Like Morpheus, NRL clubs and fans are always searching for the ‘one’.
The ‘one’ will change everything. They will single-handedly turn the fortunes of the club around. They will turn all those chances into reality, will make the players around them better and attract more great players to the club.
Teams will fork out fortunes per year to these players once they have arrived on the scene and spend large amounts of time and money scouting every nook and cranny to find the next ‘one’ and lock them away before other clubs can get in their ears.
Though, is it possible for just one player to change the fortunes of a rugby league team or is this just the work some mysterious Architect in the background designed to keep all of us interested? Could the addition of just one player raise a team from the doldrums up to the pinnacle of one of the most demanding sports in the world?
If not the pinnacle, perhaps just high enough to play beyond the regular season, which is a significant step for some?
Look no further than the impact Tom Trbojevic has had on Manly this year. Isn’t it remarkable how the inclusion of one player transformed a team beaten 156 to 34 in the opening four rounds to a top-four team at the end of the season? Turbo’s efforts were not enough to get them to a premiership, but the turnaround was amazing.
Jarryd Hayne had one of the greatest individual seasons in history in 2009, taking Parramatta to an unlikely grand final birth and a Dally M Medal having missed the finals the year before. Love that highlights reel.
Ben Barba had a similar season in 2012, also taking Canterbury to the grand final. Unfortunately, both seasons ended in defeat to controversial Melbourne Storm teams. So, maybe the ‘one’ can only get you so far?
In 2017, the Roosters had bounced back from a poor 2016 campaign to finish second, only to be bundled out in the finals. In 2018 the Roosters signed James Tedesco on reportedly $1 million per season and they won the next two premierships and Tedesco went on to become the best player in the game. Cooper Cronk was an influence as well, but Tedesco had the bigger impact.
With Johnathan Thurston at the helm, the Cowboys went from almost snatching the 2017 premiership only a short two years after the 2015 premiership to also-rans in later years after his retirement or age catching up to him. Thurston carried the club on his back for years and it would be painful for fans to think of where the club would have been without him.
Melbourne have always had a big three or four, but no player more important than Cameron Smith. Although Melbourne broke records this year in his absence, the Storm clearly missed his leadership and skills at the pointy end of the season.
It is understood the Titans kept a spot in their top 30 (and a spare $1 million-plus) open right up until Smith’s retirement announcement in the hopes he would go around for one more season.
As for recently, the Titans have signed David Fifita for reportedly $1.2m per season, making him the highest-paid player in the game and well above the peak price for an edge back rower. The Titans didn’t go close to winning the premiership, but they did make the first round of the finals.
The Broncos have forked at a large amount of coin in the hope next year Adam Reynolds can steer the club back to its former glory.
Joseph Suaalii was subject to a tug-of-war between two powerhouses as a teenager technically unable to play in the NRL. Time will tell on these, but clubs are believing.
Though, for every successful marquee deal, there is one which has failed – some spectacularly.
Ash Taylor was supposed to be the next great NRL halfback and the Titans’ saviour. That certainly didn’t work out and ended with Taylor spending large chunks in reserve grade and leaving the club for a train and trial deal with the Warriors.
Ben Hunt was signed as the player to turn the Dragons’ fortunes around, yet the Dragons have endured a horrid stretch since.
Remember when the Gold Coast signed Daly Cherry-Evans, only for Manly to offer the lifetime deal of over $1m per season? They thought Daly was the one to take them to continue their dominance after the changing of the guard, but he is yet to deliver another premiership.
At a similar time, Kieran Foran was signed by Parramatta and labelled the ‘most important signing in the club’s history’ before succumbing to various injuries and limping around for the Warriors and Bulldogs thereafter without much joy.
Other big-money signings include Mitchell Pearce at the Knights, Anthony Milford at the Broncos, Shaun Johnson at the Sharks and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Sam Tomkins at the Warriors, none of which have amounted to any significant success.
The Wests Tigers are still stuck in the original versions of the matrix, just going round in circles building up hope, only to be taken down a few pegs.
