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.
If you come at the king, as the great Omar Little said, you best not miss.
Brisbane learned that the hard way in 2023, pushing the Panthers to their maximum and getting punished by the brilliance of Nathan Cleary.
For Kevin Walters, the path to going one better in 2024 already has obstacles in it. Herbie Farnworth, arguably the game’s best centre and a fulcrum of the Broncos’ style, has left for the Dolphins, where he will be joined by Thomas Flegler, a crucial cog in their middle rotation.
Keenan Palasia is out too, and while he might not jump off the page to the same extent as the other two, he has played almost every game for two seasons straight and provided vital flexibility to their rotation.
The joy of being the Broncos coach is that you always have a junior nursery pushing the next great player your way, but the flipside to that is that you aren’t judged at the same level as a regular club.
At this point, it’s Premierships or nothing and the issue for Kevvie and co could be that they’ve just missed their best shot, because there’s a strong argument that they made the Grand Final ahead of schedule.
Reece Walsh, for example, is an outstanding footballer but few would have picked him to explode quite as spectacularly as he did in year one back at the Broncos. Ditto Ezra Mam, who was named Dally M Five Eighth of the Year at the age of just 20.
The question now is whether last year was the sweet spot, with all those blokes on deck, or if the best is yet to come.
The thing about being elite in rugby league is that the system takes you 95% of the way and the best players do the rest.
For the Bronx, that should be good news: while Herbie, Flegler and Palasia will be missed, the core of the team is still there, with Walsh, Mam and Adam Reynolds still in the spine and Payne Haas and Patrick Carrigan in the middle.
There’s still questions, too, however.
Reynolds will turn 34 midway through next year and is, obviously, closer to the end than the start. He’s achieved so much in his time with the club already, but a replacement is needed sooner rather than later.
Billy Walters had a breakout year in the 9 jumper, but there was a reason that expectations were low and he was able to confound them. Is he just good now, or was 2023 the exception?
Looking at some sides – Penrith, Souths and the Roosters would be top of mind – it’s possible to name 75% of the best 17 now, but with Brisbane, that’s a little murkier.
We know that Deine Mariner is Farnworth’s replacement in the centre, but he is just six NRL games into his career. Until proven otherwise, that’s a downgrade.
The likelihood is that Pat Carrigan moves into the front row to replace Flegler, with Kobe Hetherington into the run-on side at lock. Fletcher Baker has arrived from the Roosters, but he’s more of an up and down middle and not currently the same class at Flegler.
Hetherington has had several shots at that role in the NRL over the years without ever making it his own, and last year, Palasia actually started more games in that position.
On the bench, both Brendan Piakura and Xavier Willison have long threatened to be the next big thing, but neither have completely convinced.
Speaking of next big things, we have heard this about Blake Mozer, the young hooker, for a long time but he only appeared once in 2023.
Then you get to the November 1 list.
Currently seven of the 17 that played the Grand Final are unsigned beyond this year – Mam, Walters, Reynolds, Piakura, Tyson Smoothy, Kurt Capewell and Jordan Riki – and that doesn’t include the three that have already left or the host of depth options who may depart.
For comparison, the Panthers have six of their 17 either gone or available to leave, and it’s the same for their Prelim opponents, the Warriors.
That’s a fair bit of roster uncertainty right there that Kevvie has to deal with.
The great irony as far as Smart Signings is concerned is that the main question facing the Broncos is the same that delivered them their biggest boost: whither Reynolds?
This column has long held that Souths were right to let him go and that the Broncos were right to sign him. Now, though, Reynolds is three years older and the question is yet more acute.
The problem for Walters is twofold: Reynolds is both an excellent player and the undoubted leader of the group.
His tangible skills in playmarking, organisation and kicking are semi-replaceable, but his intangible ones aren’t, at least unless another leader like him emerges. They’re thin on the ground in the NRL at the moment.
Then you get the salary cap issue. Given the November 1 list, the smart thing to do would be immediately to extend Mam, Riki and Piakura as the cornerstones of a young side, with Walters extended as either the long term hooker or a bridge until Mozer is ready for week-to-week NRL.
They could squeeze out Capewell – well below his best in 2023 – and Reynolds as well as older bodies like Martin Taupau to free up some cash, and then look around for a 2024 halfback.
One option screams out. Wigan halfback Harry Smith is an interesting cognate for Reynolds for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the Broncos scored a disproportionately high number of tries from kicks, a category in which Smith lead the Super League in 2023 with 11. He was also top, by a country miles, for finding the floor from his long-kicking, a category in which Reynolds topped the NRL.
On a system level, Smith is the ideal man because he already knows how to play with the Broncos.
Their attack is designed by Lee Briers, who was previously attack coach at Wigan, and Smith has made an art form of working with Jai Field and Bevan French, who play the roles that Mam and Walsh occupy at the Broncos.
Where Smith cannot compete at all is on experience, though it’s hard to think of many who can where Reynolds is involved.
The Broncos might want to fill the leadership vacuum somewhere else – Carrigan surely will be the new captain – and instead opt for a guy who, for his age at least, has achieved plenty.
Smith is 23 and has already made his Test debut for England, won a Grand Final and produced the game-winning play in the Challenge Cup Final. He’s up to 102 games of first grade already and more than ready for the switch to Australia.
Brisbane might baulk at signing a guy straight from Super League to win them a comp, however – but if they want another year of Reynolds instead, then their options really open up.
There’s a huge power play they could run to bring Sam Walker – on next year’s November 1 list – back to Queensland, especially as that might come with a Maroons jersey given Daly Cherry-Evans and Ben Hunt cannot continue forever.
Jamal Fogarty, perhaps the most Reynolds-like kicker in the NRL at the moment, is also an option with a club option in his contract for 2026, though it might be that the Beaudesert-born star fancies returning north. He’d be 32 by then, and in prime position to take over a serious leadership role.
In the more pressing future, any decision on Capewell would open the door for movement in the backrow. That could be Piakura to a starting role, but a serious signing would be Jaydn Su’A, one of their own juniors, who left in 2019.
He’s just turned 26 and would be coming into his prime, and with a serious point to prove. In many ways, he’s Capewell 2.0. With Riki on one edge and Su’A on the other, plus Carrigan and Haas in the middle, it’s a serious proposition in the pack.