Tyson v Jack: Newcastle’s halves are the big question for Adam O’Brien – but does he have a secret weapon?
Newcastle’s recruitment for 2024 looks brilliant in around July – just before their team kicked into gear and gave coach Adam O’Brien plenty to think about.
It still looks pretty good now, but with the added dimension that several players that they might have expected to become back-ups produced the sort of performances that made them all but undroppable.
That happened both at the club and elsewhere, and nowhere more so than in the halves.
In the first weekend of July – the round in which the Knights defeated Canterbury 66-0 to kick start their amazing winning run – the club would have probably been happy to cut ties with Tyson Gamble, who was hardly setting the heather alight in the 6 jumper.
At the start of the next month, the club announced the addition of Jack Cogger, who was then playing NSW Cup for Penrith.
By the end of the year, Gamble had enjoyed his best form of his career to lead the Knights to the second week of the finals while Cogger was a Premiership winner, playing a pivotal role off the bench in the Grand Final for the Panthers.
Prior to those two kicking on, the best option might have been Will Pryce, the young tyro from the Super League, who was signed in 2022 – when it might have been expected that he would play fullback with Kalyn Ponga slated as the long-term five eighth.
Things change constantly in rugby league and a surprise is always around the corner – just ask O’Brien.
He might have expected to get his papers had Newcastle lost to the Dogs that weekend, but now he has a plethora of options available to him.
Gamble is the continuity candidate, but has to back up his late 2023 form to keep a hold on the jersey that he has fought so hard to make his.
His career to date has suggested that he might struggle to do that, but he at least deserves the chance to maintain the levels he set for himself last year.
Cogger would represent a change of style. Jackson Hastings has a mortgage on the halfback role, but Cogger has shown his ability to play as a hybrid five eighth/halfback – he did that at Penrith last year – alongside a more dominant 7, if O’Brien wants to change up his attack.
Pryce is the wildcard. Realistically, even the man himself doesn’t necessarily think that he will start in Round 1 – though he doesn’t lack for confidence, either.
“I’ve not come this far just to come this far,” he told the Yorkshire Evening Post a week or so ago.
“I’ve not come all this way just to do the two years that I signed for and go back home and feel like I’ve failed in a way.
“They (the Knights) see me as a five-eighth. That’s where I’m looking to hopefully play this year.
“My goal is to try get a spot in that squad. I’ll keep pushing in training to try get a debut and a few games under my belt.
“There’s a good level of competition here and one I’m thriving on by learning from players like Tyson Gamble, Jack Cogger, Jackson Hastings.”
It seems, then, like there’s an established hierarchy – but it would be a mistake to sleep on the Pommy import, too.
We’ll run the stats on all three to work out who might make the best option, and who O’Brien should be looking hardest at in the pre-season and when the trials come around.
For the purposes of our comparison, it’s worth pointing out the differences in sample between the three.
Gamble, of course, played as a five eighth exclusively, so he’s easy to track across the whole year.
Pryce was pretty much always fullback at Huddersfield, only starting the year at stand-off (to use the UK term) which does influence how the numbers looks. We’ve controlled for that as much as possible.
Cogger was both a halfback and a five eighth last year – and even when he wore the 7 at Penrith, he was sometimes second fiddle to Jarome Luai, while when he wore the 6, he was sometimes a bit of a hybrid player with Nathan Cleary doing more running.
As ever, The Roar’s data is averaged out across how much ball a player gets – that changes a lot by position – and we can also factor in team roles, especially in this case around dominant kickers.
Pryce’s numbers, obviously, come from the Super League and should be considered in the context of a weaker league. Attacking stats, in particular, look better if the defences are worse, and they certainly are in the UK.
However, his stats also came while playing for a weaker side within that league in Huddersfield (who came ninth, whereas the other two are from teams that finished sixth and first respectively) so you might expect him to have achieved his numbers in a less advantageous position, and thus scale them up if he was playing in a better team relative to the competition. Cogger got his stats in the NRL, but he also got them playing behind one of the best packs, which Pryce didn’t get.
All that considered, who do the stats point to? Well…it actually doesn’t really get any easier for O’Brien.
Firstly, it’s a feather in the cap for the recruitment team because Pryce has all the goods to be very good at NRL level.
His running is, obviously, the best of the three as he played the bulk of his season at fullback, but even with that caveat, the ability is clearly there.
His tackle break stats would put him in the same ballpark as Dylan Edwards and Scott Drinkwater within the NRL, his Line Break Assists (LBA) are in line with James Tedesco and AJ Brimson and his Line Breaks for himself compare to Clint Gutherson and, again Drinkwater.
As evidenced by the compilation above and you can see the step, speed and elusiveness, even factoring in some less than stellar tackling.
Interestingly, taken as a whole the best statistical clone in an attacking sense (across the whole league) is actually Tolu Koula, a centre, suggesting that it mightn’t be impossible that he could move there if his tackling was up to it.
As a fullback, it’s Drinkwater who most resembles Pryce – including his ropey defence, though the hope for the Knights will be that, at the age of just 21, there’s plenty of scope for improvement on that front.
All of this is in the Super League, but the point of recruitment is to identify the outliers and then suggest who might be able to take the step up. Pryce looks like that.
That’s the future, though, so who wins in the here and now? In that sense, it’s a bit of a dead heat.
Gamble is the guy who offers more with ball in hand, winning out for assists and line breaks, but Cogger isn’t too far behind as far as LBAs go and then pulls ahead with vastly superior kicking.
Gamble didn’t record a single assist off his boot in 2023, while Cogger got three in his more limited game time.
Combined, Cogger just shades it on Creativity Value (CV), a stat designed to take in all attacking output across passing, running and kicking, though Pryce absolutely kills it here, proving his pure attacking value.
Ponga, incidentally, is the second best in the entire NRL in this metric, beaten only by Reece Walsh.
Off the ball, Gamble is the steadier option. His tackle efficiency sits at 80% – pretty good for a half – and he’s responsible for far fewer line breaks against.
Cogger is also a penalty conceding machine, worth about an infringement and a half per game.
Statistically, there’s no splitting them and it might be a case that O’Brien just has to look tactically at what he wants from his five eighth.
Gamble benefits from cohesion and system familiarity, given that he was already at the club, and Cogger isn’t noticeably a lot better in either regard to merit inclusion ahead of someone with incumbency.
Gamble is 27 and has 49 NRL games, while Cogger is 26 and has 55, plus 23 in Super League.
The window for a player’s ultimate level within the NRL is set at about 50-75 games, so this is the year where they either kick on or recognise that the level that they are at now is about as good as they’re ever going to be.
The biggest question is over Pryce. He will begin 2024 in NSW Cup, but his ceiling is so much higher than the other two and he has years of growth in him, both physically and as a footballer.
Newcastle have shown an ability to do this in the past, with Dom Young coming in, bouncing between comps and eventually ending up as one of the best wingers around. With a few ups and downs, the Knights handled his development really well.
Pryce gets the advantage of having a mate come over with him – backrower Kai Pearce-Paul – as well as a familiar face on staff in assistant coach Brian McDermott and the accumulated knowledge from Young’s pathway.
The answer to Newcastle’s three-way split for the 6 jumper might be that Gamble wins the battle but Pryce wins the war – either this year or next – with Cogger the next cab off the rank when injury, suspension or poor form strikes in either half position.