Why Boyd Cordner owes it to Brad Fittler
TO appreciate the bond between Brad Fittler and Boyd Cordner, you have to start by jumping in a Toyota Camry racing towards Campbelltown Stadium.
In the front passenger seat, you'll find a dirty, sweaty 16-year-old Cordner.
He's wearing a stained Roosters jersey.
His playing shorts, socks and boots are muddied from the SG Ball game he has just played at St Mary's.
It's a Saturday afternoon in March, 2009, and it's so hot out west that the Toyota's air-conditioning feels like a hair-dryer.
Holding a water bottle on his lap, the Taree teenager's head is spinning quicker than the Camry's silver rims along the M7.
"I couldn't get my head around what was happening,'' Cordner said, prior to Origin III in Brisbane.
"I was walking off the field and Peter O'Sullivan (former Roosters recruitment manager) stopped me and said; "Quick grab your bag, we're going to Campbelltown.
"I said: 'What, to watch first grade?
O'Sullivan replied: "Nah, you're going to play.
"Grab your bag, don't bother having a shower, we've got to go.''
Cordner said quickly; "Wait, let me just grab my Dad.'
Brad Fittler, the Roosters head coach between 2007-09, was waiting at Campbelltown for the teenager to arrive.
He was preparing the NRL squad for a trial match against Parramatta.
The Roosters squad included Braith Anasta, Willie Mason, Anthony Minichiello, Sia Soliola, Mark O'Meley and Craig Fitzgibbon.
And now a teenager, whose head was about to fall off.
"I walked into those sheds and as soon as I saw everyone, I thought; "Oh (expletive) … what's going on?''
"I was 16.
"There was all these men, NRL stars like Braith, O'Meley, Willie Mason … I'd spent the school holidays pretending to be them in backyard with my mates back at school.''
Fittler walked over to Cordner, who was sheepishly shuffling towards the first corner of the dressing room he could find.
"I'll give you a run, but I don't know for how long,'' the coach said.
Cordner nodded his head.
What else could he say?
"I got suited up and I was sitting there quietly and a couple of the boys said just relax, you'll be fine, it's a trial. You deserve this'," Cordner said.
"I warmed up and sat on the bench. The game was on, and all the while I'm jumping up and down on the sideline, wondering when I'm going to get on.
Cordner played the final 22 minutes, tackling anything in a blue and gold jumper, including Fuifui Moimoi and Jarryd Hayne.
"I didn't do anything special, but I got through my work,'' Cordner said.
"I then flew back to Taree and saw my mates. They asked, 'how did you go with the SG Ball game?'
"I said, 'I played NRL as well'.
"They didn't believe me.''
Before Wednesday night's career-defining moment for the pair, when as captain and coach, they will hold aloft the Origin shield for NSW, Fittler gave an insight into what he saw in Cordner as a teenager - and what he has watched ever since.
"Back then, I could just see that he was built for the game,'' Fittler said.
"I just always had faith in him. Whether it was as a 16 year old … he was always going to make it.
"You could just see it in his eyes, even as a 15, 16-year-old.
"There was no fear in his eyes. Never.
"Like in Origin II two weeks ago, his calf was gone, but he said; 'I'll just keep going until, it breaks.'
"Some of his runs were awful but he just ran. No fear. That's what he had 10-years ago and still now, no fear.''
Cordner is a country boy at heart who protects his family and his emotions.
But every now and then, he'll reveal his true self.
On Fittler, he admits he owes so much.
"Looking back on it now, it's pretty special to hold onto that I was able to play with an NRL squad at 16,'' Cordner said.
"Freddy and I have built that relationship ever since.
"He's the coach of NSW, but he's the guy that gave me my first shot.
"He taught me a hell of a lot as a young kid.
"I'm very grateful to have that opportunity to have a guy like Freddy in my corner.
"He's been backing me for years and so what do you do when someone does that for you?
"You do anything for them too, which for me, is working my backside off for him and the team.
"I want to bring that shield back to the people of NSW and for Freddy.''