No one should be alarmed that the Roosters have withdrawn their offer to Latrell Mitchell, which was rumoured to be for $800,000 a season.
What Mitchell needs to understand – along with the many others astounded by the Roosters withdrawing the offer – is that $800,000 is absolute top dollar money for a centre. The only way he will get more than that is by going to a weaker club or by successfully transitioning to a position that clubs ascribe a higher value to. And that will take time.
Sure, this time last year the Taree product was on top of the rugby league world. He was a victorious Australian Kangaroo, NSW Blue and premiership player with the Sydney Roosters. At the age of 21, he was arguably the hottest property in rugby league.
In February this year The Roar duly ranked him in the top ten players in the NRL, with only Cam Munster, Cam Smith, Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco being ranked above him. The only issue I’d ever seen with him was his propensity for brain explosions. However, that’s part and parcel with young players with lots of talent. By the conclusion of the 2018 State of Origin series it was clear that Mitchell’s brain had become very focused indeed.
The idea that just a year later the Roosters would play hardball with him and withdraw an offer was unthinkable.
Yet here we are.
The first real sign that Mitchell might not be quite as good as the likes of me had rated him was when he was dumped from the NSW team after Origin 1 this year.
I was totally stunned. There was just no way I would have even considered doing it.
Yet Brad Fittler made the call and his side duly came back from one-nil down to win the series. What did that tell us? Frankly, it said Mitchell might be a superb player but he was clearly not pivotal to the success of the Blues.
The question is why wasn’t he? Mitchell is a wonderfully talented player: big, fast, strong and with great hands. He is the sort of player I go to watch play.
But that doesn’t mean he is a player essential to the success of a team.
The reality is that his value – strategically and therefore monetarily – is far lower than other players in the game.
And it’s not because he lacks the skill. It’s because of the position he plays.
In the grand scheme of things, the centre position just isn’t as essential to the success of a team as other positions.
“What? Of course they are!” I hear you say. But that’s an emotional response. Since Mal Meninga, what centre could you argue was a team’s key reason for achieving success? I can’t think of one.
Further, Meninga’s influence was as much about his leadership of the team as anything.
When there have been superstar centres they usually haven’t just been centres. They offered versatility. Greg Inglis could play centre, wing, fullback or five-eighth. Andrew Ettingshausen was also a great winger and could play fullback or five-eighth when required. Laurie Daley started in the centres but went to five-eighth.
This utility value was also true of the likes of Darius Boyd, Dale Shearer, Jarryd Hayne, Brent Tate, Mark Gasnier and Jamie Lyon.
Mitchell certainly has the potential to provide that versatility. And just like all of those players, he may well do so in time.
And when he does that, he will definitely get the really big bucks – although $800,000 is pretty damn good – that he is now testing the market for.
That brings us to the question of which positions have the most value and which have the least?
Let’s start from the bottom.
While there is no doubt that an excellent winger is a great asset to a team, you don’t build a team around them. Sure, there have been some legends of the game who have worn the two and the five: Kerry Boustead, Eric Grothe, Semi Radradra and John ‘Chicka’ Ferguson, for example.
However, representative teams frequently put fullbacks and centres on the wing. They are finishers of the play, not the architects. They need to be fast, able to take a high ball in attack and defence, with the ability to make their tackles a definite asset. They may get good money but they aren’t going to get the big bucks.
See above. One step above wingers, there is more of an emphasis on defence though, and it is a really good thing if you are good at putting your winger away. But, again, they are finishers of the play and not the architects.
A prop needs to make the hard yards with the ball in hand as well as putting in big work in defence. However, the amount of game time they can play is becoming ever more vital. The bigger pigs just can’t play as big minutes as smaller players and their presence in a team is becoming a liability because of the ever reducing number of interchanges.
This is evidenced by the fact that the two teams who contested the 2019 grand final had the lightest packs in the NRL. The props may be in the engine room of a side, but they are not where the big money is routinely spent.
The ever increasing mobility of second-rowers has seen them become far more of an influencing factor for success. These guys play wider, making lots of tackles – often as minders of playmakers – but then turning into attacking running weapons.
Viliame Kikau, John Bateman, Boyd Cordner, Felise Kaufusi, Wade Graham, Josh Jackson and Tyson Frizell all have distinct influence on the success of their teams that can command big dollars.
Five-eighths are match-winners, playmakers and command big dollars indeed. Cam Munster, Luke Keary and Jimmy Maloney are all stars who win games and are vital parts of the roster-planning that teams enter into. The likes of Cam Munster – just like Darren Lockyer and Brad Fittler before him – can command the hugest money. However, usually not as big as other members of the spine.
Yes, I rate lock forwards above five-eighths. Only just, but I do. The 13 is a vital part of a team’s spine. They are the dynamic work horse of the team. Their capacity for repeat efforts and big minutes makes them incredibly valuable. The massive value of the likes of Cam Murray, Dale Finucane, Jai Arrow and Jake Trbojevic is indisputable.
And then there are locks like Jason Taumololo and Sam Burgess who bring an attacking running game that can often transcend the game. A team can be built around a good lock and the huge money given to Sam Burgess and Jake Trbojevic shows you the value they are given.
The custodians aren’t just there to clean up. They are key to a side’s attack. From getting big kick return metres to chiming into the back line to score, they are in everything. The likes of Billy Slater, James Tedesco, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Tom Trbojevic also inject themselves as playmakers, assisting lots of line breaks and tries. These guys get the huge bucks because they are a crucial part of the spine and pivotal to a team’s game plan.
When I was a kid the hooker had two essential roles: to tackle everything that moved, and to pick the ball up cleanly at the play the ball and pass it effectively to the first receiver. With the death of the contested scrum, those were really the key roles they played. Then came the likes of Benny Elias and Steve Walters, who added more to the role through great dummy-half running, as well as a hatred for each other that we all enjoyed witnessing at Origin time.
But Cam Smith broke the mould and set a new standard for what a hooker should be: all of the above but also a playmaker and game manager. Whatever negative things you might have to say about Smith, he is the best hooker the game has ever seen and he has redefined the role. If you can get one like him – or Josh Hodgson and Damien Cook – it is of huge value to your side and you will have to pay huge money.
These guys are the key. Even with Cam Smith, Dale Finucane, Billy Slater and Cam Munster, the Storm couldn’t beat the Roosters with Cooper Cronk. Even with a busted shoulder.
A halfback is the general. He runs the team and puts the game plan into action. If you’ve got a good one you pay lots to keep them. If you don’t, you pay even more to get one.
In the five seasons before they signed Cronk, the Roosters were knocked out in the preliminary final three times in four years. Once they signed Cronk, they won two consecutive premierships.
Halfbacks of his ilk – Daly Cherry-Evans, Andrew Johns, Johnathan Thurston, Allan Langer, Ricky Stuart, Peter Sterling – are players that win games and win premierships. They are the primary players that you build teams around, and that players want to play with and will take less money to do so. They are the most valuable commodity in the game.