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Opinion

The best and worst NRL buys of the decade

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Roar Guru
5th April, 2020
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5193 Reads

One-club players are rare, and developing players is an option rather than a rule in the modern NRL.

Signings happen virtually every week, and the ability to do it properly is everything in determining your club’s fortunes. Let’s look at some of the best and worst signings of the last decade or so, starting with the worst, in no particular order.

Chris Sandow – Parramatta, 2012
Sandow was the feature of some fantastic highlights in his time at South Sydney. The half won rookie of the year in 2008 and looked destined for a bright future in the game. A booming drop goal from halfway, a big 40/20 or length-of-the-field try were all in Sandow’s kit bag at Souths. He was signed on a big-money, four-year deal for the struggling Eels from 2012.

The halfback would fail to spark the Eels, though, the club finishing with the wooden spoon in his first season. He looked mostly unfit and inconsistent in his first two seasons with the Eels. While he would bounce back to finish 2014 as their best player, he didn’t see out the end of his contract, departing midway through 2015. Controversy plagued his time at the Eels.

For the most part he just looked like a player who could have all the talent in the world one week, and then barely contribute the next. He was lazy and a liability in defence, and looked like he lacked the drive to take his game to the next level. His time with the Eels would be the last NRL he would see of him, failing to attract a contract upon his return from a stint in the UK. He retired without a finals appearance to his name.

Bryce Cartwright – Titans, 2018
Bryce Cartwright was eased into first grade by Ivan Cleary in 2014. A big back-rower with the famous last name, it wasn’t long before he attracted talk of Origin and higher honours. A big man with footwork, offload and handy kicking game, he was dynamic for the Panthers in his early days with the club. Playing off the bench and in the back row, he was also mildly successful in the halves with Nathan Cleary in the Panthers’ push into the finals in 2016.

Falling off the pace a bit in 2017 off the back of an off-field incident, he was released from his contract with the Panthers to join the Gold Coast. His first season at the Titans wasn’t a great one. He ended up in reserve grade mid-season, fighting for form. The Titans would finish last in 2019, and it cost coach Garth Brennan his job. While the blame doesn’t fall on Cartwright, he was one of many playing well below his best.

Bryce Cartwright

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Cartwright has looked lazy since he has joined the Titans. Despite of his size and mobility, he is a liability in defence and doesn’t want to take the tough carries in attack. He looks well down on the confidence that saw him be a match-winner for the Panthers and without it we are unlikely to see the best of him. Probably signed on decent money for the Titans, he will be looking at taking a pay cut when his next contract rolls around. Worst-case scenario is he drops off the radar altogether, and he fades into obscurity after such a promising start.

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Kieran Foran – Bulldogs, 2018
It is hard to believe that Foran is still short of 30, and potentially has a few years of good footy left in him if he can get back on the park. He barely missed a game in the start of his career with the Sea Eagles, playing more than 140 games in seven seasons. The tough five-eighth drew praise for just that: his toughness and consistency in a period of real dominance for the Sea Eagles. He won the premiership with them in 2011, and played in another grand final in 2013. He has also played 21 international games for New Zealand.

After leaving Manly in 2015, he played one season each with Parramatta and the Warriors. He signed a rich deal with the Bulldogs for 2018, hoping to link with former mentor Des Hasler after a turbulent stretch. This wouldn’t eventuate. Hasler moved on before Foran arrived. It has been a difficult couple of years with the Bulldogs for Foran. Through injury, he has played just 26 games in two seasons, and was set to be ruled out of 2020 with a shoulder injury.

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While it is harsh to be too critical of Foran, with injury being so damaging to his career, the Bulldogs haven’t got their money’s worth yet. If and when he can make it onto the park, Foran has some serious catching up to do to repay the Bulldogs. While he was a very good player in his time with Manly, that was a very long time ago, and when he was much younger. The Bulldogs need a fit and influential marquee player in what has been a lean few years for the proud club. For the moment at least, Foran hasn’t been a great signing.

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Jarryd Hayne – Titans, 2016
Hayne was at the peak of his powers when he departed the NRL for the NFL in 2014. He had just come off a Dally M winning season, and had been the Blues’ best in their breakthrough series win. So when the Titans announced they had landed his signature for the end of 2016 and beyond, the hype was more than justified.

Drawing a bumper home crowd for his first outing, and having a hand in a few wins for the Titans on the run to the finals, it looked like Hayne may be the player they were looking for. Rumoured to be on $1.2 million a season, his first full year in 2017 saw the Titans bomb in a big way. Hayne engaged in a long-running public feud with coach Neil Henry. Both men would depart the club by the end of the season, Henry sacked and Hayne opting to return to Parramatta.

Hayne was a superstar at his best, but stints like this are now unfortunately part of his legacy. Obviously talented, he didn’t want to be the most influential player for the Titans, despite being paid as such. Without hammering the Titans too much, it is also symptomatic of their approach to fixing problems, burning cash on players who don’t return the dividend.

Jarryd Hayne Gold Coast Titans NRL Rugby League 2017

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Matt Orford – Raiders, 2011
The Raiders had a promising season in 2010, making Week 2 of the finals with a young and exciting attacking squad. Signing an experienced half with a track record of success looked an astute buy that could hopefully take them further in 2011. Orford had been a premiership winner and Dally M winner in a successful career at the Sea Eagles. With just the one season in the Super League, it wasn’t that much of a stretch that Orford could rediscover his best for Canberra.

Signed for three years, Orford would play just six games. Looking unfit and hampered by injury, his six outings were laughably bad as Orford was so far off the pace. A groin injury ended his season, and the Raiders terminated the remainder of his contract. You can’t judge his career solely on his time at the Raiders, but it is a shame the rest of his career was tarnished by his time at Canberra. Orford would never make it back into first grade after that.

