TRY TIME: Dane Gagai scored twice for Queensland in their great escape against NSW on Wednesday night. Picture: Getty ImagesDANE Gagai’s spectacular performance in Origin II was a reminder that his decision to leave the Newcastle Knights is, sadly, the logical outcome for both parties.
Gagai has been a good player for Newcastle over the past six seasons and iseasily the best on their current roster.
But he has been an even better playerfor Queensland.
A large part of that, obviously, is the calibre of teammates around him.
Any player worth his salt would relish a spoton the end of a backline featuring names like Thurston, Cronk and Slater.Champions like that have a habit of lifting everyone around them to new performance levels.
Gagai has certainly thrived inthe game’s ultimate arena, scoring seven tries in six appearances for the Maroons, including a matchwinning double at ANZ Stadium on Wednesday night and a memorable hat-trick in game two last year.
To put that in context, Gagai has equalled the record held by Darius Boyd for most Origin tries scored bya Newcastle player.
Toss in a try in each of the past two All Stars fixturesand it is clear that the26-year-old is a big-game player capable of rising to any occasion.
But perhaps there is more to Gagai’s Origin excellence than just being surrounded by some of the all-time greats.
For Queenslandhe has played exclusively on the wing, and from the evidence presented, Sporting Declaration hasreached the conclusion that flanker is his best position.
Gagai is a superb finisher with a God-given knack for getting across the stripe. He is safe under the high ball and courageous enough to take the tough hit-ups and kick-returns. In this year’s two Origins, he made 220 attacking metres and 189 metres respectively –on both occasions, the most yardage by any player.
You could not ask more of any winger thanGagai has shown in Origin.
Yet the dilemma, at club level, is you don’t want a player of suchclass waiting in the wings.
He needs to be playing where he has more opportunity and involvement. His salary demands it.
So the vast majority of his 118 NRL games for Newcastle have been split between playing right-side centre and fullback.
In those games, he has scored 28 tries, an average of about a try in every four appearances. Only four tries have come from his past 44 outings.
This is not delivered as a criticism, rather a statement of fact to highlight the quandary the Knights were facing recently when they spoke with Gagai about extending his contract.
If they were to re-sign him as a centre, his tryscoring strike rate had to be a concern, as did his tendency to be exposed in defence. As a fullback, he lacks the ball-playing nous that makes the likes of Boyd, Billy Slater and Lachlan Coote so valuable.
In addition, Newcastle have already signed a fullback for next season, North Queensland wunderkind Kalyn Ponga. That meant the only likely roleforGagaiwas in the centres.
Given the price tag he was entitled to command, re-signing him would have been akin to parking a luxury sports car in the driveway of a dilapidated house.
For a similar amount ofmoney, Newcastle may well be able to recruit ex-Rooster Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Brisbane’s Tautau Moga, which would seem like pretty good business.
Nonetheless, it is hard to deny thatlosing their best player to a rival club is a terrible look for the Knights.
Gagai is their only incumbent rep player. On the strength of his deeds for Queensland, he could well winKangaroos selection for the end-of-season World Cup.
As one Newcastle stalwart told me recently, he could have been an ambassador, promoting the club to other elite-level players. Instead now the question he will be asked is: “Why are you leaving?”
The suspicion is his decision to join South Sydney is not just about money.
Regardless of third-party sponsorships, surely no club in the NRL has greater capacity than Newcastle to pay top dollar.
For whatever reason, Gagai felt the Rabbitohs would provide the best environment to succeed and reach his maximum potential.
It would seem reasonable to assume that Souths’proudheritage of embracing indigenous players and the Aboriginal community was part of the attraction.
Above all else, who could blame Gagai if he has grown tired of getting beaten?
When he came to Newcastle midway through 2012, after being sacked by the Broncos, the Knights were a glamorous option, coached by Wayne Bennett and featuring a host of big-name players.
The following season, Gagai was part of a team who featured in three sudden-death finals.
Since then the play-offs have been a distant dream.
Gagai is in the prime of his career. Souths might be struggling, but presumably any rebuild at Redfern will be swifter than Newcastle’s.
Most athletes in Gagai’s situation, whatever the code, would have made the same choice.
Knights fans can only hope that, at some point in the future, other top-tier players feel no such inclination to follow suit.