Brad Fittler feels like he owes Mitchell Moses and has waited four years to repay the favour.
The playmakers first crossed paths when Fittler coached Lebanon at the 2017 World Cup, when the Blues legend decreed no-one could take the paddock, coach included, without first learning the national anthem.
Fittler would listen to the anthem as he drove across Sydney, before assembling a squad of park footballers, café owners, labourers and five Lebanese local players flown halfway around the globe, for a rollicking six-week stretch.
The Cedars stole more than a few hearts and very nearly, an upset over fellow giantkillers Tonga.
Moses as much as anyone drove that campaign, finishing with flourish and flare in a breakout quarter-final performance against the Tongans.
Fittler to work with Moses and Cleary
Fittler was then named as NSW Blues coach within a month.
On Sunday afternoon, he was able to bring Moses into the fold once more, with the call he’s been waiting four years to make.
“I’ve been a fan of Mitchell’s for a while,” Fittler says.
“I coached Mitchell in the Lebanon team and I’m always very grateful for the effort those boys put in.
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“I’ve got to say that without their effort, I’m not sure if I’m doing what I’m doing right now. Between Mitchell and Robbie [Farah] and a few others, they were instrumental in that team doing well.
“I feel like I owe that team and those players a lot.
“So to be able to ring them and tell him he’s got the opportunity to play for NSW, I was extremely grateful and I got a lot of confidence out of his response.
“He sounded clear and sounded confident, he was ready to go. I think he knows what’s ahead of him. It’s not going to be easy. I feel like he’s in a really good headspace to take it on.”
It wouldn’t be right if a NSW halfback didn’t debut with question marks over his position, and Moses seems to have more than most as Nathan Cleary’s replacement.
As recently as Friday, the Parramatta playmaker steered what would have been a match-winning, last minute penalty goal wide of the sticks at Penrith.
In last year’s finals series Moses lined up a penalty goal he would nail every day of the week, only to hammer it into the upright, with the Rabbitohs duly rising from the dead to end the Eels’ season.
When Fittler first took the Blues role in 2018, he had Moses pencilled in as his NSW halfback.
Blues on the move
By the time the pencil was exchanged for a pen, Cleary had gone past Moses, who would finish the season with a wooden spoon and chance to leave the Eels early if he found any takers.
And still Fittler casts back to that Lebanon camp, when little was expected of Moses and his teammates, who duly delivered in spades.
“What I saw was a quality player who can lead a team around, who’s a great leader.
“This will help Mitchell going forward given it’s a big game and an opportunity to play in another big game.”
Eels coach Brad Arthur, who thrashed things out with Moses in 2018 when both their careers at Parramatta were on the line, says the his ability to “re-set”, be it after success or failure, has been the key to his sparkling form this season.
Having missed last week’s crack at a match-winner in the rain, and with his raw 1-5 finals record never far from mention, Moses gets his chance to do just that next Wednesday, wherever game three lands.
With that chance though, comes the expectation and pressure of a rare Origin whitewash, what would be the Blues’ first since 2000.
It’s no Parramatta premiership drought. But it’s not nothing either.
Four years ago when he and Fittler teamed up together in camp Lebanon, it came after Moses had enjoyed his first true breakout season – his acrimonious switch from the Tigers to Eels sparking a semi-finals run.
To date, 2021 has been Moses’s most consistent NRL campaign, one where he’s handled contract capers on his ear. Fittler has not so much repaid Moses’s favour as rewarded his rise since.
“I feel like he’s ready to go to that next step,” Fittler says.
“It just seems like at the moment everything’s working for him. His team’s doing extremely well.
“He’s 26, he’s still got a long way to go in his career. I think this is happening at the right time.”
The Blues’ bid for a rare Origin whitewash has been dealt an early curve ball with NSW forced to shift their camp back north to Kingscliff due to the uncertainty around Sydney’s COVID-19 situation.
NSW had planned to base their game-three preparations at Magenta Shores near Norah Head on the Central Coast, however they will instead fly out on Tuesday to the NSW north coast.