The recruitment decisions that turned the NRL on its head

The recruitment decisions that turned the NRL on its head

It has taken the Warriors just five weeks to win back the hearts and minds of New Zealand fans but the planning and preparation for their best start to an NRL season began more than 12 months ago.

The same goes for St George Illawarra, Wests Tigers and Newcastle, who are all flying high at or near the top of the Telstra Premiership ladder after failing to make the NRL finals in recent seasons.

The success of the unbeaten Warriors and Dragons, coupled with that of the Tigers, Sydney Roosters, Gold Coast and Knights, highlights how a strategically targeted recruitment plan can dramatically change the fortunes of an NRL club.

Besides third-placed Penrith, those six clubs are the only ones with more wins than losses so far this season and they were the most prominent movers in the biggest off-season transfer market since the Super League war.

In comparison, clubs who performed strongly last season and didn't recruit heavily, or whose strategy appeared ad hoc, are struggling, with Melbourne, North Queensland, Brisbane, Parramatta and Cronulla in the bottom half of the premiership table.

The Storm (ninth) chose to replace Cooper Cronk from within, the Broncos (12th) took the same approach after losing Ben Hunt and the Cowboys (14th) merely added prop Jordan McLean, who is out for three months with a foot injury.

The Melbourne Storm.
The Melbourne Storm. ©Shane Wenzlick/NRL Photos

The Eels, who are last and yet to win a game this season, signed Jarryd Hayne but it wasn't obvious where he would fit into a backline which helped the club to a fourth-place finish in 2017.

The Sharks (11th) recruited two top-line fullbacks in Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan when they already had Valentine Holmes, and then seized on the opportunity to sign former NSW Origin playmaker Trent Hodkinson from Newcastle. While Moylan was intended to replace James Maloney at five-eighth, he, Dugan and Holmes have already each played a game at fullback.

Canterbury (15th) also have two players the club initially signed as fullbacks, in Brett Morris and Will Hopoate, playing other positions after new coach Dean Pay decided to switch halfback Moses Mbye there this season.

Possibly the two most influential rostering decisions on the early season results were the Bulldogs recruitment of Kieran Foran and Aaron Woods at the expense of Josh Reynolds and James Graham.

This didn't just cost the Bulldogs two players considered the heart and soul of the club but it enabled the Dragons to pick up a forward leader in Graham and the Warriors to replace Foran with Manly's Blake Green.

The Dragons had already identified the need to recruit a top-class halfback and targeted Hunt, who they signed before the start of the 2017 season from Brisbane on a reported $6 million, five-year deal.

Many questioned Hunt's value but comparisons between how the Broncos are performing without him and how the Dragons are playing with him suggests he was worth the investment.

After failing to make the NRL finals since 2011, the Warriors began their 2018 recruitment after the appointment of Stephen Kearney as coach at the end of the 2016 season and Tohu Harris agreed to terms more than a year ago.

Warriors second-rower Tohu Harris.
Warriors second-rower Tohu Harris. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

The Warriors focused on building a squad with greater depth and experience, and Kearney has added seven new faces, including forwards Agnatius Paasi and Leivaha Pulu, who have proved revelations since moving from the Titans.

Kiwis prop Adam Blair and centre Peta Hiku have also played key roles in the revival of the Warriors - who last Saturday posted the biggest attendance at Mt Smart Stadium since 1995 - along with Green, who is being touted as the buy of the year and a contender for the NSW No.6 jersey. 

The Knights also had a strategy of bolstering the wooden spooners of the past three seasons with proven match-winners and recruited heavily from the Cowboys, Broncos, Storm and Roosters.

The key signing was NSW Origin halfback Mitchell Pearce, who left the Roosters after the Bondi-based club decided they were a better chance of winning the premiership with Cronk playing alongside Blues fullback James Tedesco.

Losing Tedesco, Woods and Eels halfback Mitchell Moses appeared to be a blow for the Wests Tigers but it gave coach Ivan Cleary an opportunity to focus strongly on recruitment for 2018 from the time of his appointment early last season.

With Russell Packer, Ben Mautulino, Benji Marshall, Tuimoala Lolohea, Pita Godinet, Corey Thompson, Mahe Fonua and Chris McQueen joining Josh Reynolds, who is yet to play, the Tigers have lost just one game.

Gold Coast coach Garth Brennan was only given the job last October but he has worked quickly to improve the club's roster, with Bryce Cartwright, Leilani Latu and Mitch Rein following him from the Panthers.

However, Brennan has also started preparing for 2019 with star Penrith utility Tyrone Peachey already having already agreed to join the Titans at the end of the season, while the Roosters have lured backrower Angus Crichton from South Sydney and the Knights have recruited Sharks centre Jesse Ramien for next year.

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the ARLC, NRL, NRL clubs or State associations.