ROUND one of the new NRL season was rife with epic story-lines – big money recruits James Tedesco and Ben Hunt looking to justify their price-tags against their former clubs, Cooper Cronk pursuing a solo career after leaving the game’s most famous three-man band, Keiran Foran looking to reboot the Bulldogs.
For Kickoff, none of them matched Mitchell Pearce’s much-hyped Knights debut. You can talk Cronk, Tedesco, Hunt, Foran, but no player comes into 2018 with a bigger point to prove than Pearce.
Nailing the match-winning field goal in his first outing in Knights garb – something he long failed to do with the Roosters – was a good start. Truth is, Pearce’s shift to the Hunter was the perfect signing for club and player.
It’s also an illustration of how tricky the NRL recruitment puzzle is to solve. In reality it’s like a game of chess. Not all pieces on the board are a created equal but given the right position, make the right move, and a pawn can fell a king.
A self-indulgent metaphor perhaps but, simply put, when it comes to recruitment and retention, it’s never a simple matter of measuring a player’s ability against another’s. Throw in players managers, who can calculate seven per cent of any figure in the blink of an eye, and it gets even murkier.
They’ll still be wedged firmly in the peloton in the race for a top eight berth, but the Knights have put themselves in a decent spot on the board.
Pearce was always going to leave the second the Roosters signed Cronk. After 238 games as a first-choice No. 7, any half worth their salt would’ve moved on. That’s not to say the Roosters got it wrong in signing Cronk – they simply had different needs.
The question should not be ‘what a player is worth?’ but ‘what is a player worth to that club?’
The Roosters had one of – if not the – best sides on paper last season. It was enough to bring them 17 regular season wins, but they were largely unconvincing, their flaws exposed at finals time.
They’ve won three straight minor premierships and finished top two in four of the last five seasons and converted just one into the ultimate prize. They’ve long been at the front of the pack, what they needed was the man to get them over the finish line.
After that many chances, it appeared unlikely Pearce was the man to do it. The Roosters’ are banking on Cronk to be that man and – first-up loss aside – he has the resume to indicate that he can.
The Knights needs were entirely different. What they needed was an experienced head, committed, long-term, to bringing them from the back of the field into the main pack.
The recruitment of veteran trio Aiden Guerra, Jacob Lillyman and Chris Heighington was in the same vein. They had little to offer elsewhere, but offered huge value to a young Knights side.
Dragons recruitment chief Ian Millward went about it the same way in recruiting Ben Hunt. When the deal was announced, there was a chorus of knockers howling that he wasn’t worth the $6 million.
A lot of the criticism relied on comparisons to the likes of Cronk, Jonathan Thurston et cetera. Directly compared to those halves was Hunt worth the coin? Perhaps not, but was he worth that much to the Dragons?
We’ll see I suppose but, throw in the fact Gareth Widdop is also signed for four years, the early indications are good. Tell most fans they could have the current Dragons halves for at least the next four years and the majority would take it.
The hefty price tag didn’t just buy Hunt, it bought stability. It may well have cost the Dragons Josh Dugan, who played against his former club on Thursday. As an incumbent Test and Origin player, he thought he was worth more what he was offered by the Dragons.
He wasn’t necessarily wrong, he simply wasn’t worth that to the Dragons. Recruitment is always a gamble. Hindsight lets plenty of people holler woulda’, shoulda’, coulda.
As it is in chess, you can’t win a premiership without a king...but success in the NRL relies on how well you use your pawns.