At various points over the last few months, it’s felt as if there’s no more hated player in the NRL than DCE. The vitriol is all the more striking in that up until the Manly-Titans debacle Cherry-Evans was one of the most popular players out there – a poster boy for a version of the NRL that could be clean-cut, well-groomed and mild-mannered. On the field, he played plosive, innovative footy, but he was also articulate enough to dissect his own game as clinically and eloquently as the most experienced sports journalists. You could even say that a figure like DCE rendered sports journalism somewhat redundant, which is perhaps why so many publications were anxious to hitch their wagon to his star. Of course, it’s often the highest-flying footy players who have the furthest to fall, while the NRL media loves a good backlash story. Still, there seems to be something especially harsh about DCE’s decline, even or especially now he’s decided to remain with the Sea Eagles. After all, James Tedesco did a similar backflip with the Raiders and has settled back into his cheeky, boyish persona with barely a backward glance. In a sporting code that gives someone like Blake Ferguson about a million chances, why is that fans have found it so hard to give DCE – a relatively inexperienced player – just one?
In part, I reckon it’s a halfback thing. There’s something particularly affronting about a half departing a club, let alone when they’ve got such a dynamic synergy as DCE had with Kieran Foran. Admittedly, Foran himself had been on the way out for some time, but given DCE’s more recent tenure with the club – they gave him his first big chance and it’s where he cut his teeth – there was something more audacious about him leaving the Sea Eagles’ middle flank exposed for the sake of a team that’s barely been around for a couple of decades. I sense that the Titans are sometimes seen as the upstarts of the game, leaching off players for what often feels like the ultimate incubation pad, a haven for young guns like DCE who are looking to improve their profile in a relatively pressure-free environment. There must have been something singularly confronting to Manly veterans, then, about seeing their youngest star depart one of the most consolidated communities in the game for the breezy ambience of the Titans. If Fortress Brookdale has become more militant in recent years, it’s in response to prefabricated, satellite growth venues like Skilled Park – just recently rebranded Cbus Super Stadium – that seem to rise up and siphon off their resources overnight.
Leaving Manly, then, is a bit different from leaving another team. In an earlier post the Sea Eagles, I noted that over the last half-decade they’ve accrued one of the most stable and consistent rosters in the game. In combination with Manly’s reputation as the insular peninsular, that often makes it feel as if the Eagles are a CRL team more than a NRL team, which explains why they’re Tony Abbott’s team of choice. Usually, politicians are a bit reluctant to get behind NRL because of its reputation for scandal, as well as its association with low culture. Certainly, there are some teams a politician could never support if they wanted to retain their legitimacy in the face of the public. As a tried-and-true Bulldogs supporter, I’m the first person to admit that coming out as a rabid Dogs fan would be career suicide for 99% of politicans– despite the recent return to the Canterbury-Bankstown brand and the rise of a new generation of players, the shadow cast by the Bulldogs of the 00s is very long indeed. As always, though Manly are an exception. Apart from the Roosters – Malcolm Turnbull’s team – they’re about the only NRL franchise you can imagine a politican coming out and supporting. In fact, watching a Roosters-Manly smashdown is sometimes a bit like watching Turnbull and Abbott battle it out as well. More on Turnbull and the Chooks later, but suffice to say that whatever you think of Abbott, you’d have to concede that he’s built his reputation on a certain fantasy of smalltown Australia, or heartland Australia, that no longer really exists and perhaps never existed. And I’m not knocking the country by saying that. In fact, my family is from Griffith, which has always given me a particular fondness for CRL, and for the Fifitas in particular. What I am saying is that Manly – like Abbott – exudes a nostalgic heartland mentality that often makes it feel like the very centre of the game, even if it’s populated by one of the most staunchly separatist fanbases in the entire NRL.
Leaving Manly, then, is a big deal. But DCE didn’t just leave Manly – he played Manly. At least, that’s how the tabloid media told it, although you can’t be sure that Cherry-Evans had it all worked out from day one. Whether it’s true or not, though, the very possibility that he duped the Sea Eagles feels – however unfairly – worse than actually duping any other team. And, yet, in some ways, it would have been easier for Sea Eagles fans if DCE had remained with the Titans. That way, they could have hated him. What’s finally so confronting about the DCE saga is that he has made what appears to be an ongoing pledge to Manly, but only after a protracted and very visible period of corporate wheeling and dealing that seems drastically antithetical to this most grassroots of footy communities. Worse still is the fact of him being offered the biggest salary to date in Rugby League, begging the question of just how much he actually wanted to leave the Sea Eagles to necessitate such a striking sweetener to induce him to stay where he’d been thriving for the last couple of years anyway. It’s hard to think of a moment in recent NRL when lifetime commitment has been so brutally reduced to what it actually is – a matter of the right lifetime contract. Or, in DCE’s case, a new and unprecedented contract, dubbed somewhat ambiguously by Manly as the “lifetime contract,” as if only a one-off offer could induce him to remain loyal to a fanbase whose members have been born into Brookvale for generations.
DCE’s defection, then, culminates a pretty steep learning curve for the Eagles Five years ago, they could luxuriate in the fantasy of a team that was more or less exempt from market forces. With Glenn Stewart, Brett Stewart, Anthony Watmough, Steve Matai, Brent Kite, Kieran Foran, Matt Ballin and Jamie Lyon all effectively pledged to the club, it was easy to believe that here, at least, footy players still represented community above all else. Fast forward five years and Manly fans are now faced with the prospect of a flagship player who’s made it clear that he has absolutely no intrinsic investment in the community at all. Worse, he’s the kind of player they can’t not embrace, given that he’s likely to replace Lyon as captain and act as a recruitment incentive for what will hopefully be the next big Manly halfback star. At the same time, DCE is likely to replace Cronk as the dominant Maroons half over the next couple of years as well, which just adds to the sense of his lifetime commitment to Manly being fruit of the poison tree: who ever thought Manly would dish out the biggest salary in NRL history to nurture one of NSW’s worst Origin nightmares? And if that all weren’t enough, Nate Myles is set to join the Manly roster in 2015, having left the Titans on the back of a player reshuffle prompted partly by DCE’s backflip. For both Manly players and fans, watching DCE and Myles interact in the Sea Eagles jersey is going to be a perpetual reminder of the Titans career that never was, while making it that little bit harder to feel as if DCE has left his lingering Gold Coast dreams firmly in the past.
So I get why DCE has become such a controversial figure. I really do. Then again, I don’t think he can be held accountable for the way the game has changed either. Sure, his payoff was unprecedented, but we’re always hearing about the latest big contract. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets paid higher. NRL loves superlatives and this one will be surpassed, like all the rest. Similarly, there can be no doubt that DCE strung both Manly and the Gold Coast along, but, in the end, his negotiations weren’t that much more convoluted, protracted or deceptive than those of a host of other players who have long since been welcome back into the fold.In fact, I think it won’t be long until DCE is welcomed back either, or before Manly rises to the top of the ladder once again. But, in a way, that’s the whole point. By committing to a new, rebooted Sea Eagles, DCE’s contract has effectively spelled the end of Sea Eagles outfit that Brookvale regulars have come to know and love over the last half-decade as well. Given that that legendary lineup was something of a nostalgic fantasy for fans across the game, it’s likely that DCE’s decision will haunt every match he plays for some time, even if he’s not to blame for simply being the latest and most dramatic instance of the new, deregulated NRL.