Every season without fail, a new rookie half makes his NRL debut.
The most highly rated players who have dominated junior systems and lower grades, and yet many inexplicably fail to meet the lofty expectations placed on them, in a pattern not regularly seen within any other rugby league position.
So why do NRL rookie halves 'fail' so often?
To start, let's contrast four current NRL halves.
Fast forward to 2023, and Luai has played more than 100 games, won two premierships and a State of Origin series, and proved himself as one of the game's top halves. Flanagan is now at his third club, has moved to reserve grade multiple times, and has featured infrequently in 2023 at NRL level, often as a bench hooker.
Dearden was thrust into the Broncos side at 18 and failed to make an impact at halfback alongside Brodie Croft or Anthony Milford, winning four of 22 games in his first three seasons, drifting in and out of first grade, and eventually moving to North Queensland mid-season.
Once getting his chance alongside Townsend, however, Dearden flourished and became a star player, and soon, a State of Origin representative.
Toby Sexton was given the reins of a rudderless Titans outfit soon after debuting, and with no consistent halves partner, won 6 of 23 games in his first two seasons.
With the Titans preferring Tanah Boyd in 2023, he completed a mid-season move to the Bulldogs, having had similarly limited success since.
Is there a common cause?
Arguably, at the point of their debuts, or even ten games into their careers, there was no material difference between Sexton and Dearden. But why is Dearden so much closer to reaching his potential than Sexton? Or why is Flanagan struggling to find interest while Luai is in hot demand on the market?
Undoubtedly, as fans, there's a lot we don't see behind the scenes. We don't know which players work the hardest at training, struggle with small injuries, personal matters, and who doesn't have the natural ability to make that next step.
Regardless of the reason, a large portion of young halves debuting in the NRL just don't deliver on their potential, no matter their team, or players surrounding them.
The easy argument is to claim Dearden and Luai just play in better teams. However, this sentiment doesn't quite track. Kyle Flanagan came to the Roosters in 2020 who had won two consecutive premierships in 2018 and 2019, and was dropped and sent to the Bulldogs within a season.
Penrith had missed the finals in 2019, and the Cowboys finished second last in 2021 when Tom Dearden signed on.
Their strong development and performances coinciding with an uptick in the performances of the Panthers and Cowboys should instead be (at least partially) credited to the presence of an elite halves partner, or developmental figure.
The Twofold Veteran Effect
1. The freedom to focus only on strengths, while developing other facets of an all-round game in training
Tom Dearden does not need to kick regularly, focus on game management or be first-receiver three plays per set. His job is to create attacking opportunities, using his evasiveness, natural speed and short passing game, while teammates Chad Townsend and Scott Drinkwater take care of the rest.
In the first four seasons of Nathan Cleary's career, he recorded 36 try assists, at a rate of about 2.19 games per try assist. Kyle Flanagan recorded try assists at a rate of 1.75 games per try assist in his first two full seasons.
In that time, however, Kyle Flanagan was the main general play kicking option, charged with leading the team, goalkicking, and had numerous responsibilities.
This creates not only the pressure to perform in the most difficult facets of a half's game, but limits the half's ability to work on developing new facets, with Flanagan still not having developed a running game years later.
By contrast, Cleary continued to work on his long kicking and passing games at training, while James Maloney handled much of the responsibility in game.
That way, he was able to perform strongly in-game solely showcasing his strengths. In 2019, he kicked goals at just under 88%, finished second in the league for dropouts forced (19) and tackled at 89%.
The following season, Cleary was able to increase his try assist count from 9 to 17 and increase his average kick metres from 218 to 495, leading the league. He also led the league in forced dropouts (27), and finished the season with the most points scored (231).
2. The experience of learning from those who have done it before, and do it well
The opportunity to have one-on-one mentoring with and day-to-day exposure to these elite players expedites the development of players' skills, particularly those which often take years to develop, like a strong kicking game.
Looking at some of the top halves in the NRL currently, Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai developed exponentially under the tutelage of James Maloney from 2018-19, and Jahrome Hughes and Cameron Munster had years of exposure to Cooper Cronk.
Cody Walker recorded 10 more try assists than any other season to date in 2021, the only season Benji Marshall played at the Rabbitohs. Adam Reynolds and Chad Townsend have played key roles in supporting the developments of Ezra Mam and Dearden, who have enjoyed far more success than their predecessors Brodie Croft and Jake Clifford.
The evidence is overwhelming - the experience and skills of players who have won premierships, played hundreds of NRL games and represented their countries has a distinct effect on the development of the young halves at the club.
So what are the solutions?
Obviously, the golden goose, so to speak, is 'the Adam Reynolds', an experienced, premiership-winning half on the open market that can come to the club to mentor its halves.
However, these players come around all too rarely, so if none are available, clubs should consider
Option 1: Pick and Stick
If the club can't secure one such player, they pick and stick. If a player is constantly worried about keeping his spot, performance will undoubtedly fall, and continue to fall, taking risks and retreating away from strengths to try and create the miracle play.
There's nothing more detrimental to a half's confidence than being hooked or dropped. Debuting as a one-game injury substitute or playing as an Origin replacement is fine, but publicly stating your support for a player's future at the club, and then dropping them four games later isn't.
If clubs have enough faith in a player to hand them the 6 or 7 jerseys in the first place, they should have enough faith to back them in for an extended period of time.
Lachlan Ilias is an excellent example. It is incredibly rare to find a young halfback able to perform consistently at an elite level at 23.
However, there have been clear glimpses of the player Ilias will become across the past two seasons, including match-winning performances against the Sharks and Sea Eagles in 2023.
The Rabbitohs faith in Ilias, understanding that a second-year halfback can't be the best player on field every single week, has done Ilias the world of good, and will undoubtedly pay off for the Rabbitohs in future years.
By contrast, Kyle Flanagan's highly-publicised demoting to reserve grade (and eventual exit) at the Roosters has changed the course of his career forever, and the Roosters have struggled to find a successful partner for Luke Keary since.
Option 2: Super League
There is some evidence to suggest the Super League is a good landing spot for these players.
Playing away from the constant media discourse that comes with the NRL and getting first grade games under their belts in a competition with less tough standards for success makes sense.
Halves, particularly halfbacks, are rarely the finished product until their late 20's, and giving these players the time to develop at the 'top level' while escaping some of the ruthlessness of the NRL makes logical sense.
It is likely we will see most if not all of the aforementioned four as much improved players in the NRL in coming years just as Hastings and many others have already done. However, there are other issues for players from Oceania moving halfway across the world away from family and support networks, especially at a young age.
Option 3: A Loan System?
In the European football system, clubs send their youngest and brightest stars away to other clubs, often in lower divisions, to develop their game, learn under new coaching staff and from new teammates, and play extra minutes.
Unlike in COVID-affected years where a series of (mostly mid-season) loans took place so that injury and COVID-hit teams could field a full 17, the new system would involve a full-season loan, with the club owning the player paying part or all of that player's salary under their cap.
The benefit here is clear for both teams - the Rabbitohs receive a highly rated youngster for a year, paying less than that player is worth, and the Broncos receive a more polished, NRL-ready, Mozer by the end of the season.
Clubs with less junior stocks, particularly with holes in a certain position, are able to supplement their depth and relieve a little salary cap pressure.
Massive development clubs, on the other hand, would be able to give more of their juniors quality minutes in reserve grade (and even potentially first grade), and can better gauge which juniors are the most valuable going forward.
Perhaps most importantly, for the NRL administration, the competition becomes closer (with struggling clubs ideal targets for loan players) and talent becomes more spread, without disincentivising investment in junior production like a draft system would.