On June 10, the South Sydney Rabbitohs ended months of speculation; they announced they had signed future Wally Lewis Medalist and Newcastle Knights superstar, Dane Gagai.
Gagai will head south to New South Wales, the scene of his crime of theft of a State of Origin series in Game 2 this year; either way, I think South Sydney locals will be pretty quick to forgive him.
Originally thought to be three years, Gagai landed a four-year deal with the Rabbitohs, expected to be in excess of $2.1 million, around $600,000 a year.
It was money Newcastle could not compete with, but how hard they competed in the first place is another matter altogether.
The Knights have been struggling for a number of seasons now, suffering through a tumultuous last season with Wayne Bennett, a disastrous half-year with Rick Stone, and a season and a half of uninspiring Nathan Brown-ball.
However, having finally unearthed a few year future talents within their system, the mood in Hunter is not nearly as funeral-like as it once was.
After luring Aidan Guerra, Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Kalyn Ponga to the club next year, and reports of James Graham and Matt Scott also being on their radar, the cherry on the sundae was meant to be the re-signing of Gagai.
Newcastle had also previously whiffed on a number of high-profile signings, including the likes of Jack Bird, Dale Finucane and Kieran Foran, but that they would consider the Knights as a destination spoke to their improvement.
Ultimately, the boys from the port city were blown out of the water by Souths’ offer, and left to rue a deal that could’ve been done last year.
“We’d love Gagai to stay, and I know Gags would like to stay, but I also know the market’s very, very hot at the moment,” Newcastle Head Coach Nathan Brown said, during the eye of the Gagai signing storm.
“Different clubs in today’s game have different abilities to find extra money. Some clubs work off a certain salary cap, and other work off another cap due to third party agreements which is the way the game is today.”
It would appear Brown was attempting to lean on the crutch of third party agreements as a reason for Gagai leaving the club – an easy card to play, but, according to hearsay, a card played not in any sort of truth.
Right around last year, when Gagai reportedly rejected the Knights’ offer, word had come out about the frustration of the young utility back in the way the club was dealing with recruitment and retention.
Given the seasons of pain and frustration he has had to suffer through in the Hunter, Gagai was reportedly frustrated the club persisted in lowballing him with contract offers whilst overpaying for big names outside the club.
Who can blame him? Playing for the Knights has not exactly been all that fun the past few seasons. Gagai was pictured crying after a 0-62 demolition job at the hands of the Cronulla Sharks last season.
Gagai had arguably been the club’s one shining Knight through their arduous rebuild, and now he was being told they didn’t have his money – or, that they did have it previously, but it was now in the pockets of his rivals at other clubs.
Of course, loyalty in the NRL is a very unstable element – radioactive, if you will – but to fail to stump up the $600,000 asking price for a player such as Gagai, instead lining it the pockets of teen star Kalyn Ponga, is disgraceful.
Gagai quickly shoved it straight up the you-know-what of his soon to be former employers, cementing his place in the Queensland Maroons last year, and winning the player of the series award in 2017.
Ponga? Well, the jury is thus far still out on his short 8-game rugby league career. Newcastle may well have just wound up with the most expensive highlights video of all time.
Pity that 848,000-hit clip was of his exploits in another game – playing GPS rugby union for Anglian Church Grammar School.
“I feel sorry for the kid,” Australian Kangaroos Head Coach Mal Meninga said of Ponga.
“He is such a prodigious talent…but having so much pressure at a club that is rebuilding, I hope he doesn’t find it too difficult and the club can protect him,”
“I just hope the Knights provide a support network for him. He is on a steep learning curve and will be thrown to the wolves.”
Given Newcastle’s treatment of a club custodian such as Gagai, I wouldn’t hold my breath, but more on Ponga later.
Gagai was not just the lone star at McDonald Jones Stadium the past handful of years – he was also a beloved ambassador for the region, especially within the Indigenous community.
As Rabbits Head Coach Michael Maguire pointed out, from next season, he will fit in brilliantly with the ‘Souths Cares’ imitative in the south Sydney area. The Knights will have to work hard to find another humanitarian like him.
