With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.
Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.
It’s hard trying to outsmart the Roosters. Their backroom is about as smart as it gets, with roughly 700 Premierships between them, and they have such a settled, in house vibe about them that it doesn’t really matter what outside noise occurs.
We saw this in 2023. They were, largely, rubbish and made a raft of errors that generally would have lead to much bloodletting, but basically avoided it and, by the end, emerged stronger.
Jason Ryles was the major departure – that might have happened anyway – and despite being rank rotten for two third of the year, the club still made finals, might have made a Preliminary Final and departed with their heads held high.
It’s also hard to recommend signings, because the Roosters love to play 3D chess with their recruitment, safe in the knowledge that what they offer can’t be matched.
No, not the sombrero: the allure of living in the Eastern Suburbs, having access to a shedload of connected Eastern Suburbs business people and the guarantee of talent around you both in teammates but also coaching and facilities.
They’re not the only team with these in-built advantages – Souths, Manly, Brisbane and Melbourne have plenty of it too – but they are perhaps the team that best leverage what they have going for them structurally. Players take less to play for the Chooks.
It’s why their link to Wallabiies winger Mark Nawaqanitawase seems so strange. They certainly do need a winger – and plenty more on that later – but he’s the sort of high-value, high risk signing they so rarely make.
One could argue that Brandon Smith was that kind of acquisition last year, and look how that ended up. It’s not terminal, but it does speak to the club getting their hands a little burned by chasing a name rather than a playing profile.
Trent Robinson doesn’t need anyone’s advice. That won’t stop us giving it, however, and Easts are certainly a very interesting club to look at with an eye on signings.
Their ins and outs for 2024 should see them stronger.
Arrivals include NRL top try scorer Dom Young, serial Premiership winner/world’s angriest man Spencer Leniu and two young talents from England, Alex Young (Dom’s older brother) and Lewis Murphy, both wingers.
Outs are Fletcher Baker, a solid if unspectacular prop, Jake Turpin, a solid if unspectacular hooker; Paul Momirovski, a solid if unspectacular back and Drew Hutchison, a solid if unspectacular utility man. Notice a trend here?
One could argue that all four were internally replaced before anyone new turned up: Terrell May was outshining Baker, Sandon Smith had supplanted Hutchison and Turpin as the bench utility and Momirovski was already depth at best.
Throw in Dom, Spencer and a newly fit Connor Watson as a utility and suddenly that’s a very strong squad.
The 1-17 is pretty much set, with only the wingers really in competition, as Young, Daniel Tupou and Joseph Suaalii into two spots doesn’t go.
They might try to make Suaalii a centre again, but that would be both incredibly harsh on Billy Smith, who they just extended, and foolhardy, given that the boy wonder did his best impression of a non-tackling rugby union player when stationed there last year.
Beyond that, the spine is locked in, so are the pack and so is the bench, with plenty to come in reserves.
Where things get interesting for Robbo and the Chooks is 2025. This is a side that loves to plan ahead, and they’ve got some serious planning to do.
Their November 1 list is both long and influential. Along with losing Suaalii to union, they’re potentially out Joey Manu, Luke Keary, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Daniel Tupou, Nat Butcher and Angus Crichton as well as Terrell May, Sandon Smith and Siua Wong from their younger cadre.
It seems highly likely that the three kids will get extended, and they would be very, very reticent to let Butcher or Manu go, but all the others certainly could leave without it being a massive problem.
JWH, Keary and Tupou are all on decent coin and Suaalii, based on 2023 at least, is heavily overvalued.
Crichton might not be if he gets back to form, but the fact they were shopping him to rugby union suggests he’s not considered essential right now, either, and his money would go straight to Wong, the future in that position.
In the interests of brevity, let’s keep the Smart Signings treatment to those big three names and assume that they need a five eighth, a prop and a winger of high quality going forward.
They’re replacing not only proven champions, but also a combined 744 appearances’ worth of experience plus three of their most respected leaders. There’s no stat on that, but it should be factored in heavily into any signing decisions.
We’ve covered the 6 role in depth, too, because that is, should be and, if you believe anyone with the slightest insight into this, will be Jack Welsby.
He’s the best young playmaker on the planet and his contract is able to be bought for what would, if you’re the Roosters at least, not that much. In 2025, he plays five eighth, Sam Walker is the halfback, next question.
Up front they can solve a little of the leadership vacuum through Lindsay Collins, who feels like he has been around forever but is actually just entering his prime and will be 29 by the time 2025 kicks off, as well as Leniu, who has a stated goal of being a starting prop at the club.
If May is extended then he’s one of your rotation, with Naufahu Whyte likely to move into consideration, too. That’ll be three of your four under 25, so a serious experience deficit even with the honours that Leniu has accrued in his short career.
What we’re looking for, then, is a 25-30 year old prop who would be happy to take bench minutes but could also do longer, on the November 1 list and perhaps undervalued in the market under current circumstances.
Step forward Tepai Moeroa. He’s stuck between Josh Papali’i and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui on the metres per run list for 2023, is a huge body and has 130 NRL appearances by age 28.
Last year was badly affected by a shoulder injury that severely limited game time at the Storm, but when he was on the park, he made big impacts.
Melbourne just gave him another year, and the Roosters would do well to watch him for a few weeks and then strike. He’s got the experience, knows what it’s like to be at a big club and could add valuable flexibility as someone who has featured across the front and back row roles.
We’ve got them a prop, let’s move onto the wingers. The rumours of interest in Wallabies star Nawaqanitawase are just that at the moment, and Smart Signings would never endorse a rugby union player signing as smart – it so rarely works – as much as Nawaqanitawase does have a background in league.
Instead, we like the look of Bailey Simonsson. The Parra outside back has plenty of experience, having made Grand Final appearances for both the Eels and Raiders and pace to burn, having clocked the fastest top speed of anyone in blue and gold in 2023.
His error rate is very low, his defence is pretty good and he brings flexibility with having been both a centre and a winger. Simonsson hit 120m per game in 2023 in an average Parra side, pretty much exactly where Suaalii was, and produced a well above average amount of tackle breaks and offloads, too.
It could be that they have already sorted this in the signing of Lewis Murphy. He’s still very much in the maybe category, given that he’s arriving from Wakefield, who just got relegated from the Super League, and missed almost the entire year with an ACL injury, but the kid is rapid and could explode into the NRL if given a chance.
Smart Signings keeps a database going back several years and across multiple comps, so we can chuck Murphy’s numbers into the mix, and boy, do they look good: he profiles in the top 10% for tries, mid to upper tier for yardage and tackle breaks and at the very top under the high ball.
One always has to apply the Super League tax to this – especially for outside backs – but it’s worth remembering that Murphy’s numbers were accrued in the worst team in the comp, with little support.
As options go, the Roosters have plenty. They can go high floor, low ceiling for a guy like Murphy, and hope his Super League form carries across, with a year of NSW Cup to test drive before they need him in the top grade.
They can go low ceiling, high floor and grab a solid option straight off the shelf like Simonsson, who they know would do a job at a price, albeit perhaps not reach the very heights that any of their three current wingers can. In a salary capped sport, having the best winger doesn’ get you much – just ask the Bulldogs.
Nawaqanitawase would be the wildcard, and an expensive one. He’s not a true union-to-league punt because he is well acquainted with the game from his youth, but the expectation and pay packet would be such that he’d have to go in and hit the ground running.
Much as the Roosters would love to stick it up Rugby Australia, that doesn’t seem like their go. Slow and steady, with plenty of thought is the more likely option.