Suaali’i, Tedesco or Manu? Roosters spoilt for choice but solving long-term fullback riddle will ruffle feathers
When you try to please everybody, you often please nobody. The Roosters have three of the best fullbacks in rugby league and look like they will have to shed at least one of them by the end of next year.
James Tedesco, Joey Manu and Joseph Suaalii are off contract at the end of 2024 after the latter opted into the final year of his contract.
They are all at their best when playing fullback but as the old phrase doesn’t go, three into the No.1 jersey won’t go.
The Roosters can’t go wrong whichever way they go because all three are world-class players who will ensure the club has a top-class fullback for the foreseeable future.
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Their escape valve is the five-eighth’s position, where Manu has also excelled in limited opportunities. Veteran triple premiership-winning pivot Luke Keary is also a free agent at the end of next year and at 31 with declining impact the past couple of seasons as concussion and a torn ACL have taken their toll, he is unlikely to be re-signed for 2025.
But that’s still not his best position. He won the Golden Boot for his stellar performances at the World Cup last year while playing fullback for the Kiwis.
Even if they can satisfy Manu by making him Sam Walker’s halves partner, that still leaves an impossible choice.
Do they put all their eggs in the basket of Tedesco, the current NSW and Australian captain who is no spring chicken at 30 but still has several seasons left in him as an elite performer.
Or do they invest in Suaalii, who is still just 19 but has generated the most hype about his potential as a difference maker in the outside backs since Greg Inglis, Jarryd Hayne and Israel Folau burst onto the scene 15-plus years ago.
And of course there’s the added complication of Rugby Australia at the ready with chequebooks out. Are they still a thing? At the ready with plenty of dollars in their account to make an electronic funds transfer. Doesn’t have quite the same foreboding ring to it.
The Suaali’i situation is similar to the one which played out last year at Newcastle when the club was keen to lock him into a long-term extension to eradicate the white noise about the All Blacks.
Roosters execs are unlikely to agree to another deal with two years of player options like the four-season carrot they dangled to get him away from the Rabbitohs.
Suaali’i gave conspiracy theorists plenty of ammunition when he failed to pass to Tedesco to go it alone when his skipper had the line wide open against the Warriors.
Tedesco was asked about the contract imbroglio at the Roosters’ media session on Monday and, as you would expect, he said he “100%” thought he and his protege could co-exist long term in the same side.
“I haven’t really read much into it, to be honest. It’s two years away,” he said. “Of course I want to finish my career here but there is no rush.
“I don’t think anyone wants to leave the club. Especially myself, I want to stay for as long as I can. Having guys like Joseph Suaali’i and Joseph Manu outside me, not in our spine, is pretty dangerous for our team.
“And if we can get us all together, playing for many years to come, I think it is really beneficial for the club.”
His agent has hit up the Tricolours about an extension but there has been little progress in the months since.
“If we wait another year, it’s going to be the same conversations then,” he said, before adding the media was more focused on the issue than he was.
No shortage of suitors
There would also be an avalanche of NRL clubs salivating over the prospect of signing either fullback for 2025 and beyond.
Wests Tigers will be looking to make a splash in what is scheduled to be Benji Marshall’s first year as head coach – he kicked the winning field goal on the day Tedesco made his ill-fated debut 11 years ago, suffering an ACL tear in the win over Cronulla.
The lure of reuniting with former Roosters assistant coach Craig Fitzgibbbon at the Sharks could also be a lure for Tedesco and Suaalii.
St George Illawarra are without a long-term option at fullback due to the stunted development of Tyrell Sloan and Cody Ramsey’s season-ending intestinal problem and should have plenty of salary cap space as a bunch of overpriced veterans are moved on.
Even Tedesco’s status as the incumbent captain of the Kangaroos doesn’t guarantee he will survive the chop at the Roosters.
Wally Lewis had been the Queensland and Australia skipper for several seasons but at the end of 1990, the Broncos deemed he was surplus to requirements because they thought Kevin Walters would be a better halves option alongside his Ipswich pal Allan Langer.
That was a major news story for months on end in the Sunshine State but Wayne Bennett’s controversial move proved a winner with the Broncos winning five premierships over the next nine years with Langer and Walters at the forefront.
Souths a couple of years ago prioritised Lachlan Ilias as their halfback of the future and allowed their captain, a club legend and long-serving local junior, Adam Reynolds to join Brisbane.
Ilias has grown into the role and the Rabbitohs are one of the favourites to win this year’s premiership despite having a relatively inexperienced playmaker running the show.
Choosing the young gun over the veteran doesn’t always work out. Canberra said farewell to Ricky Stuart at the end of 1998 when the three-time premiership-winning playmaker was in the twilight of his career.
The Raiders had the “Super Macs” coming through the ranks – Mark McLinden and Andrew McFadden – who they thought would be their long-term halves pairing to take the baton from Stuart and Laurie Daley.
Although both players had solid NRL careers, neither lived up to the hype of their rookie seasons.
For the Roosters, it probably hinders rather than helps in making their decision that Suaali’i looks to be a blue-chip prospect who will pay handsome dividends as he enters the prime of his career.
But ensuring he delivers while wearing the Tricolours will cost plenty.
Tedesco has often been compared to Billy Slater as the two best fullbacks of the past decade.
Slater played until he was 35 and, after coming back from two major shoulder operations, was still the benchmark for fullbacks in his final couple of seasons while winning a premiership, representing Queensland and Australia.
CBA delay throws another spanner into the works
For all their success in the inexact science of salary cap management, Manu, Tedesco and Suaalii will each command more than $1 million per season on the open market for 2025, particularly when you factor in the annual rises which are slated to kick in, with each club’s player payments projected to be around $13m by then.
The final figure will not be known until the interminable CBA negotiations are finally resolved but all clubs will have plenty of cash to splash with the salaries of marquee free agents set to skyrocket even higher.
Another unknown confronting the Roosters is when their marquee trio will be able to negotiate with rival clubs. The previous CBA contained a November 1 deadline which led to the ludicrous situation of players signing with their next club more than 15 months before they could appear on an NRL field with that team.
The NRL wants to bring back the June 30 mid-year anti-tampering deadline and add designated transfer windows to the calendar but has received significant pushback from the RLPA.
Whichever way the Roosters ultimately go, there could be awkward scenes next year when they play out the season with one player knowing the club has put their long-term faith in their teammate instead.
The least likely option out of the many scenarios in play is that the Roosters will be able to convince Suaalii to stay long term by spending 2025 and maybe another year at centre before Tedesco makes way.
It’s an embarrassment of riches for the Roosters and word to the wise, if any of their supporters expect to receive any sympathy from rival fans, they will be very disappointed.