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The Roar



Makings of a champion: How the NRL top eight was built – Part 2

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30th September, 2020

Part 1 of this series looked at the unique way each of the top four sides were constructed. Below is a closer examination of how the bottom half of the top eight found their way into finals football in 2020.

Canberra Raiders: the import model
The Raiders have traditionally been a development club. While they boast a strong junior nursery, they’ve struggled to attract marquee talent. I’m not sure if it’s the cold weather, the drab scenery or the complete absence of anything fun to do, but rugby league players don’t seem to want to live in Canberra. It’s a real problem.

Ricky Stuart found this out the hard way in 2014, his first season in charge of the club. Stuart thought he had snagged the brightest young star in the game – James Tedesco – only to see the fullback perform his best Simone Biles impersonation and backflip on the deal.

Not for nothing though is Stuart the game’s greatest thinker. Ever zigging while the rest of us are zagging, Ricky realised the futility of competing for signatures against the Sydney clubs. Instead he looked to the Old Dart and discovered a cornucopia of rugby league riches.

It started with Josh Hodgson arriving in 2015, followed by Elliot Whitehead in 2016. Each arrived with minimal fanfare and limited expectations. About all that most people knew of these blokes was that they were English and that Hodgson once ran through a door.

Both players made a successful transition to the NRL, adapting rapidly to the Canberra culture and cementing themselves as indispensable members of the team. From that moment Stuart knew that he was onto something, and the import model was born.

The beauty of this approach is that, instead of throwing money at talented young players with only a handful of first-grade appearances, you’re signing experienced, battle-hardened veterans at the peak of their powers. This significantly reduces the chances of finding yourself trapped in the Moses Suli experience.

The Raiders now boast five Englishmen among their starting 17, with another (Harry Rushton) on the way in 2021. They are the heart and soul of the club, and their unique style allows Canberra to play a tough yet creative brand of football. Ricky Stuart – smart man.

Ricky Stuart

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)


South Sydney Rabbitohs: the destination model
When South Sydney were readmitted to the competition in 2002 they lacked an identity. Fielding a piecemeal team of discards and journeymen, the Rabbitohs spent half a decade without playing finals football, collecting three wooden spoons in the process.

Enter the gladiator. After seizing control of his beloved Bunnies, Russell Crowe had an immediate impact on the club. His star power and gravitas became a powerful recruitment tool, enabling South Sydney to land two of the greatest recruits in their history: Sam Burgess (2010) and Greg Inglis (2011).

The arrival of Inglis marked a major turning point at the club. On the field he ignited a period of sustained success not witnessed for decades, with the Rabbitohs making the finals four years running, including their memorable premiership win in 2014.

Off the field Inglis’s presence was far more powerful. An Indigenous leader and a hero to many, the opportunity to play alongside him was very attractive to other Aboriginal footballers. It helped the club secure the signatures of Dane Gagai, Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell, and it remains a powerful recruitment tool even after his retirement.

The destination model, using key figures in and around your club to help lure potential recruits, is heavily utilised in other major sporting leagues, but it’s quite foreign to rugby league. I’m not sure South Sydney ever really intended to conduct business in this way, but it has proven to be a very sound formula for success.

Put yourself in the shoes of a club like the Wests Tigers. You are desperately chasing a high-profile free agent – let’s call him Latrell M. No that’s too obvious, we’ll call him L Mitchell. You’re offering him top dollar plus the guarantee of playing the position that he covets. You’ll give him everything he wants and more.

Along come South Sydney. First Mr Mitchell is whisked away to Nana Glen to spend a weekend talking about life with an Oscar winner. There’s a ring at the doorbell and in walks Greg Inglis, arguably the game’s greatest ever Indigenous player. He’s offering to be Mr Mitchell’s mentor and confidant. He gives Mr Mitchell his mobile number with a standing offer to call anytime.

Was this a tough decision for Mr Mitchell? Not even close. The destination model works.

Latrell Mitchell poses for photographs after a South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL press conference

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Newcastle Knights: the superstar model
The arrival of Nathan Brown at the Knights heralded a new era. After years of treading water in the post-Andrew Johns regime there was finally a clear direction. Moving forward, the club was going back to its roots: junior development.

Brown jettisoned the high-priced veterans and invested in his juniors, creating more debutants than Northanger Abbey. But progress was slow. Newcastle picked up the wooden spoon in Brown’s first two seasons in charge, and many of the club’s highly touted youngsters – yes you, Brock Lamb – were not showing signs of improvement.

As only a rugby league coach under pressure can do, Brown quickly shifted gears. With money to burn and a town to win over, he started making it rain. It was the rugby league equivalent of the Oprah Winfrey show, where everyone with a pulse and a sleeve full of tattoos got a contract.

Within the space of two years, Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga and David Klemmer – all top-five players at their respective positions – arrived in the steel city, and with them came the expectation of finals football. And just like that Newcastle had formally implemented the superstar model.

The superstar model is relatively straightforward: you load up with as many elite players as you can afford and plug the remaining holes with juniors and journeymen. And when all the stars align, when Kalyn Ponga is breaking ankles and Mitchell Pearce is kicking teams to death, it can work a treat.

But it is also fraught with danger. If just one of your superstars has an off week, the team can experience a significant dip in form. That’s been evident in Newcastle’s wildly inconsistent performances this season.

Equally damaging is when one of the superstar players suffers a serious injury. Manly are another example of a club that utilises the superstar model, and it’s been plain to see just how pedestrian their team can be without the services of Tom Trbojevic.


Recruit the right superstars and this model can deliver sustained success for years. But typically this sort of team-building opens up temporary premiership windows that usually slam shut on the coach’s fingers.

Bradman Best looks on

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Cronulla Sharks: the glory days model
It was a magical moment in 2016 when the Cronulla Sharks finally got to switch the porch light off. After decades of close shaves and near misses they had finally secured the club’s maiden premiership.

That Cronulla side had the perfect mix. There were the requisite thugs and grubs up front (Paul Gallen and Andrew Fifita), a dependable game-managing halfback (Chad Townsend), the classy ball-playing backrower (Wade Graham), an electric fullback (Ben Barba) and a lethal finisher on the flank (Valentine Holmes).

They played with a healthy mix of ruthless aggression and attacking flair, grinding sides out of the contest before scoring spectacular length-of-the-field tries. Such was the poetry in motion that Thomas Keneally could often be found prowling the sidelines at Shark Park, scribbling wildly as the play unfolded.

It was just one of those years. We’ve all had them. When everything just seems to fall your way. You get the dream job, marry the dream girl or snag a lucrative feature on Big Red. The feeling is intoxicating, and it’s a feeling you’ve just got to chase. And it’s that feeling which forms the basis of the glory days model (cue the Springsteen inside your head).

Well, it’s not so much a model; rather a trap. Clubs find a winning formula and try to recreate that same success every season. They roll out identical attacking structures despite changes in playing personnel. Defensive formations remain rigidly consistent even though other sides have found a way to get through them.

This is the quicksand that Cronulla have found themselves in since that magical night in 2016. The premiership players have either retired, need to retire or are out on parole. And yet they still identify themselves as that tough, gritty side.


It’s a similar story up in North Queensland. For years after the retirement of Johnathan Thurston the club continued to play the same brand of football, and outside of that remarkable grand final run they have been one of the competition’s most disappointing sides.

The secret to avoiding this trap is to approach every season as a unique entity. Assess the strengths and weakness of your roster each off-season and devise a game plan to maximise what you have at your disposal. If you try to chase that feeling, you’ll be stuck in the glory days.

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