The Maloney Effect: Dissecting One of the NRL’s Most Influential Players
History suggests that whenever James Maloney switches teams, the fates of the two clubs involved in the transaction are altered in a consistent way: his new club rising into the contention pool, whilst his former team heads in the opposite direction. When his latest move to the Penrith Panthers was announced, consensus opinion was that the trend would continue.
After taking a couple weeks to get his bearings, Maloney has been lights out, seemingly working his magic yet again and pushing another squad into the premiership picture. Since star halfback Nathan Cleary went down, Maloney has stepped up to a level many thought may have only been achievable in years passed, playing some of the best football of his career and leading the Panthers to the third best record in the competition despite a slew of injuries to key players.
The fourth chapter of this saga appears to be following the usual narrative, which begs the question: Is the James Maloney effect real? Does he influence teams so much that he’s earned his vaunted reputation, or is he simply the benefactor of great timing?
This theory comes with an extensive list of evidence. Here’s the breakdown on how teams have fared after Maloney’s arrival:
- The Warriors jumped from a 14th place finish in 2009 to 5th the following season, Maloney’s first with the club, and qualified for the grand final the next year.
- After a 13th place finish in 2012, the Roosters won the NRL premiership in 2013, with Maloney making his Origin debut and being named Dally M five-eighth of the year. The year-to-year improvement the Roosters produced was the biggest leap in ladder position for any title winning team in history. They went on to win the minor premiership in each of the three seasons he was there.
- Cronulla broke a 50-year drought and notched their maiden title in Maloney’s first season in 2016.
Pretty impressive, but it doesn’t end there. The legend of his fabled magical presence also extends to the reverse effect on the clubs he’s left:
- The Warriors sunk to 11th place the year after Maloney’s departure, beginning a finals drought that has yet to be broken (seven years and counting).
- The Roosters, after three consecutive years finishing atop the competition, fell to 15th.
- This year’s Cronulla squad is arguably the best roster Maloney has walked away from, and the transaction came with a ready made replacement in Matt Moylan. Still, the Sharks have struggled to adjust in the early stages of the season, battling for consistency and rhythm with the 14th ranked attack and only just pulling their way into the top eight after nine weeks. Maloney’s absence has been especially noticeable in close games, where the Sharks have lacked his veteran leadership and composure.
Compelling evidence of The Maloney Effect in full flight. Through this, Maloney himself has earned the enviable reputation of a ‘winner’ — someone who instantly raises the ceiling of every team he’s on.
Attaining success at multiple clubs is hard enough to achieve, with very few players taking that a step further and becoming an integral part of multiple championship teams. This is what makes Maloney’s career such a fascinating one: he has long-been considered a top-tier player, but only recently has his name been included in the elite class of footballers who will influence the outcome of a given season. His track-record suggests this has been the case for the better part of a decade. How has this come about?
Maloney has continued to hit new levels of productivity throughout his career, an upward trajectory that has not been negated by age. It’s pretty standard to see playmakers hit their peaks later than the average athletic prime. Playmaking skills tend to improve most with experience and time, and because they aren’t solely reliant on physical traits, can develop on a different, usually later timeline. Repetition is the most reliable way to grow key skills like vision and instinct. Big game experience coupled with the exposure to multiple (and successful) offensive systems further aids a player in reaching their full potential.
Maloney, having played three grand finals, nine origins, three tests and a host of finals games, whilst also featuring on some of the premier teams of this decade, more than ticks these boxes. Even with these credentials, most players don’t achieve such sustained levels of success.
His continued improvement to reach career-best form in his 10th season remains a testament to his abilities, and an outlier that further extends the intrigue around his success. How can a 31-year old, 83 kg ball-runner, supposedly entering the twilight years of his career continue to have such an influence over the premiership picture and remain one of the pre-eminent offensive talents in the competition?
Let’s boil it down to three key traits:
1. Proficiency in key sets:
Whilst usually characterised as a ball-running five-eighth, Maloney is more accurately described as the complete second-receiver; the rare no.6 possessing the combination of a dangerous, instinctive running game who can also comfortably pick up the main playmaking duties if necessary.
