It’s not his fault that they offered him the money. How was he ever meant to succeed with that team around him? When he signed the deal, he was on top of his game.No, not Tom Dearden, the new recipient of a megabucks deal at the Cowboys, but Luke Brooks, once the coming man as far as NRL five eighths went.Brooks is in many ways the cautionary tale for million-dollar deals, a guy given a five year, big money contract on the back of a good season amid a tight market for playmakers.At the time, few questioned it, but by the end, it was an albatross around his neck.Luke Brooks was never as good as his contract suggested, really, but also not as bad as he was considered to be in relation to that same contract – and, all the above caveats about the cattle, his standing and what his employers were willing to offer him were all true.Dearden is 22, a year younger than Brooks was when he got his massive Tigers pay packet, but also wasn’t off the back of a Dally M third place and Halfback of the Year gong, either.Brooks was also part of a strong spine that included Benji Marshall next to him and Robbie Farah in front. The Tigers had just finished ninth two years running, nosebleed territory for them. He was set up for success, but things went drastically the other way.None of this is to say Dearden will end up like Brooks: it’s more to point out that most deals like this look decent when they are signed, and the parameters fundamentally shift bad on how much cap space someone takes up.Cash equals pressure, whether you like it or not, and Dearden is now judged as an elite playmaker on elite playmaker money, even though in reality, he’s the exact same player he was last season.What the Cowboys have done is to bet the next few seasons on their 6 improving into his pay packet. On 2023 form, he’s not worth the huge outlay, but that’s why he signed a five year contract. The assumption will be that, in the future, it will look cheap.For North Queensland, Dearden’s extension means that they have locked in their best half for the foreseeable, having already tied down Scott Drinkwater, the fullback, and Reece Robson, the newly minted NSW hooker. It’s a decent place to be.dribe(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images) The club have struggled badly because of a lack of an elite spine, going back to the 2022 season where Mitch Moses, Dylan Brown and Clint Gutherson were essentially the difference between Parramatta making the Grand Final and the Cowboys not.With Chad Townsend off contract at the end of this year and almost certain not to be extended (given his age), the pressure is well and truly on for Dearden to expand into that gap as the senior half.When he has played best, it has been with the licence to pick his moments in attack, safe in the knowledge that someone else is running the show.Last year, for example, he averaged seven runs per game – pretty standard for a 6 in a decent team – but smashed it in metres per run, with only Dylan Brown, Matt Burton and Ezra Mam above him. It’s a good cohort to be in.However, when it came to the more subtle side of the game, things fell away. His creative stats were middle of the road and, bar a purple patch that coincided with the Cows’ best form of the year around August, wouldn’t have been of a level that screamed million dollar contract.Two things jump out of his numbers in 2023.For one, he did best when everyone else did best – not uncommon for halves – but something that, for example, Scott Drinkwater didn’t have. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)The fullback’s ability to influence games independently of how the game was going speaks to how good an attacker he is and to his willingness to try things that are a little out of the box.That’s a skill Dearden would do well to look at, and perhaps, one that Payten could do more to encourage, as the Cowboys can at times be a little too conservative with the ball.Secondly, his best form tended to be when his pass-to-run ration was lowest, suggesting that one of the NRL’s most empty and overused cliches – “he needs to have a run-first mentality” – was actually true in Dearden’s case.Running all the time is not a plus point, because everyone expects it, but Dearden has often been guilty of playing a little too far from the line in attack and, when he has that run well established, can be a lot more effective as a passer.When you have a supremely creative fullback in Drinkwater, an above-average running 9 in Robson and a controller in Townsend, there is balance to be found in a more run-dominant 6.The salary cap architecture of the Cowboys suggests that the spine hierarchy will remain as it is, with the 7 the least important of the quartet for the foreseeable.Dearden’s weakest area is his kicking – he didn’t register a single kick try assist in 2023 – and it will be vital that the Cowboys recruitment department find someone who can fill that gap when they go to find Townsend’s replacement. It might be that they have it already in Jake Clifford, who did pretty well in that regard in his year in the Super League, but he has never really shown anything to suggest that he’s top four class at NRL level.By signing this deal, along with his fullback and hooker, Dearden is being set up for success at the Cowboys.Their age profile is dropping year-to-year and will drop further as the likes of Townsend, Kyle Feldt and Jake Granville are phased out.Jason Taumalolo and Jordan McLean are now the only players over 30 and over half of the 31 who featured in the NRL last year are under 26 with the likes of Jeremiah Nanai, Kulikefu Finefeuiaki and Zac Laybutt under 21.The generational change at North Queensland has been quiet, but effective. It might be that 2024 is another year where they add experience to their spine and transition further into the side that they want to be in 2025 and beyond. Extending Dearden is a superb move in that regard.At 22, he already has 80 NRL appearances, well over the 50-75 that most coaches will tell you are required to know what level a player will reach.With so much experience so young, it’s now on him to kick on even further and cement himself as one of the best five eighths in the comp. If he does, that price tag will look cheap. If he doesn’t, he’ll look like Luke Brooks.

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