Cronulla officials were convinced Valentine Holmes would end up at North Queensland before his bombshell decision to quit the club at the end of the 2018 season and pursue an NFL career.
Holmes stunned the Sharks when he requested a release from the final season of his contract to follow in the footsteps of Jarryd Hayne but few were surprised about his return to join the Cowboys on a six-year deal from 2020.
It’s why the terms of the 24-year-old’s agreement included a clause preventing Holmes from joining any other club if his attempted code switch was unsuccessful and he wanted to come back to the NRL last season.
Holmes had turned down a five-year deal that would have made him the highest paid player in Cronulla’s history and Sharks captain Paul Gallen even called for him to be banned from playing in the NRL until at least 2021 after his shock departure from the club.
Former Australian gridiron coach Paul Manera, who is the Oceania director of football for the 2020 Hula Bowl in Hawaii, believes any NRL player trying to make it into the NFL needs to commit for at least two years to give themselves a realistic chance.
However, it was widely believed that Holmes had the option of returning with North Queensland if his code switch didn’t work out and he never made any secret of his interest in joining the Cowboys while still at the Sharks.
Some have compared the move to Sonny Bill Williams walking out on Canterbury during the 2008 season to join French rugby union club Toulon.
The Bulldogs demanded Williams pay a $750,000 release fee and agree not to play in the NRL for five years but Holmes did not suffer the same backlash as Cronulla immediately agreed to release him after he told them of his NFL ambition.
There was little risk for Holmes but the Sharks lost the services of a potential superstar for 12 months, while Scott Drinkwater must again be wondering about his future after joining the Cowboys from Melbourne mid-way through last season for the chance to play fullback.
Holmes grew up in Townsville and his wife Natalia's sister Brianna is married to Cowboys captain Michael Morgan.
After playing in Australia’s loss to New Zealand in Auckland last year, Holmes was allowed to break camp to fly to Townsville for Morgan’s wedding and returned to prepare for the historic Test against Tonga.
Cronulla officials had been waiting for Holmes to return from his international commitments and a holiday in the United States and Cuba to discuss his future beyond 2019 but privately were believed to be all but resigned to him joining the Cowboys.
While on vacation, Holmes had spent time at Nike World Headquarters in Oregon, where he underwent strength and speed testing with a view to entering the NFL’s international player pathway program. He also met NFL representatives about his prospects in the code.
After Holmes’s recent refusal to rule out a return to the NRL sparked speculation of a $1 million per year offer from the Cowboys, Gallen described Cronulla as the losers in his NFL sojourn.
“This is what frustrated me in the first place and I was quite critical of the way it all happened, the way he left Cronulla,” the recently retired Gallen told Nine’s Sports Sunday program.
“He left us in the lurch a little bit and got to go over and chase his dream, which is fine. But then he gets guaranteed to come back in the NRL on a million-dollar salary. That’s what frustrated me. There’s no compensation for Cronulla there.”
Holmes v Hayne
Holmes' decision to sign a $5.8m, six-year deal with the Cowboys leaves Hayne as the only NRL player to have suited up in an NFL match after the former Parramatta superstar made eight appearances for San Francisco 49ers in 2015.
Like Holmes, Hayne lasted just one season in the NFL. He joined Gold Coast a year later.
Manera, who played offensive tackle for the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, said Holmes had made the right decision to return to the NRL.
“The average career of an NFL player is not long and the reason for that is that there is a lot of talent coming out of college every year all trying to get into the NFL,” Manera said.
“I have always felt that any NRL player trying to make it into the NFL should give it at least two serious years but in the case of someone like Valentine Holmes that means giving up a lot of income that he would make from rugby league.”
As a member of the New York Jets practice squad, Holmes earned US$136,000 per season and was barred from travelling to away games with members of the 53-man playing roster.
His four pre-season appearances produced eight catches for 85 yards, with a 27-yard reception in the final match against Philadelphia, and a 21-yard kick-off return.
But his opportunities were limited and he was involved in just 39 offensive plays and five special team snaps in the practice games.
Former South Sydney prop Jordan Mailata is in his second season with the Philadelphia Eagles but has not yet made his NFL debut.
The knock-on effect
With Ben Barba sacked before playing a game for North Queensland, the Cowboys recruited Drinkwater from Melbourne after he dropped to the third-choice fullback at the Storm behind Jahrome Hughes and Ryan Papenhuyzen following a pectoral injury.
Drinkwater joined the Cowboys just before the June 30 transfer deadline but now needs to find another position or another club as Holmes will wear the No.1 jersey.
While he has played most of his NRL and representative career on the wing, Holmes always had a preference for fullback and in his final season with the Sharks he scored 18 tries in 22 matches, playing mostly in the No.1 role.
He has won a premiership with Cronulla in 2016 and was an established member of the Queensland and Australian teams.
With Holmes, Morgan and Jason Taumalolo taking up about 33 per cent of North Queensland’s salary cap, the club is unable to also accommodate Latrell Mitchell, despite suggestions he was so impressed by Townsville he would be prepared to play centre for the Cowboys.
Mitchell is expected to seek a release from Sydney Roosters and join Wests Tigers as a fullback in a move that would quell any interest the joint venture club had in Dragons young gun Zac Lomax, who also prefers fullback.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.