Due to his running and off-the-cuff supremacy, Maloney’s capability in executing structured play is often overlooked. The role players like Luke Keary and Cameron Munster have excelled in – wrapping around the back of the standard block play and facilitating the backline movement from second-receiver – is Maloney’s bread and butter.
Here are two prime examples:
In the first play, Maloney spots a mismatch with Viliame Kikau isolating the smaller Kieran Foran. He holds the ball up until the defence is flat-footed and fires the pass off the at the perfect time, creating enough space for Kikau to wind up and take advantage, leading to an offload that results in a try.
Next time round, Maloney gets the ball with Penrith in a similar shape, and with the defence pushing up anticipating the potential short-ball, Maloney counts the numbers and fires an expert cut-out pass, bypassing both the front man and the usual receiver to find the overlap on the edge.
On face value, neither of these are clear cut scoring opportunities, rather half-chances that are converted with sharp execution. This is the difference between an elite second-receiver and a league-average player in that spot.
The intricacies of these plays are often overlooked. Successfully executing on these sets – plays defences have seen hundreds of times – is no easy feat. Take too wide of an angle, don’t play straight enough, mess up the timing or make the wrong decision with the ball and defences will have little trouble sliding and making a stop. His deftness in executing structured play forces the defence to respect the outside options and opens up gaps for Maloney to play eyes-up and take on the line. The combination of these skills is why Maloney is arguably the best in the game at running these set pieces.
These are ideal examples of fundamental elements that go into creating an elite attack. The value that serves in putting a team over the top and into contention cannot be understated, and Maloney’s credentials in doing so are longer than any of his contemporaries sharing the position.
Of course, this is all from his regular five-eighth position, which brings us to the next point…
2. Versatile skillset
What is abnormal, and completely unexpected about Maloney’s continued improvement is how he’s developed new skills, ones that once seemed uncharacteristic, that have influenced the structure underpinning the attack he’s leading. Very rarely is there a carryover of the standout skills when a secondary receiver moves into the halfback role. Maloney has played the position a few times in his career, but only out of necessity, and with mixed results.
If we’ve learnt anything from the dire sights of the Bulldogs and Eels attacks over the past two years, it’s that five-eighths can’t simply slide one position over and become competent halfbacks. Maloney’s work as the chief playmaker in this context has been astounding, with his fingerprints all over one of the best attacks in the league.
Maloney hasn’t been tasked with carrying the main load since his Warriors days (when partnering a young Shaun Johnson in the halves), and never at this volume. Averaging 54.4 possessions per game, Maloney ranks behind only Mitchell Peace and Johnathon Thurston – two pure, career-long halfbacks – for touches per game. The difference is, their two teams rank 11th and 13th in attack, whilst Penrith come in at fifth. Further, he ranks third among halfbacks for total try involvements with 1.8 a game, trailing only Ben Hunt and Shaun Johnson, chief playmakers for the only teams above Penrith on the ladder. He’s dominating the ball and conducting the attack, and unexpectedly, it’s creating a dangerous, borderline elite attack, even with the pieces around him changing week-to-week.
Even as recently as the start of this season, the concept of Maloney partnering Tyrone Peachey in the halves would’ve sounded like a risky move, yet the results have been astoundingly positive, most specifically because of how Maloney has modified his game to fill a different role.
The success of a halves pairing — and in turn the potency of the offence — is heavily influenced by their compatibility: How close the summation of the two playmakers’ abilities come to filling all the needs of the team. This is far too often overlooked considering it can make or break an attack. Players in the mould of Maloney — those who can genuinely play both halves positions — are few and far between, and fit seamlessly into any lineup due to their versatility. Being the best of the players on that exclusive list, this is among the leading reasons why Maloney continues to find success at each club, regardless of his role or the style they implement.
