As NRL teams look to improve their rosters ahead of the 2017 campaign, we kick off NRL.com's off-season coverage with a roundtable discussion about which recruits had the biggest impact on the 2016 season, which ones failed to fire, and why.
Dominic Brock (Production Editor): With the season now behind us it's time to look back at why some teams succeeded where others failed in 2016. One big factor every year in the NRL is recruiting. So, to get things started, who was the individual recruit of the year?
Tony Webeck (Chief Queensland Correspondent): Really tough question to come up with a definitive answer but a premiership 50 years in the making makes James Maloney the prime candidate.
Chris Kennedy (National Correspondent): I don't think you can go past Maloney.
DB: Yeah Maloney gets the nod for me not just because of how well he played but also because he was the perfect fit for a Sharks team that already had everything except a really effective attacking game. Last year Cronulla had a great pack and some talented finishers out wide, but they couldn't score points and that's exactly what Maloney brought.
CK: His combination with Chad Townsend clicked really quickly as well which helped. As Dom says he was basically the last piece of the puzzle for an already-good Sharks team.
Andy Bryan (Deputy Editor): James Maloney is the obvious answer, taking the Sharks to their first premiership, winning his second grand final and making his third appearance on the grandest stage in five years. But I'd like to put Elliott Whitehead forward as an outsider.
TW: Massive Elliott Whitehead fan. To come in from Super League and play virtually every minute of every game was a key reason why the Raiders finished second after 26 rounds. The Leipana combination may not have been so impactful without Whitehead posing questions of his own on the inside.
CK: There were plenty more good recruits. Ash Taylor was a vital pickup for the Titans and probably second on the list for mine. Clint Gutherson was a masterstroke for Parra with some of the higher profile blue and gold recruits not quite living up to expectations. Whitehead and Sezer were both wonderful additions for Canberra also.
DB: Any other notable mentions? Will someone like Jarryd Hayne, who didn't make a huge on-field impact for the Titans this season, prove to be a worthy buy in the long run?
AB: I think Chad Townsend's return to the Sharks also got overlooked under the weight of Maloney.
CK: Trent Merrin was another recruiting masterstroke. He was one of the best forwards in the comp. I questioned whether Penrith really needed to be splashing big cash on a rep player given their junior nursery but he's really rounded out their pack brilliantly.
TW: And Elijah Taylor's introduction to the Tigers gave them an extra dimension in attack – along with a bloke who makes 60 tackles a game – almost immediately. I thought he was a big part of why Moses had such a good finish to the season.
CK: Elijah was surely the best of the mid-season buys, even ahead of Peats to Titans, Paulo to Raiders, etc.
TW: And if we're talking about an entire club getting their recruitment right, Neil Henry brought in Taylor, Roberts, McQueen and Taia and added Peats, Hurrell and Hayne to turn apparent wooden spooners into semi-finalists.
AB: All good points, but that's probably the next question. As an individual, I think Maloney was the standout, and there was a close race for second.
DB: Let's turn things that way now then – which was the best recruiting team of the season? Does anyone challenge the Titans? How about Canberra?
TW: They're the two standouts for mine, although the Raiders' roster has been in production for a couple of years now.
CK: Hard to argue against Titans as the best. Tony also left out Vaha Pulu who was excellent.
I'd have the Sharks right up there. Maloney and Townsend both paid huge dividends but they got important contributions at different times from Kurt Capewell, Joe Paulo and Jesse Sene-Lefao. They had no dud buys, or certainly no dud expensive buys.
AB: Was just about to say the Sharks for those reasons.
It is a little contentious. Where and how do you rank the Eels?
TW: The Eels – funnily enough – might be the other team worth a mention. I thought Beau Scott was past his best but he played some of his best football, Michael Jennings was a threat out wide, Gutherson proved to be a handy addition and Michael Gordon had a positive influence in his solitary season.
CK: I thought the Eels actually recruited really well in 2016. We all know what happened with Foran who was supposed to be the saviour but plenty of what went wrong there would have been a surprise even to Brad Arthur. Otherwise Gutherson was excellent, Beau Scott played some of his best football, Jennings was very good and Gordon added solidity to the backline.
DB: OK so we've covered the good news. What went wrong with other teams' recruiting drives this year? There was a lot of hype around the Warriors and a ton of changes at the Sea Eagles at the start of the season, but neither side made the finals.
