It’s a bit harsh on James Tedesco to describe his 2024 as career-defining.
His time in the NRL is littered with so many achievements that, if he retired tomorrow, he’d be remembered as an all-time great.
But the next year might critically alter the way that Teddy is remembered, because he’d be the first to admit that 2023 was not his best, and great players want to be great all the time.
The Roosters in general had an off-year, albeit one salvaged somewhat by their best footy coming at the end, and crucially for their captain, it was the first in which it seemed like he did not fit to what they were trying to do.
That this came at a time when so many other fullback were performing so well is a little unfortunate, but it when Tedesco’s status as a walk-up starter in rep football was questioned, it was not without reason. Sport is harsh and there’s always someone who’ll take your job.
There were caveats to why Tedesco wasn’t at his best in 2023.
His workload, combined with another year in the legs, caught up with him after two years of non-stop footy, usually as captain, for club, state and country. His performances notably improved after Trent Robinson gave him a week off midyear.
The cattle around him weren’t as good either. This was a function of workload, too – the Roosters had an above average amount at the World Cup – but also chopping and changing within the spine that reduced cohesion, which in turn limited opportunities for the fullback to create.
Tedesco’s role in the team is as third wheel to the two halves (compare and contrast Latrell Mitchell or Scott Drinkwater) who excels in broken play and, of course, defence and set starts.
Parts two and three never really went anywhere, but the first aspect depends on other players creating chaos that he can exploit. That didn’t happen as much. Again, when they got their 1-7 more settled towards the back end, suddenly Teddy was back in the game too.
The big question going into 2024 will be if the Roosters can elevate themselves from the bottom of the eight to the top four.
Even when they’re rubbish – and at times last year, they were really rubbish – they can’t really miss out on the post-season due to the limitless well of talent.
In 2021, when literally everyone got injured, they still made it, and last year, when they couldn’t score a point until after Origin, they still made it.
But, whisper it quietly, that’s four years in a row where they haven’t made a Preliminary Finals and three in which they haven’t finished top four.
For the Chooks, that’s not good enough. In the seven years prior, they had three Premierships and three Prelims.
Tedesco will know that. As captain of Australia, NSW and Easts, he’s the guy sitting in press conferences with a doleful look on his face when they lose, and he’s been doing far more of that than he used to.
The interesting aspect of the 2024 Roosters will be the extent to which generational change has set in.
Of the 17 from the 2019 Grand Final, only half remain and, realistically, this might be the last year for four of them with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Luke Keary and Daniel Tupou unlikely to be renewed further and Angus Crichton very much on the outer.
In the fallow period since (and finishing outside the top four is fallow for the Roosters), they have been forced to blood a raft of exciting juniors, several of whom are still young but also experienced.
Sam Walker, Joseph Suaalii and Siua Wong are all still 21 or under, and when the three out-of-contract players leave at the end of the year, Tedesco will suddenly be the oldest player in the squad.
His deal goes until 2025, but it is his 2024 that will make all the difference regarding the latter end of his career.
Fullbacks tend not to go too deep into their 30s – Teddy is already the oldest active 1 in the NRL and turns 31 in January – and the Roosters have Joey Manu waiting to take over, should they choose to shift him to the role.
If he is interested in staying at Easts, then he has to show that last year was a blip rather than a decline.
Furthermore, he might have to do so in an environment in which his rep jersey is under serious threat.
New Blues coach Michael Maguire could make the biggest statement of intent possible by handing the armband over to someone new, and he wouldn’t lack for candidates.
Cameron Murray, Nathan Cleary and Isaah Yeo are all guaranteed to play in any set-up and share captaincy duties at club level.
If Madge were to do that, then the mortgage that Tedesco has had on the number 1 jumper for the past seven years could end too, especially if Latrell starts the season well, Tom Trbojevic is at full fitness or Dylan Edwards continues his form. All three might play anyway in other positions, such is the strength of the talent pool.
If he’s not playing Origin, or if Reece Walsh, Kalyn Ponga or anyone else outperforms him, then that long stint as Kangaroos captain might well end too. Everything is in play now.
Tedesco has always responded to criticism and bounced back stronger. He has three Dally M Fullback of the Year awards, each three years apart, which shows his longevity in the role and ability to adapt what he does as the game has changed.
He might simply choose to retire from rep footy. If Trent Robinson is thinking of a new contract, he might make that a condition anyway, given the huge workload on his star man. Certainly, Tedesco has nothing left to prove in that arena.
He might, too, decide that he has one more big deal in him before retirement. Plenty of clubs would offer Tedesco a deal to perform an Adam Reynolds-like role in their squad, even as the oldest fullback going around.
He might just decide to ride off into the sunset and avoid the late career issues that he has seen his great mates Boyd Cordner and Jake Friend go through first hand, particularly as his next concussion in the NRL will be his tenth. That adds up.
Whatever happens, it’ll be 2024 that decides it.
A late career renaissance, coupled with a Premiership and an Origin win, would elevate Tedesco from his current status as an all-time great to a genuine legend, the equal of a Slater and Lockyer among fullbacks in the 21st century.
If 2024 is like 2023, however, the chances are that the Chooks will move on and Tedesco will be forced to make alternative arrangements. What that looks like will be down to the man himself.