All in all, the search for the ‘one’ is possibly more rocks than diamonds, but when clubs can get it right it can certainly take them to another level.
With that in mind and if we pretend for a minute that contracts don’t exist (first, I suppose, we will have to pretend that they do exist), if you were to add just one current player to your team’s roster for the 2022 season, who would you pick to take your team to the next level? Could they win it all?
I have picked a player for each club below I think will make the biggest difference with the only two rules being a player can only be chosen once and can’t be already moving clubs. I have started from the weakest teams up to the top teams and have tried not to weaken the worst teams.
Wests Tigers – Nathan Cleary (Penrith Panthers)
Although the Bulldogs came last, the Tigers are surely the biggest shambles of a club (sorry Tigers fans if I am harsh – if it makes you feel better, I am a Dragons fan), so let’s start there.
It would take more than one player, but I think Nathan Cleary could be the player to turn that club around. The Tigers lack leadership on the field and off. He would drive training standards and, on the field, would give the confidence they lack and the game management which can keep them in games.
Players would follow him to the club.
Caveat – may have to lure Ivan back to coach him, which is probably a bus or two too far.
Canterbury Bulldogs – Daly Cherry-Evans (Manly Sea Eagles)
The Bulldogs have recruited well, but also lack a halfback to steer them around. DCE has the kicking game, leadership, and management skills to get the Dogs into positions where the likes of Matt Dufty, Tevita Pangai Junior, Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr can capitalise.
Would certainly help the development of Burton, and DCE has a relationship with Barrett already.
North Queensland Cowboys – Isaah Yeo (Penrith Panthers)
The Cowboys are an interesting case. Seem to have the talent around the squad but can’t piece it together. I don’t really have a clear answer for this and I’m not sure Todd Payten does either.
Perhaps, a specialised lock forward which will allow Taumalolo to shift to Prop and their edge back rowers to go back to the edge. Isaah Yeo would fit perfectly, the work-rate to tidy up their middle and the creativity off the back of Lolo’s charges to terrorise defences and give their halves more time.
Brisbane Broncos – Kalyn Ponga (Newcastle Knights)
The Broncos need some success this year, it would be embarrassing if the Dolphins can come in under Wayne in 2023 and best them. I think they need either a top-line fullback or an experienced prop to assist Payne Haas.
They talk of Ponga being targeted by the Dolphins, but what about the Broncos? With Reynolds steering them around and Haas charging upfront, Ponga would have the time and space to wreak havoc. Kalyn has great combinations with his edge backrower in Fitzgibbon and so could form a great combination with recruit Kurt Capewell or young Jordan Riki.
With Ponga tearing up the left and Kotoni Staggs tearing up the right, they could score from anywhere.
New Zealand Warriors – Brandon Smith (Melbourne Storm)
The Warriors are another team with plenty of talent that hasn’t been converted into success. They have a big forward pack and with Johnson, CHT and Walsh they seem to have a settled enough spine even with RTS leaving.
A notable hooker could add the polish to the team and take pressure off the halves. Brandon Smith fits that bill. He is a Kiwi and is one of the hottest hookers on the market (minds out of the gutter, please). Has a great running game and can capitalise on big runs from Addin Fonua-Blake, Matt Lodge and Ben Murdoch-Masila.
St George Illawarra Dragons – Junior Paulo (Parramatta Eels)
The Dragons have some good youth coming through and have recruited strategically, if not well. Yet, total success seems a few years away until the younger players have enough time to fully develop. For success right now, James Tedesco may be the play but then you might risk losing Tyrell Sloan, who is earmarked as a superstar of the future.
The Dragons have struggled upfront with size and skill, so I would select one of the two best front rowers in the game right now in Payne Haas or Junior Paulo. To not weaken a fellow up-and-coming team, I would select Paulo.
Canberra Raiders – James Tedesco (Sydney Roosters)
The Raiders seem to have an ageing game plan and an outdated style. Although the forward pack could do with some updating or a John Bateman-style player, with Jack Wighton and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad in the spine as well they lack a lot of creativity in the backline with both having strong running games.