This is where the two above points intersect and make Maloney such a valuable addition to any team. Usually, how successful a player will be is dependent on the environment around them and how they mesh with the existing talent. This isn’t the case for Maloney: every team can find use for his skills, both because they are so rare and such an easy fit with the surrounding roster. Because of this, his addition leads to an instant improvement.
Playing winning Rugby League is about being able to constantly present fresh problems for the defending team to solve, with the hope being that they eventually run out of answers. Defences continue to get smarter, so having a deep, versatile tool-bag gives you the best chance to rise to the top.
History reflects this: Each team Maloney has played on since joining the Warriors in 2010 has finished ranked inside the top four in attack. Clubs have a hard enough time finding consistency from week-to-week, and rarely rank among the elite in the same category two years in row. The nature of Maloney’s game means he can fill whatever need his team requires. At a key spine position, this is infinitely valuable. His contributions to winning football unquestionably stem from here.
Combine all these elements, and it becomes clearer why Maloney makes such an impact at each club he moves to. Few players possess the versatility to execute on overtly structured plays and still keep their instinctive tendencies in tact. That makes for a wanted addition to any team — the Warriors, Roosters and Sharks teams that Maloney starred in couldn’t be more different in terms of the systems they employed, yet each club benefited immediately from his presence.
Penrith is currently reaping the same rewards as his previous suitors. Whilst his history of success at new clubs should have had us prepared, Maloney’s stellar form to start 2018 has blown expectations out of the water.
For some perspective, here’s how good he’s has been in 2018: James Maloney is one of the worst defensive players in the NRL. Mitchell Moses, Latrell Mitchell, Bryce Cartwright, Peta Hiku, David Nofoluma and Aquila Uate are his only real competition. He very well might be the worst among all of them, currently with a comfortable lead in missed tackles per game, a title he has held for numerous consecutive seasons.
And it legitimately doesn’t matter; Maloney has still been one of the best five players in the league so far this season. Most impressively, things haven’t even gone according to plan.
Of course, Penrith had envisioned Maloney as the ideal second banana in the Nathan Cleary show. Moving on from the ball dominant presence of Matt Moylan and bringing in Maloney was supposed to facilitate Cleary’s breakout season, which was right on track until he was struck down by a pectoral injury.
Whilst unfortunate, the silver lining of Cleary’s injury was a reordering of the playmaking duties with Maloney being able to assume the alpha role and take full control of the offence, a role he’s never had the freedom to pursue. Prior to the last month, it was thought that Maloney best footy could only come as a secondary ball-handler, who can help with some playmaking but is better at picking his spots and running the footy. Since donning the No. 7 jersey, that has been proven very wrong.
It doesn’t get much better than this:
It may not seem like it from that sharp burst, but watching old Maloney highlights from his Roosters days makes it clear that he’s lost a step or two of pace. The flip-side: the way he applies himself is far more measured, and he’s gotten even better at picking his spots. Defences are respecting his passing game more than ever, and it’s opening up all kinds of new opportunities.
Despite Maloney’s strength being his ad-lib play, his control of the attack has been surprisingly measured. Whilst he’s picked up the coordinating job seamlessly, his running game has been as big of a threat as ever, trailing only Luke Brooks in average runs for a halfback and doing so with far greater efficiency (1st in runs over 8m, 3rd in meters per run). In doing so, he’s spearheaded the attack and legitimised the Panther’s premiership credentials – things he was supposed to achieve beside Cleary – alone.
With the heights Maloney has hit this season, he’s been better than first-choice halfback Cleary was in the No. 7 role (an unpopular, but true fact). That isn’t to say he should replace him. Cleary still has an integral role to play in pushing this team over the top. Big name additions always take time to gel, and whist the early results weren’t an overwhelming success, Maloney asserting himself as the lead orchestrator will only serve to benefit Cleary in the long-run. Their ceiling is undoubtedly at it’s highest with both players in the equation, and the way their strengths complement each other suggests the Panthers’ best footy could very well be ahead of them.
