Star halves justify their hefty salaries
"When you are on one-point whatever [million] … I'm joking, but it comes with the territory when you are a half because you are probably the most important player in the team."
St George Illawarra Dragons prop James Graham claimed not to "understand the halfback position that well", but he summed up the reason NRL playmakers now command long-term contracts and big money as well as anyone during the opening weekend of the Telstra Premiership.
With record offseason movement of players and 14 of the 16 NRL teams fielding a different halves pairing than they did in last season's first round, the spotlight was always going to be on the performances of the playmakers – and most of them delivered in impressive style.
Ben Hunt turned the game for the Dragons, Mitchell Pearce was the match-winner for Newcastle Knights, Johnathan Thurston and Ash Taylor produced the decisive plays in wins by North Queensland Cowboys and Gold Coast Titans, Blake Green starred for New Zealand Warriors and Nathan Cleary steered Penrith Panthers to victory.
Even in a losing team, Cooper Cronk came up with a late 40-20 kick that presented the Sydney Roosters with a chance to deliver a knock-out blow but a handling error let Wests Tigers off the hook and Corey Thompson scored at the other end.
"Junior did what he got brought here to do, put the polish on the end of the game," Knights coach Nathan Brown said after Pearce’s extra-time field goal in the 19-18 defeat of Manly Warringah Sea Eagles on Friday night.
But it is not just the winning plays that make the playmakers worth the $1 million-plus contracts that many of them now earn, it is the impact they have on the players around them – and particularly those in other key positions.
With Green taking on the decision make role for the Warriors, Shaun Johnson was free to do what he does best and the star halfback had a hand in four of his team’s tries in their 32-20 defeat of South Sydney Rabbitohs, while hooker Issac Luke had arguably his best game for the club.
The difference in the Knights with Pearce at the helm was obvious. The wooden spooners of the past three seasons would have almost certainly lost to the Sea Eagles during that period.
However, Pearce steadied his side and directed team-mates where to run to give him the opportunity to kick the 88th-minute field goal, while hooker Slade Griffin and rookie fullback Kalyn Ponga were revelations in their first games alongside the premiership-winning halfback.
For the Dragons, Hunt not only came up with an intercept try to give his side ascendency in their 34-12 defeat of Brisbane Broncos but his organisational skills and kicking enabled Gareth Widdop to play more of a running game.
"Gareth has got bottomless talent and he likes to play instinctive footy, whereas if you were the No.7 you have got to execute the game plan," Dragons coach Paul McGregor said.
Hunt had been identified as the playmaker who could convert the narrow losses of last season into narrow wins for the Dragons, but he has the potential to blow those games wide open through the opportunities he will create for the likes of Tyson Frizell, Jason Nightingale and the other players around him.
Remarkably, Broncos coach Wayne Bennett said last week that the club couldn't afford to match the Dragons reported $6 million, five-year offer to Hunt but they could be regretting that decision after just one game.
With playmakers having such an impact on the success of their teams, long-term deals have become the standard and Hunt, Taylor, Michael Morgan (Cowboys) and Daly Cherry-Evans (Sea Eagles) are all signed until the end of the 2022 season, while Pearce is committed to the Knights until 2021.
After such a frenzy of off-season trading, which also saw Cronulla Sharks five-eighth Matt Moylan and Panthers' James Maloney swap clubs, Kieran Foran leave the Warriors for the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs and Josh Reynolds move from Belmore to the Tigers, clubs seeking a new playmaker in 2019 have few options.
Among the leading playmakers off contract at the end of this season are the Canberra Raiders duo of Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin, Titans five-eighth Kane Elgey and Sharks veteran Trent Hodkinson, who moved from Newcastle after the arrival of Pearce.
Most clubs are likely to wait until the following season, when Cleary, Johnson, Tigers halfback Luke Brooks and the Parramatta Eels pairing of Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman come on to the market.