Renowned teetotaller Wayne Bennett queried his own sobriety after hearing that Roosters legend Brad Fittler was planning a comeback in the inaugural Auckland Nines tournament.
''I woke up and I thought I had a New Year's hangover for a start,'' Bennett said with a wry smile on Friday. ''I thought maybe I'm just a bit seedy today.''
The master coach said he pondered the issue a ''little bit more'' and realised Fittler, who will turn 42 before the Nines kicks off on February 15, would not be out of place in a Newcastle squad that already includes nine over-30s, even after the retirements of 35-year-olds Danny Buderus and Craig Gower.
''He'd nearly fit into our recruitment plans, because we like those older players,'' Bennett quipped. ''He's probably a bit young for us yet. But another year or two on him and I think we could probably bring him here to the Knights if he doesn't make it in the Nines.''
Bennett felt perhaps Fittler was suffering withdrawal symptoms after the annual All Stars exhibition game was called off to accommodate the Nines. Bennett has coached the NRL All Stars for the past three seasons and Fittler has been his assistant. ''With that game not being on, he's probably just dreaming up what he can do next and Nines was probably just one of those mad moments you have in your life and he thinks: 'I can play in that game','' Bennett said.
When Bennett was reminded that he had orchestrated one of rugby league's most celebrated comebacks by luring Allan Langer back to help Queensland win the 2001 Origin decider, he pointed out Langer had not hung up the boots at that point and was still playing in England. ''Freddy has been retired for a long time,'' Bennett said. ''Maybe Freddy had a bad moment over Christmas and watched some old videos of himself playing and thought he could still do that.''
Fittler's last game was the 2004 grand final, a game in which Willie Mason collected the Clive Churchill Medal after Canterbury's 16-13 triumph. Given that Mason has been used to promote the Nines and appears a certain selection in Newcastle's squad, Fittler could face the daunting prospect of renewing acquaintances with his towering former NSW and Test teammate. ''It wouldn't matter who you run at him, he'll struggle with it,'' Bennett said.
On a serious note, Bennett said the Nines format would be an experiment for all teams and coaches involved. ''It's a bit of an unknown for us,'' he said. ''We haven't played it for a long time. I think '97 was the last time it was played … they went to Fiji, from memory, and we haven't played it since then. Most of us all will be struggling with how to play it and we'll all be a bit wiser after the event.''
Newcastle appear unlikely to risk their only Australian World Cup representative, Darius Boyd, who is not due to start pre-season training for another 10 days. ''Our first priority will just be where guys are at training,'' Bennett said. ''Darius will only be back at training for two or three weeks, so there's an example there. We may not play him. Then there's guys recovering from injuries, so we won't be risking them. We'll put a good team together. We'll pick the best team we can.''
Bennett predicted the Nines would be no place for ''your big, slow forwards'' and some outside backs would have to switch to the engine room.