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Million Dollar Maybe: Big money deals which have made no cents

The Roar The Roar 4/07/2016

Kieran Foran of the Eels. © Ashley Feder/Getty Images Kieran Foran of the Eels. The recent signing of James Tamou to the Penrith Panthers on a deal worth around $800k a season was shocking.

That’s a massive amount of cash to splash on a front row forward who is only on the field for around 60 minutes each match. And for a bloke who looks like Tarzan but hits like Jane, paying him more money than the likes of Shaun Johnson, James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce is farcical. There is simply no way that Tamou can sufficiently influence the outcome of a game to justify paying him like a halfback.

However with the NRL flooded by broadcast dollars and the salary cap on the rise, teams have money to spend, and they have to give it to somebody. Clubs like Newcastle are choosing to invest in developing their own junior talent, others like the Raiders are spreading the wealth among a host of mid-tier players, while teams like Parramatta and Manly are hunting the elusive white whales. It’s the latter group that concerns me the most.

With Tamou’s recent windfall in mind, let’s take a look at how three of the biggest signings have fared in 2016, and whether their teams have got value for money.

Kieran Foran

Foran looked better on paper than Times New Roman. Here was a young, good looking, prodigiously talented leader who made headlines on the field and avoided them off it. The contract negotiations with Parramatta consisted of the Eels yelling at Foran to shut up and take their money. And take it he did, signing a four-year, $4.6 million dollar mega deal which made him one of the highest earners in the sport.

For that kind of scratch, the Eels were expecting a massive uplift in the quality of their on-field product and most importantly, improved results. So have Parramatta got value for money? The short answer is no.

Focusing purely on Foran’s on-field performance, his debut season for the Eels has been an injury-riddled mess.

At best, he could be described as a poor man’s Tim Smith. In a little under nine games, Foran accounted for a total of 5 try assists, 2 line breaks and a single try. In other words, an off-night for Johnathan Thurston.

While Foran did provide a little gumption to a Parramatta defence which has historically had the backbone of an earthworm, he certainly didn’t deliver the kind of impact the Eels were hoping for, particularly at $133k per game.

There’s no doubt that the magnitude and frequency of Foran’s off-field distractions have hampered his performance on the paddock. The Eels have stood by their marquee signing throughout the turmoil, but even the peanuts in the Parramatta boardroom have their limits. By stripping Foran of the captaincy, the club has flagged their expectations going forward.

Because rugby league ability aside, a major reason the Eels invested so heavily in Foran was his marketability. Parramatta is desperate to compete for corporate dollars with TPA magnets like the Roosters and Broncos.

Having a cleanskin poster boy like Foran as the face of the franchise was seen as a major step towards evening up the playing field. But in light of recent events, no company in their right mind would bet their brand on a player carrying more baggage than a hotel porter.

As reports continue to emerge around Foran’s predilection for the punt, misuse of prescription medication and links to underworld characters, questions must be raised as to whether the Eels did their due diligence before signing the Kiwi superstar. If nothing else, Foran will serve as a warning for other clubs to make sure they have all the facts before handing out blank cheques.

Daly Cherry-Evans of the Sea Eagles. © AAP Image/Dean Lewins Daly Cherry-Evans of the Sea Eagles. Daly Cherry-Evans

In 2015 the Sea Eagles faced a very difficult decision, with Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans each coming off contract at the same time. There was little chance of retaining both superstars, but Manly would have been confident about securing at least one of their signatures.

So when Foran agreed to join the Eels and DCE punched his ticket to Cavill Avenue, a level of panic spread through the Corso usually reserved for last call at the Steyne.

Facing the real prospect of losing their scrum base pairing, the Sea Eagles went all Don Corleone on DCE, making him an offer he could not refuse.

Media reports suggest that Manly are shelling out around $1.2 million per season to keep the precocious Queenslander in Maroon and White, which constitutes a whopping 20% of their salary cap in 2016.

And while putting all your Steedens in one basket may seem counter-intuitive in a team sport, the Melbourne Storm have shown this formula can work, and work brilliantly. For years Craig Bellamy has sunk most of his available funds (and then some) into the Big Three, filling the rest of the roster with the rugby league equivalent of seasonal fruit pickers. So if it works for the Storm, surely it can work in Manly?

Sadly, no. The reason Bellamy Ball is so successful in Melbourne is that Cronk, Smith and Slater are consistently brilliant. And Billy’s recent shoulder issues aside, these key players have remained remarkably healthy, maximising return on investment.

The same cannot be said for DCE in 2016. In 745 miserable minutes of rugby league, Cherry-Evans has been less successful in leading a team than Tara Brown. Throughout his injury-plagued campaign, DCE has failed to gel with new halves partner Dylan Walker, stifling his attack and often forcing him to over-play his hand. His kicking game has regressed markedly, and it feels like he is struggling to inject himself into the contest.

Regardless of his form this year, Cherry-Evans has all the skills to dominate at NRL level. He has represented his state and country, and led the Sea Eagles to a grand final victory in 2013, capturing a Clive Churchill medal in the process. But as Manly’s 2016 season has shown, the Sea Eagles do not function unless he is at his best all the time. Is this realistic? I have my doubts. Oh well, I’m sure the next decade of his contract will go by in a flash.

Sam Burgess of the Rabbitohs © Mark Kolbe/Getty Images Sam Burgess of the Rabbitohs Sam Burgess

The value of Sam Burgess to South Sydney was clear. With the Pommy sledgehammer in the side, the 2014 Rabbitohs were the form team in the competition and won the Telstra Premiership.

Burgess inspired his side with an heroic piece of medically negligent Sattlerism, breaking his face in the opening exchanges but choosing to play on and snare the Clive Churchill medal. But when Burgess left Australian shores for his sojourn to English rugby, the Bunnies fell apart with the speed of a Corey Norman alibi.

So the equation seemed pretty simple to South Sydney. Just bring Sam back, and start winning again. Well not quite. To accommodate Burgess’ bloated salary demands, South Sydney started shedding skin like a boa constrictor.

Glenn Stewart was handed his Air France boarding pass and bid adieu, Issac Luke headed across the Tasman to join the Warriors, while Dylan Walker and Chris McQueen decided to move closer to the beach. As good as Sam Burgess is, no single player can balance out the loss of so much talent.

As the Rabbitohs’ season continues to free fall, naturally questions are being asked as to whether bringing back Burgess at the expense of the departed was a wise move. It’s a fair question to ask, but unfair to ask of Burgess. To Sam’s credit, the big fella has been in excellent form this season.

If anything, it has been the performances of those around him which have not been up to scratch. But therein lies the problem, and the danger of investing so much in the pockets of so few. If South Sydney cannot put together a competitive roster and they continue to lose games despite receiving quality play from Burgess, what was the point of bringing him back?


The moral of the story? Buyer beware. There exists a select group of players worthy of the magic millions. Blokes like Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston are genuine match winners, and execute at such a consistently high level that they’re worthy of the cash.

But identifying them is the problem.

These guys don’t exactly grow on trees. Unearthing a snippet of unbiased Fatty Vautin Origin commentary is often easier. Unless you have the luxury of Craig Bellamy and are surrounded by more immortals than Zeus during Christmas dinner, recent history serves as a cautionary tale against the million dollar man. 

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