This again highlights the through-line that links together all the teams Maloney has joined. Complementary skills, unmatched versatility and a veteran presence translate into any situation. With his arrival, each side has improved their attacking prowess, making an immediate imprint that pushes them higher in the title picture. Winning follows him wherever he goes.
Case closed, right?
We tend to prefer absolute answers, but honestly, the verdict on the true essence of his winning ways is far more convincing when you look at his individual performance. In that category, he is an undeniable force that brings success anywhere he goes. So in part, yes.
But context is everything; Where the case hits a roadblock is when you look deeper into the state of the teams he both joined and left.
Squads on the cusp of contention often look for players in Maloney’s mould to push them over the edge into contention. This was the case in all three of his last stops, and whilst that takes nothing away from his talents and contributions, it has aided his success. Being the player teams want to add to solidify their talent is in itself an impressive feat, but understanding the situation makes the overwhelming improvement each team made looks a lot less dramatic:
- With a veteran-heavy squad, the Warriors reached the semi- and preliminary finals in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Caught in a transition between generations, the Kiwi club sunk to 14th whilst shifting over the reigns to their younger players.
- The Roosters, suffering through a rebuild after reaching the grand final in 2010, had failed to make the finals in the two years prior to Maloneys arrival. After finally developing a squad that would push them back into the finals picture (bleeding in the likes of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Dylan Napa and Daniel Tupou), they went on all-out recruitment assault, headlined by Michael Jennings, Sam Moa, Luke O’Donnell, Sonny Bill Williams and Maloney himself.
- Cronulla, aside from the ASADA-fuelled struggles of 2014, had enjoyed a steady improvement each year since 2010 and made the finals in both 2013 and 2015. With a ripe, veteran team they were primed for a deep run and in anticipation, chased the signature of Maloney to complete their squad.
At the other end of the scale, good teams have an expiry date. The two main reasons are salary cap restrictions, which make it difficult to maintain an elite roster, and fatigue, with continuous charges into the finals eventually taking a toll. We’ve seen the clubs Maloney has left suffer in both ways:
- The Warriors couldn’t afford to match rival offers for majority of their players after their grand final appearance, having 12 players (and head coach Ivan Cleary) exit the following season, including Maloney signing his deal with the Roosters during the year. They fell to 14th in his last season and haven’t regained footing in the competition since.
- The Roosters were essentially forced to let Maloney walk, hamstrung by the numerous short-term big money deals that allowed them to put together such a talented squad. They were unable to afford his inflated price-tag and attempted to replace his production with up-and-coming junior Jackson Hastings (that worked out!).
- The Sharks managed to keep a decent chunk of their team together, but a few years of deep runs and the burden of representative duties took their toll. Their experience helped them qualify for the finals, but the lack of vitality came to bite them. As a result, they traded Maloney for the youth of Moylan.
With this perspective, it can be seen that the extent of Maloney’s influence over the franchises he leaves behind isn’t as dramatic as it seems, but rather the clubs have suffered the usual symptoms of success. The Melbourne Storm are the only team in recent history to avoid these downfalls, but they’re also the only one anchored by generational talents who stayed on past their triumphs. That should shed some light on just how hard it is to sustain success in the NRL. Ironically, they’re the only team to move on from Maloney and get better.
Correlation doesn’t equal causation: Bringing in Maloney is a safe bet to improve your squad, because he is a bloody good footballer. But context suggests that there is plenty of groundwork that needs to be laid in order to deliver a premiership, and whilst he undoubtedly brings a winning pedigree, his presence does not guarantee success, and the voodoo of his former clubs crashing and burning is a consequence of more than just his absence.
All things considered, Maloney has the chance to forge his personal legacy of success at the Panthers. If he is able to put them over the line and deliver a championship to the foot of the mountains he will be remembered as a winner, and the legend of ‘the Maloney effect’ will be backed by undeniable credentials. Either way, an ageing veteran, who was supposed to be on the decline, remaining one of the best attacking players in a league full of super-athletes is a story worth celebrating.
As for defence, well, just don’t worry about it. The approach seems to work just fine for Maloney himself.