Andrew Johns’ future with the NSW State of Origin team is suddenly uncertain with rumours the legend could be involved in mass changes to the Blues’ coaching staff.
The rugby league Immortal has reportedly indicated to Brad Fittler he will be unavailable to be involved in the Blues’ 2024 Origin campaign.
Fittler remains without a contract for 2024, but his 12-month extension is widely reported to be announced next month.
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That extension comes after Fittler last week presented to the NSW Rugby League board of directors about what he wants his coaching staff to look like next year.
That was pre-empted by a shock announcement from Fittler’s right hand man Greg Alexander on Friday that he would not return in 2024.
Since then, assistant coach Paul McGregor has also reportedly told Fittler he won’t return next year.
The future’s of coaching consultants Johns and fellow Newcastle legend Danny Buderus are now the centre of rumours which suggest neither will be part of Fittler’s 2024 campaign.
It was reported last week Panthers coach Ivan Cleary will be given a more significant role in game day operations — after he was seen inside the Blues coaching box during the final game of the series won by Queensland this year.
There has since been a public push for Phil Gould to make a return to the Origin arena as part of Fittler’s coaching staff.
Gould has in recent years been a mentor for Fittler, and has now told The Sydney Morning Herald he will say ‘yes’ if Fittler asks him to come back.
That development would create an extraordinary situation with Gould and Cleary trying to work together despite their bitter history.
Gould, in his previous role as Penrith supremo, famously hired Cleary and then pushed him out the door in 2015. After previous coach Anthony Griffin was sacked, Gould reportedly pushed for Wayne Bennett to replace him — only for former Penrith chairman Dave O’Neill to overrule him and appoint Cleary. Gould quit in protest.
“It was interesting seeing Ivan Cleary in the box… I’m not sure if both Ivan Cleary and Phil Gould would work together too much given their history,” NRL reporter Adrian Proszenko said on SEN radio on Saturday.
The veteran journalist also said there is going to be a “big changing of the guard” in the NSW coaching staff next year.
“Paul McGregor, Danny Buderus and Andrew Johns have all indicated that they’ll step aside,” he said.
“And they’ll let someone else have a go. I’m suspecting that Phil Gould will have some form of role going forward, or that’s being touted.”
The Nine Newspapers report included calls from pub baron Stu Laundy — who has indicated his hotel group is interested in financially sponsoring Fittler and the Blues’ coaching staff — for Gould to make a comeback.
Laundy has put pressure on the NSWRL board to unite a “holy trinity” of Fittler, Gould and Johns.
Fittler was in August forced to compile a review of the team’s performance after another disastrous series defeat.
Alexander has been the first one to go.
“I spoke to Freddy last week and told him 2023 would be final year,” Alexander said on SEN Breakfast.
“My time is done. After six years, I’ve got to say fantastic years, it’s over for me.
“We didn’t talk about who might do that role (in the future).
“But after six years, and I’ve got to say six fantastic years, up and down, but that’s Origin, the rollercoaster, seductive as it is, to have another go. I’ve just decided that that’s enough.
“It’s been a massive part of my life for six years. But it’s a big commitment, and I’ve committed elsewhere.”
He said he was recently asked by Fittler if he wanted to continue in 2024, but felt it was the right time to step away.
“When everything calmed down after the trip overseas, I just thought about it,” he said.
“And when Freddy asked me are you good to go again, it‘s not a job that you (should) hesitate on.
“Freddy wants to continue and I certainly wish him well.”
Fittler has won three of the six series he has coached in the Origin arena, but has won just one of the past four series, despite having one of the most talented NSW squads seen in recent years.