG would go mad, Brandy would set up the tries, I would try to make sure I scored them.”
Alexander admits, though, he was surprised how the kid with bad flattop from all those years ago had turned into such a fine coach when he first came on board last year.
“Freddy’s a good mate of mine — but I didn’t know what he was like as a coach,” Alexander said. “I thought those qualities as a leader would transfer as a coach but I wasn’t in the Roosters sheds when he was coaching. I didn’t exactly know what he was going to bring to the table. I thought, ‘It’s Freddy, it’ll be good’. But in the back of my mind I didn’t really know.
“But then he spoke and I just bought in straight away. Just his confidence about what he was doing and saying. People talk about him being left-field. It’s a fraction of Freddy. There’s a lot more substance.”
Much of that substance comes from the Alexander with him in the coach’s box — and the Alexander who sadly can’t be there with them.
How close did Mitchell Pearce go to making a stunning return to the NSW side after Luke Keary was ruled out of Origin with concussion?
Yeah nah yeah nah — not really much of a chance at all.
When Fittler approached Pearce in the dressing room after his dazzling performance for the Knights last Friday night, he sensed straight away that the 30-year-old wasn’t overly keen.
Pearce had a “sore” groin and there’s no doubt that he could’ve played, although he would’ve been on a hiding to nothing returning the NSW side in a series opener at Suncorp.
It’s a sign of his maturity and where he’s life is that Pearce could easily put his club ahead of higher rep honours.
Cody Walker’s selection in the NSW side at the age of the 29 is one of the truly great Origin stories.
When others in the NSW set-up have asked him this week why it’s come so late, he’s openly told them that he was more concerned with having a good time than concentrating on his career as a professional footballer.
Then he saw the ultrasound of his wife carrying their first child and suddenly the penny dropped. In the last year or so, Walker has become one of the game’s most mesmerising players.
He surprised a few of his new teammates when he decided not to join them on Tuesday night’s bonding session. As revealed in the Herald today, Walker has given up the drink for the season.
In a clear sign that he’s also ready to make the most of this series, Cordner also didn’t venture out.
Haas boxing clever
For better or worse, there is no longer any State of Origin all-in brawls.
(Do yourself a favour and You Tube the blue from the fight from the opening seconds of the game two match in 1984. Bring popcorn).
But if there was a fight on Wednesday night, we can exclusively reveal that the Blues player the Maroons definitely want to avoid is 19-year-old wrecking ball Payne Haas.
When the Blues did some boxing training at the Woolloomooloo PCYC on Tuesday night, Hass displayed quicker hand speed than winger Josh Addo-Carr, whose grandfather was the legendary boxer Wally Carr.
“Haas would bash Justin Hodges tomorrow if he got the chance,” said one observer.
“I am astounded a bloke thinks he’s so good he can charge $5500 an hour. That’s f…ing crazy!» — Queensland Rugby League boss Bruce Hatcher‘s so-very rugby league response to news that Maroons coach Kevin Walters was using a «coach whisperer».
The annual True Blues function lived up to its growing reputation as the best function on the footy calendar on Monday night. Highlights included Tommy Raudonikis and Steve Mortimer being elevated into the Hall of Fame, as well as seeing Tony Butterfield looking so good after a recent heart attack.
And in further proof that you can never, ever believe anything that ever comes out of anyone’s mouth in rugby league, James Roberts has signed with Souths — despite repeated and vehement denials from both parties it was ever happening.
It’s a big weekend for … Bellingen Valley Dorrigo rugby league club, which is about to celebrate a huge reunion weekend, starting with a special dinner on Friday night that will feature Ryan James, Andrew Ryan and local boy Shaun Fensom.
It’s an even bigger weekend for … Andrew Bogut, who is expected to see more court time for Golden State in the NBA finals against the Toronto Raptors, starting with game one in Toronto on Friday morning.
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.