TW: I was never enamoured with what the Sea Eagles had done in the off-season. Always looked like a step towards the next batch of newbies to me. Injuries hurt but they needed a top-shelf half to partner DCE.
DB: Yeah bringing in a specialist centre in Dylan Walker to cover for the loss of Kieran Foran never really worked for Manly.
CK: I'm just not quite sure what Manly's plan was. It's easy with hindsight but given Walker's previous struggles as fullback and five-eighth at Souths, to expect him to be the answer at six always seemed a long shot.
AB: There is no doubt that the Dylan Walker five-eighth experiment failed for Manly. They also had problems with key recruits carrying injuries and Martin Taupau flirting with suspension throughout the season.
CK: Taupau gave them great impact but probably not consistent enough. The returning Lussick was one of their best over the closing two months of the year. Lewis Brown was good and plugged a few gaps, Matt Parcell was pretty good until he hurt his hammy and Api Koroisau had some good games too. So it wasn't a complete disaster. But their failure to bring in a quality playmaker to partner DCE and picking up Nate Myles as he potentially hits the downhill part of his career may turn out to be a mistake. They also recruited Tim Moltzen (presumably cheaply) despite his horror injury history which eventually prevented him playing a game and then retiring.
AB: Recruiting isn't an exact science, so much goes into it. But when you sign as many players as Manly did, you have to expect it to take longer for the cohesion to appear. Especially in defence under pressure.
TW: I think this time in 12 months we might be talking about Blake Green as one of the really good buys for 2017. This is very much DCE's team now but he needs a foil and a calm head alongside him.
AB: Agreed – Blake Green looks a shrewd investment.
TW: I'm prepared to give a pass mark to the Warriors, even if the board weren't so kind to McFadden. Issac Luke was sluggish to start, Johnson was coming back from a serious injury and obviously Roger had very little influence. Their premiership window is about to open but will close again once Mannering and Hoffman retire.
DB: I think the Warriors were always a little overhyped. While the Sharks brought in a couple of halves that directly addressed the team's weakness (attack), the Warriors brought in a couple of superstars in Issac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck who, while excellent players, weren't really what they needed. Both Luke and RTS are great in attack, but the Warriors already had a good attacking side but struggled in defence and ball control. Even before RTS was ruled out for the season he and Luke were never really going to fix those problems.
CK: Agreed, the Warriors didn't really go out and buy the steadying influence they seemed to need, rather adding more spark to an already exciting but inconsistent roster. Obviously the early injury to RTS was a huge and unfortunate blow – maybe if that didn't happen we'd be discussing them in a different light.
TW: South Sydney's decision to clear the decks for Sam Burgess may have been a case of short-term pain for long-term gain. He didn't get a pre-season and they had to offload Walker and McQueen to get him in under the cap. If he carries them back into the top four next year it may prove to be the right move but it certainly seemed to have a somewhat destabilising influence from afar.
The Roosters didn't get what they were after from Joe Burgess.
The Rabbitohs picked up a handy flyer mid-season in Joe Burgess.
Which probably sums up Joe Burgess.
Trent Hodkinson at the Knights was almost a complete disaster also. They recruited an incumbent Origin half but his knees are obviously preventing him from getting anywhere near his best.
DB: I'm not sure Hodkinson was in the top 10 problems at Newcastle this year, but fair point.
CK: The Roosters' 2016 recruitment does seem a little skewed. Obviously it would have been impossible to find like-for-like replacements for Maloney and RTS but they brought in some young halves like J Nikorima and Matterson and some outside backs in Burgess and Copley but left themselves short on playmaking experience – particularly once Pearce rubbed himself out of the first two months of the season.
AB: We often look at recruitment in the microcosm of one season. But as Tony says, most of the time, a team isn't looking for immediate results. Maybe South Sydney are hoping Burgess can attract more players to the club longer term. The salary cap is such a unique and ever moving beast that clubs need to be thinking a few years ahead – well the good ones at least. Take Luke Lewis at the Sharks who just picked up the Clive Churchill Medal as the prime example. A lot of people thought his career was done. He certainly answered that in spades.
CK: Yes, and Ricky Stuart has been recrafting the Canberra roster for a couple of years and is only starting to see results now. It's definitely a multi-stage process
DB: Good point, and a nice one to finish up on. Thanks for your time guys.