Katoa v Kodi v SOS: What if the best halves pair Wayne Bennett has isn’t the best one for 2024?
There was a strange little quirk at the heart of the Dolphins’ success story in 2023.
For all the talk of Wayne Bennett’s old guard forward pack signed to build culture as much as anything they did on the field, and the Redcliffe Expendables, the cast of NRL journeymen who filled out the rest of the team, the man they actually built a team around was barely a man at all, teenage halfback Isaiya Katoa.
It wasn’t just that Bennett gave him such a big role at such a young age, but also that he changed that role as the season went on, entrusting his least experienced player to move around to accommodate others who, in theory, should be more flexible.
Katoa managed 22 games in his first year of NRL – only Jamayne Isaako and Connelly Lemuelu got more – which were split pretty much equally across 6 and 7, with a few on the bench at the back end as the rigours of week-to-week first grade caught up with him.
It’s not that nobody expected the rookie to be a regular, because few have come through in recent years with more promise in the junior grade, but more that a wily old stager building a team of wily old stagers with the express goal of being difficult to beat would give so much to one so young so consistently.
Equally as unlikely was that Katoa himself slotted straight in, but didn’t necessarily set the heather alight as one might have expected. Instead, he facilitated others, organised and did the stuff you might expect of a veteran.
When we think of young tyro halfbacks, they tend to burst onto the scene like Sam Walker did, or wow us with pace and enthusiasm, like a young Ezra Mam. We don’t expect maturity and calmness as key attributes, but there they were.
Those qualities were the best aspects of Katoa’s 2023, and they had a knock-on effect on one of his halves partners.
Much as Sean O’Sullivan was touted as the main playmaker and Anthony Milford a wildcard – or even Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow from the back – the most effective attacking weapon the Dolphins had in 2023 was Kodi Nikorima.
His Creativity Value (CV), the advanced stat that measures all positive attacking contributions, was sixth in the NRL among playmakers, almost identical to his fellow Kiwi Jahrome Hughes and just ahead of another, Shaun Johnson.
Digging into the data, he was assisting line breaks at a level of Cody Walker and creating his own at a level almost identical to the Hammer, his much more heralded teammate.
This was a huge renaissance for a guy that, realistically, had been a bit part player at Souths and a bench utility for the bulk of his career.
Even at the Dolphins, he started the year in Q Cup, got his first runs as a bench 9 and only came into the halves when O’Sullivan went down injured.
Needless to say, after that he thrived and never left the starting 13 thereafter, even when bounced between 6, 1 and even centre as injuries demanded.
It presents a real dilemma for Bennett and assistant Kristian Woolf going into 2024.
They have seriously strengthened the squad with the arrivals of Herbie Farnworth and Jake Averillo to the backline and Tom Flegler to the forwards, but in the key positions, it’s as you were.
Hamiso will be at the back, Jeremy Marshall-King at 9 and two of Katoa, SOS and Kodi in the halves.
The issue will be splitting the pivots apart.
Katoa is, obviously, the future of the club and the player with the highest ceiling.
After a year of NRL, there’s no point putting him back in Q Cup and even less point at this stage of his career, when it is well known that his former club, Penrith, need a new half for next year.
Redcliffe has just invested an entire season’s worth of footy into his development and, one would presume, the trajectory is only upwards from there for a kid not yet 20 but already leading a side around in the NRL.
Kodi, as evidenced above, is all-but undroppable based on the stats he was producing in 2023. Having an organiser beside him like Katoa or O’Sullivan freed him up to run, pass and generally play his off-the-cuff style, as well as link with Hamiso out the back.
That leaves O’Sullivan as the fall guy, though that would again be harsh. He never missed a game when fit in 2023, starting 13 of 14 in the halfback role. The only time he didn’t was when an injury to Marshall-King forced O’Sullivan to deputise at hooker for a week.
The stats don’t really give a great steer on who would be the better choice.
Creatively, O’Sullivan just about shades it, though in the context that both are bottom 25% of playmakers.
His attacking kicking remains much better than Katoa’s, though with ball in hand, the Tonga international is marginally better.
O’Sullivan also has one of the best Effective Tackle Percentages among halves, while Katoa was one of the worst.
That extra kicking and defensive stability might well be what sways the decision for Bennett, especially in a team that prioritises staying in the fight for as long as possible.
The whole question, ultimately, might end up being one of philosophy, with the choice of halves giving a read on what the Dolphins are going to be in the future.
The obvious answer as it stands would be to pick O’Sullivan and Nikorima as the safe options, with Katoa left out.
That, however, would do nothing to advance the player with the highest ceiling and would, instead, settle on someone aged 25 and with 46 NRL games split across five clubs.
O’Sullivan is competent, but is about as good as he’ll ever be, whereas Katoa could be absolutely anything, and you’d only find out by playing him.
The next choice might be to stick Kodi on the bench and use him as a utility, as so many have in the past.
That would keep their best attacking weapon off the field for long periods, and essentially punish him for having such utility value.
It might be that 2023 was the anomaly, a rare hot streak for a player who has struggle to settle elsewhere, but again – you’ll never know unless you play him.
Bennett has never shied from making tough decisions in the past, but he has sometimes opted for the here and now above the long-term picture.
For the Dolphins, at this stage of their evolution, the best option going forward might not be the best one for now.
Going into 2025, Woolf might well want a Katoa with 50 NRL games rather than one who has been a bit part player in what should be his second full year.
It’s a huge call that the coaching group has, and it’s one that they have to get right for the benefit of the Dolphins project going forward.