Fittler forced to come of age

Dave Hadfield talks to the Kangaroo kid who has been thrust into captaincy and made to carry the weighty expectations of a nation in the Rugby League World Cup
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The Independent Online
It is the achievement of Brad Fittler, thrust into the Australian captaincy before his time by events beyond his control, that no-one can honestly dispute his right to it.

In normal circumstances, Fittler, who will lead Australia out against England in the opening game of the Rugby League World Cup at Wembley on Saturday and who had been classified as an FAC - future Australian captain - since his teens, would have had to wait longer than the age of 23 for an honour which is taken very seriously indeed.

But these are not normal circumstances. At an age when Fittler should still be learning, he has become a symbol of the struggle for the game's soul.

When Rupert Murdoch engineered his coup to try to take over the game in Australia, the Australian Rugby League needed to retain the biggest stars who were not already committed to the Super League. The biggest was Fittler, the youngest-ever State of Origin player, the youngest Kangaroo tourist, and the most complete talent of his time.

At a price, and a very handsome price, he became their highest-profile loyalist, the man to whom they can point when Super League claims to have all the best players and say: "Not yet, you haven't." Murdoch's cashiers would have been equally generous, but Fittler says that it was never a real contest.

"I've always been very comfortable with the ARL. They seem to me to have looked after the game pretty well over the last 100 years or so."

They have certainly looked after Brad Fittler pretty well. The game in Australia might be disfigured beyond recall by being split down the middle, but that split has made millionaires of a generation of elite players. Fittler has been one of the main beneficiaries. Apart from his loyalty contract with the ARL, his move from Penrith to the Sydney City Roosters has also been lucrative.

It is one of the repercussions of the battle for power that players who find themselves on the wrong side of the front line have to move. Penrith, the club with which he had played since his schooldays, are committed to Super League; Fittler to the ARL. He had to go, but a five-year contract, worth about pounds 350,000 a season must ease the pain.

Fittler could just as easily have gone to Manly, to be coached at club level by his Australian coach, Bob Fulton, but opted after long deliberation and negotiation for the Roosters, where he could force one of his Wembley opponents, Phil Clarke, to move from loose forward to second row. "I'm glad to have it all sorted out," he says. "It was a big decision and I took my time over it."

For a young knock-about type of bloke, there have been plenty of big decisions to be made this year. There were those who believed that the pressures on him would prove too much. "But it hasn't really made much difference to me. I still go about things in pretty much the same way, on and off the field," he says.

That, in fact, has been the one major criticism of Fittler: that he does not act like an Australian captain - a position which is invested with far more mystique than here.

There was, for instance, a notorious television appearance during which he admitted to having his head shaved while out on the booze. Conduct unbecoming to the dignity of his role, they were quick call it. It was a free gift to Super League partisans and even his manager admitted that a few rough edges needed a little polishing.

"The last thing I'd want to do is change his personality," Wayne Beavis said. "However, there are a few off-field pressures which come with the national captaincy and he has to accept them with the same standard he does the on-field pressures."

There is a danger of rewriting history here, because Australian captains - from Graeme Langlands, through Fulton, Max Krilich, Wally Lewis and Mal Meninga - have rarely been choirboys and have frequently been prone to the odd word out of place without the fabric of society unravelling.

According to Fulton, Laurie Daley - Meninga's heir-apparent on last year's Kangaroo tour, who would have taken over the captaincy had he not opted to sign for Super League - would have had exactly the same problems. "The really important thing is that he commands the respect of the players on the field and there is no question about that," he says.

Nothing would be more damaging to the ARL's continuing tussle for credibility than a bogus Australian captain - someone the world knows should not be there. "The first essential is that the captain must be an automatic choice for the side," Fulton says. "Brad would be the first man chosen, regardless of who was available. And as for how he has handled the responsibility, the proof was there for everyone to see in the Test series against New Zealand this year.

"Apart from the captaincy, we gave him the responsibility for the tactics and the kicking game, which were absolutely Olympic class. He showed that he can cope with it." He did, and they won 3-0. Frank Endacott, the New Zealand coach, admitted: "He had the sort of kicking game you dream about. He was the difference between the two sides in the series."

Fittler will be equally pivotal to Australia's World Cup campaign. Rarely has an Australian game-plan been so concentrated on one man; even in Lewis' heyday in Fittler's international position of stand-off, there was an equally shrewd tactician in Peter Sterling alongside him.

It is not to denigrate the players around him - because we know to our cost the depth of talent in Australia - to say that he dominates this particular line-up. At Wembley, he will try to break England's midfield defence with his physical power, open them up with his side-step, or by-pass them with his long passing or his varied kicking game. However Australia choose to permutate their options, Fittler will be at the centre of their play.

His outstanding natural ability is laced with resentment at the denigration of his Australian side. "They've said we're a second-rate side, a shithouse side," he says. "I don't think New Zealand would say that." And nor does he believe that England will be able to do so after Saturday.