While a bad signing can soak up your salary cap and cripple your club, a good signing can do the opposite. From cellar dwellers to premiership forces, here are the signings who have had the best influence on their clubs, in no particular order.

Cooper Cronk – Sydney Roosters, 2018
Cronk made the decision that 2017 would be his last with the Melbourne Storm. While he would finish that year with a premiership ring, and the chance to finish as a one-club player, he would sign on for two seasons with the Sydney Roosters. After finishing 2017 as preliminary finalists, the Roosters signed Cronk for one reason only: to deliver them a premiership. The move would upset club stalwart Mitchell Pearce enough to move to the Knights, and many questioned if the move would pay off.

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Up until that point, Cronk had been regarded as a wonderful club player, but had class in key positions around him in Billy Slater and Cameron Smith. While the Roosters were a good team, they needed that organisation and control from the halves to take the next step. The Roosters’ gamble would pay off with the Roosters winning back-to-back premierships with Cronk steering the ship. What is most impressive about Cronk is his work ethic and consistent performance over a long career. There is no greater example of his toughness than playing in the 2018 decider with a broken scapula.

Cronk would have retired with a very respectable record had he retired at the 2017. But his ability to win three consecutive premierships with two different clubs demonstrates the influence he has from arguably the most important part on the field, and places him among the best players to play the game.

Cooper Cronk

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Greg Inglis – Rabbitohs, 2011
The Rabbitohs were one of the beneficiaries of Melbourne’s salary-cap scandal in 2010, picking up Storm centre Greg Inglis. Inglis would see out his career with the Rabbitohs, helping them to a premiership in the process and captaining the Maroons.

Inglis was arguably the first part of the Rabbitohs’ premiership puzzle. His first season in 2011 returned little, but a change of position, change in coach and some quality teammates saw improvement in 2012. Round 3 would see Inglis moved to fullback, and he made a fist of it at the Rabbitohs. Devastating from the backfield, big, strong and agile, Inglis saw far more football and became more influential as a result.

After back-to-back seasons of bowing out in preliminary finals, the Rabbbitohs made the big dance in 2014. Inglis would star from fullback, scoring the final try to seal the historic premiership that Souths had waited 43 years for. While Billy Slater is undoubtedly the fullback of the century, Inglis rates pretty highly. He has played at fullback for club, state and country, and has contributed to the success of each. While he was a solid player at the Storm, Inglis really forged a legacy at Souths as one of the most devastating attacking players the game has seen.

Sonny Bill Williams – Roosters, 2013
Sonny Bill Williams’ return to rugby league was a controversial one. This was mainly due to the way he left the Bulldogs high and dry in 2008, leaving 18 months into a five-year contract and not notifying the club until he had already left. His return to the game left a bitter taste in the mouths of Bulldogs fans, among others.

Williams’ talent was undeniable though, and despite having played rugby union since his departure from the Bulldogs, he barely missed a beat in his return to league. Williams was one of a host of signings the Roosters made after finishing the 2012 season in the bottom four. Williams, along with others, turned the Roosters into a premiership force.

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As well as being talented on the field – a big ball-paying forward with a great offload – Williams had star power. While his exit from the Bulldogs was less than impressive, it generated hype around his return. It saw a big rise in audiences on TV, as well as growth in the Roosters’ crowds. While he would only spend the two seasons at the Roosters it would return them a premiership, and two minor premierships. It also helped the Roosters establish a period of real dominance. Since 2013 the Chooks have won three premierships, three minor premierships and missed just the one finals series.

Kalyn Ponga – Newcastle Knights, 2018
Kalyn Ponga was considered one of the hottest prospects in the game as he was in and out of first grade with the Cowboys. Having played just the one NRL game in the finals for North Queensland, he was signed on big money to play with the Knights from 2018.

While Ponga and the Knights are yet to reach a finals series, the return on the investment doesn’t look far off. His time at the Knights has seen him debut for Queensland, with three games to his name. Ponga is one of the most naturally talented players in the game at the moment, still at such a young age. He has speed and footwork, and is a capable ball-player too. He can play at five-eighth, but looks more at home playing at fullback. He is also a handy goal-kicker.

What Ponga did for the Knights was signal that they were able to start signing star talent again, after a lean few years. He is the kind of player that fans come to watch, and it is hard to believe that he has only played 50 games, such is his highlights package to date. While rugby has shown an interest, along with probably 15 other NRL clubs once his contract is up next year, it is in the Knights’ best interests to give him what he wants.

Kalyn Ponga runs the ball for the Knights.

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

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James Maloney – everywhere
Say what you want about James Maloney but his resume speaks for itself. As a rookie at the Warriors, he and Ivan Cleary helped guide the notoriously mediocre club to a grand final in 2011.

After three seasons with the Auckland-based club, he jumped ship to the Roosters. He and several other key signings helped the Roosters win the premiership in his first season at the club in 2013, along with the minor premiership. His next two seasons delivered two more minor premierships, and preliminary final exits. In 2016, Maloney linked with the Cronulla Sharks, another club famous for its mediocrity. The Sharks won their first ever premiership in 50 years in his first season there.

After another finals appearance in 2017 with the Sharks, Maloney would join the Panthers. His tenure came at a time of turmoil for the club. Maloney couldn’t work his magic at Penrith. In 2018 they would bow out in the second week of the finals, while 2019 would see them miss the finals. Maloney has seemingly improved every club he has laid hands on, or had a positive influence. He won two premierships, two Origin series, played for his country, and did so from the halves. While he isn’t the first player that springs to mind when you say legends of the game, maybe he should rate a mention.