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Fifita is first class, but second row - that's why his u-turn might have saved the Roosters' salary cap

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Editor
16th May, 2024
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Park for a minute that most rugby league fans think that the Roosters losing out on a player is hilarious.

Park again that most rugby league fans think that the Roosters having to worry about their salary cap is funnier still.

Then consider that Easts have had their biggest signings reversal in years, the most spectacular volte-face since Daly Cherry-Evans spun on the Titans in 2015, and yet might well emerge stronger from it.

It’s rare that this columnist and Phil Gould agree, but on this one, we’re on the same page: the Roosters have dodged a bullet here.

“I don’t think he was going to suit them and I found it a strange signing for them – I’ll stand by that,” said Gould on his Six Tackles with Gus podcast.

“I’m not saying I don’t think David Fifita is a good player. He is a powerful ball-runner, he’s obviously an impact player and he can certainly win games for you.

“I couldn’t see him, from what I’ve seen of his career, fitting into their work ethic … I don’t understand it. I just haven’t seen it in his career to date.

“He doesn’t value it – he likes to play when they’ve got the ball, but he’s not so keen on it when they haven’t got the ball,” Gould said.

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“He’s not what I would call a work ethic player, he is a powerful ball-runner. It’s like under 7s stuff – even on the weekend watching him defensively, he would have a lot of work to do to fit into the Roosters club that prides itself on fitness, work ethic and defence.

“He didn’t strike me as a Roosters player.”

The work ethic part is pure nonsense, so let’s get that out of the way first.

David Fifita is an exceptional player with talent that most don’t have, so to reduce him to a work ethic is patently silly.

While every player has to work hard, you’d rather have guys of Fifita’s skill level every day of the week, especially if you have pretensions of winning Premierships.

The Roosters already have one of the hardest-working backrowers in the comp in Nat Butcher, the NRL’s top tackler in 2023.

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Sitili Tupouniua, who ranked third last year among second rowers for Involvement Rate, the advanced stat that measures how hard forwards work. Butcher was fifth, Siua Wong sixth and Angus Crichton ninth.

QUEANBEYAN, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 27: Trent Robinson looks on during the NSW Cup Trial Match between the North Sydney Bears and the Canberra Raiders at Seiffert Oval on February 27, 2021 in Queanbeyan, Australia. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Trent Robinson. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Trent Robinson knows exactly what he wants in a player, and when you have four of the top ten in their position in a metric directly related to work rate, clearly that is a factor.

But it could just as well be that the coach knows he has that part of the game boxed off very well and thus needs something he doesn’t have.

Fifita was 40th out of 51 for Involvement Rate, so it clearly isn’t his strongest suit, but he was ahead of Viliame Kikau, Haumole Olakau’atu, Hudson Young and Jeremiah Nanai all of whom Robbo would likely take in a heartbeat if he could because of all the other stuff they can do.

There’s a high chance that Robinson wanted a guy like Fifita specifically because he already has someone like Nat Butcher and saw the pair as balance.

You want metres per run, tackle breaks, post-contact metres and offloads? Get Dave.

On Creativity Value, the advanced stat for all net positive outcomes in attack, Fifita is the best back rower in the NRL. Work rate? Who cares?

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But on the dodged bullet remarks, however, Gus was spot on.

Fifita is on a million dollars a year at the Titans and, depending on which figures you believe, he might have got $8-900,000 at the Chooks.

That sounds like a lot, but it’s between 7% and 8% of the whole cap for the club, ho have to go find a new half to replace Luke Keary, a centre to replace Joey Manu, two wingers to replace Joseph Suaalii and Daniel Tupou and a front-rower for Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.

On a cap level, Fifita would have been almost a straight swap for Joey Manu, already the highest paid centre in the comp and a former Golden Boot winner, and you’d have to ask whether it made sense to take such a high percentage of the cap and use it on an edge player when so many other more important positions are there to be filled

Fifita’s Creativity Value was exceptional for a back rower, but it was only good enough for 91st of all NRL players.

Given they already have a home-grown Manu replacement in Billy Smith and three backrowers contracted to next year in Tupouniua, Butcher and Wong, the logical way to spend the cash is probably to upgrade Angus Crichton and chuck big bucks at a five eighth, winger or front-row.

Sandon Smith is the current plan to play 6 next year and Easts will look to make Spencer Leniu or Terrell May the new JWH. Mark Nawaqanitawase might be a wing option, but it’s a huge risk.

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Spencer Leniu confronts future teammate Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

But they could as well go to market and deepen their stocks: Reuben Cotter, Leo Thompson and Mitch Barnett are all on the 2025 list and likely to be rep players through the middle, while Isaiah Papali’I, Kai Pearce-Paul and Briton Nikora are all excellent options in the back row who wouldn’t cost close to Fifita.

The savings could go into bringing Manu back after his rugby union sojourn as James Tedesco’s successor, busting a gut to get Jack Welsby out of St Helens or making a move at Selwyn Cobbo, Ronaldo Mulitalo or Josh Addo-Carr as proven rep-level wingers.

The hierarchy of player contracts is ever-changing, but the general logic is that centres are the least important, followed by hookers, then backrowers.

Halves, fullbacks and front-rowers are the obvious options to take the big dollars but wingers are increasingly rising up the ranks given the changes within the game to factor in set starts and finishing.

8% of the cap on an edge forward when you are losing players in the positions that the Roosters are makes next to no sense, even for one of the best in the competition.

If you’re a club like the Titans, you can take that imbalance to land one of the marquee names of the competition, as much for the magic moments and star power as anything.

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If you’re wanting to win the NRL, as the Roosters, you can get that elsewhere in your key position players and thus feel more able to box clever with the less important roles in the team.

The Fifita backslide feels rough now, because they thought they had it in the bag. But over the long term, the Roosters can make it work out – especially if they spend sensibly elsewhere.

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