They have tried once before so perhaps second time is the charm – James Tedesco would transform the Raiders back into contenders. If Wighton links with Tedesco, the defence would not know who to take. Joseph Tapine offloading to Teddy hunting around the middle is also mouthwatering.
Cronulla Sharks – Christian Welch (Melbourne Storm)
The Sharks are without some established halves and look a little light up front having lost Aaron Woods and Aiden Tolman, and with Andrew Fifita seemingly out of the picture.
They also had the worst tackling record, so Dale Finucane is a good start. Christian Welch would complement their up-and-coming explosive forwards in the form of Braden Hamlin-Uele, Royce Hunt, Franklin Pele, Siosifa Talakai and Toby Rudolf and help to sure up their defence along with Finucane and Cameron McInnes.
Gold Coast Titans – Luke Keary (Sydney Roosters)
The Titans have the makings of a great forward pack and some real up-and-coming stars in the backline in AJ Brimson, Jayden Campbell and Phillip Sami. Although they are backing Toby Sexton in, is he too young as Ash Taylor was?
Luke Keary was born in Ipswich and was about to take the step up into a top-class halfback before injury struck. Keary has had his tutelage under Cooper Cronk and has stepped up in the past. He will be an added threat with the ball and could be the secret to unlocking Fifita on an edge and taking the Titans to a premiership.
Newcastle Knights – Latrell Mitchell (South Sydney)
The Knights forward pack is strong, but they are losing Mitchell Pearce and possibly Ponga (see above), so need a new potent spine member. With Tex Hoy announcing himself as perhaps the long term five-eighth, perhaps Latrell Mitchell could ignite the knights from the back. With Bradman Best and Dane Gagai also at the back, there will be threats all around.
Parramatta Eels – Cody Walker (South Sydney)
The Eels look great on paper, but they seem to lack the creativity to capitalise. Dylan Brown is a very good player, but Cody Walker is better. Mitchell Moses could control the game as Reynolds does and Cody could do Cody things. Can you imagine Maika Sivo outside Cody Walker?
Sydney Roosters – Jahrome Hughes (Melbourne Storm)
If the Roosters are losing Tedesco, then Joseph Manu can replace him at the back and eventually Suaalii. Their pack seems settled, so maybe Uncle Nick can convince Jahrome Hughes to come over and replace Keary. He can partner Drew Hutchison or Sam Walker and capitalise on a team that plays for each other all season long.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles – Api Koroisau (Penrith Panthers)
Manly have been without a hooker since Api Koroisau left and have been looking for a source of creativity outside of Tommy Turbo. Koroisau returning to Manly and taking them to a premiership after just winning one at Penrith has a fairytale feeling to it.
South Sydney Rabbitohs – Josh Papalii (Canberra Raiders)
The Bunnies got very close to winning it all. In the end, they were undone through the middle. Every time Cody touched the ball, things happened, but they were starved of it. They would have loved to have Sam or George Burgess back.
Perhaps Josh Papalii would have been able to muscle them forward and have given them the opportunities. Even with Reynolds, Walker and Mitchell gone, they have a good group of youngsters coming through, not to mention the likes of Johnston still on the books, so they would still be able to compete.
Melbourne Storm – Ashley Taylor (free agent)
Melbourne looked the ones to beat but then imploded when it mattered. If Brandon Smith leaves then there is a bit more stability in the spine and the Storm are known for developing players into the best forms of themselves.
Penrith Panthers – Ryan Papenhuyzen (Melbourne Storm)
The Panthers won the premiership, so not a lot of improvements to be made. However, with Brian To’o on the wing, a fullback with a bit more pizazz would be an improvement. Given they may already be losing Cleary, Koroisau and Yeo, maybe taking a player from their rivals the storm in the form of Papenhuyzen would soften the blow.
Papenhuyzen would add another dimension to Penrith’s attack even without Nathan Cleary.
This cannot happen obviously, but what a competition that would be.
Roarers, which player would you like to come to your club?