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.

Jarome Luai, Tom Dearden, Kyle Flanagan and Toby Sexton

Luai and Flanagan. Born a year apart, both debuting for their junior clubs in 2018, recording eight starts across 2018 and 2019 before entering into a full-time starting halves role in 2020.

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 and Sexton. 22-year-old Queenslanders with big expectations placed on them early, blitzing through the lower grades.

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.

NRL Rd 9 - Roosters v Titans
MACKAY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 07: Toby Sexton of the Titans runs with the ball during the round nine NRL match between the Sydney Roosters and the Gold Coast Titans at BB Print Stadium, on May 07, 2022, in Mackay, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

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.

NRL Rd 11 - Cowboys v Dragons
TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 13: Tom Dearden of the Cowboys runs the ball during the round 11 NRL match between North Queensland Cowboys and St George Illawarra Dragons at Qld Country Bank Stadium on May 13, 2023 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

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.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 30: James Maloney of the Panthers piduring the round 15 NRL match between the New Zealand Warriors and the Penrith Panthers at Mt Smart Stadium on June 30, 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

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.

NRL Rd 11 - Rabbitohs v Wests Tigers
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 13: Lachlan Ilias of the Rabbitohs passes the ball during the round 11 NRL match between South Sydney Rabbitohs and Wests Tigers at Accor Stadium on May 13, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

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.

Likewise, there is often opportunity to play alongside experienced former NRL players in the swansongs of their careers (such as Maloney, Corey Norman or Mitchell Pearce).

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 24: Mitchell Pearce of the Knights looks on after another Tigers try during the round 23 NRL match between the Wests Tigers and the Newcastle Knights at Campbelltown Stadium on August 24, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

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.

Brodie Croft and Jackson Hastings have both won the Man of Steel award (the Super League's Player of the Year) in recent seasons after leaving the NRL as reserve-graders.

In fact, 4 of the 2023 top 5 for try assists in the Super League are former NRL 'reject' players - Bevan French, Brodie Croft, Lachlan Lam and Jake Clifford.

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.

While the NRL's tiered grade system is vastly different to European football's, perhaps there should be some extra thought put into a loan system in the NRL.

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.

In this situation, a highly rated junior, for example, Broncos rake Blake Mozer, would spend a season, largely in reserve grade, learning under Damien Cook, for example.

Brisbane Broncos Training Session
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 05: Blake Mozer passes the ball during a Brisbane Broncos NRL training session at Gilbert Park on January 05, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. The problems that I see with a formal loans system are:

    1 Clubs are not interested in borrowing a promising youngster to play for their feeder club. The don’t see any kudos in winning the NSW Cup or the Q Cup, so they may as well pay/play one of their own juniors. Clubs will borrow a player only if they (literally) have no-one capable of playing in their NRL first-team in a specialist position, or if they can borrow a kid who is better than anyone else in the club. (For example, Harry Grant going to Wests a couple of seasons ago.)

    2 If the youngster gets a load of first-team experience there is no guarantee that he will want to stay with the club to which he is contracted. He may have improved, but if he is still #2 behind the incumbent hooker/half etc then he will want to move on. In Harry Grant’s case, he went back to Melbourne to share game-time at hooker with the Cheese, but if he had been told he would be playing for the Falcons (or whatever is the Storm’s feeder), then he would have probably looked to stay at Wests, or find another club, playing first grade. Remember – in the NRL – contracts aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

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