Maligned Newcastle CEO Matt Gidley admitted as much in his statement addressing Gagai’s departure, saying, “Dane has been a wonderful player and ambassador for our club over the six years he has been with us,”
“We know Dane will give 100% for the team before he departs us at the end of the year,” Gidley continued. He’s right. 100% was all he ever gave for the club, and when he came back asking for his money, was told it wasn’t there.
“We are obviously disappointed that Dane has decided to leave the club, but we respect the decision he has made with his family.”
Somehow, I don’t think Gidley was the only one disappointed in how the situation played out.
The Ponga contract is one that not only I have had issues with from the get-go, but it’s certainly one worth a “please explain”.
Fox Sports’ Ben Glover raised a flag to it earlier in the season, noting, “the price tag of upward of $600,000 a season for a rookie who was proven amongst boys but not yet amongst men, was a risk in the eyes of some,”
“Not the safest way to invest for a club that needs every big money signing over the next few years to pay dividends sooner rather than later.”
Glover is right – Gidley has certainly swung for the fence with this deal, when just getting on base was probably the right option for his rebuilding club.
Especially true, given “getting on base” would’ve simply entailed the re-signing of Gagai to what he was worth, rather than a teenage prodigy still driving a p-plated car to training with the North Queensland Cowboys.
However, an inability to run a club in 2017 is what Matthew Gidley has been known best for in recent years.
Apparently, the World Cup-winning test centre can barely read a map too. The Newcastle boss recently declared his club will do “anything and everything” to lure Cooper Cronk north if he decides to play on in 2018.
Could someone kindly inform Mr Gidley that Cronk’s destination of Sydney next year is not Newcastle; the two are separated by about 150 kilometres and two hours of driving.
How soon-to-be-34-year-old Cronk fits into the Knights’ rebuilding plans is also a perplexing question.
However, perhaps the most quotable of Gidley quotes regarding the basket-case rebuild his club has embarked on came back in May, when the 40-year-old was quizzed on how desperate he was to keep his club’s best player.
A wiser-than-thou Gidley presumably smiled with content, as he told the Newcastle Herald’s James Gardiner that he wouldn’t fall into the trap of “offering crazy amounts of money” to entice players to commit to the club.
That’s right, Mr Gidley wasn’t about to fall for that old chestnut.
“We have made it clear how much we would like Gags to stay. We could go and give him Nobbys Beach, but that would prevent us bringing other players in to build the team,” Gidley said.
It appears the club has, in fact, loaned the beach out, to Ponga, and that will now make it extremely difficult to re-sign some of the talents they’ve unearthed this year, such as Jaelen Feeney, Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Luke Yates.
“We can’t go offering crazy amounts of money. If they get injured or don’t perform, we never move forward as a club.”
Presumably much like you are now, as I’d finished reading Gidley’s quote, I sat up in my chair and contemplated whether I had, in fact, got rugby league wrong all these years.
After all, this was coming straight from the hole in the face of the boss of one of the League’s 16 clubs. I thought for a while, but I was certain I hadn’t.
No, it’s one thing to let his club’s favourite son depart without having even entertained the money he was worth for the coming seasons. That’s a matter of Gidley’s integrity.
How he concluded, though, that it was not crazy to offer a $3 million contract to an 18-year-old player who’d played 2 career games for North Queensland, a full 15 months before the start of his 2018 season with the club, is staggering.
As I mentioned earlier, loyalty is borderline radioactive in professional sports these days. Clubs have to do what’s best for clubs, and players for players.
The result Newcastle managed with Dane Gagai this year was best for no one. A boy who loved his club was forced out through shameful player and financial mismanagement, and both the club and player is worse off.
They almost lost another club favourite in Nathan Ross, who only stayed through the taking of a massive pay cut to be at an organisation who would’ve had little to no misgivings seeing him walk.
In the end, the lack personal care, the fiscal irresponsibility, all of it will come around. This will all come to roost for the Knights, and it all started when they tried to swindle an honest young man out of what he was worth.