James Maloney has won premierships at two clubs, reached a grand final with a third, played for NSW and Australia, nails goal kicks from the sideline under pressure and is a classic running five-eighth who makes those around him better.
Other players with far less listed on their Wikipedia page are commanding $1 million a season. If they’re not getting it, their player managers are demanding it.
So why aren’t you a million-dollar player, Jimmy Maloney? If them, why not you?
“I think I will be ??? just not yet,” he shoots back, grinning. “I’ve just got an existing deal that’s already locked in. If I was on the open market, I would get near that. The money will still be there when I’m off contract. I might miss it for a year but it will still be there. It’s not going backwards.”
No, you won’t get any predictable lines straight out of the media training handbook from Maloney. Calls it as he sees it, as he says it, whichever way he wants.
Most players freeze when pushed about contract negotiations. I leave that stuff to my manager. I love the club but I have to look after my family’s future. Yeah, nah, yeah, dunno.
Maloney, as he has done throughout this season, will tell you straight up he’s worth so much more than what he’s on and deserves a bigger slice of all that money flooding into the game.
During our interview this week in a Maroubra cafe, he candidly spoke about being front and centre of the Rugby League Players Association’s pay dispute with the NRL; squared up the integrity unit for “trying to be the FBI”; slammed the ARL Commission and asked, “Where’s the money?”; talked about his relationship with coaches and teammates; and explained why he couldn’t care one bit if Roosters chairman Nick Politis laments letting him leave to join the Sharks.
And, most of all, Maloney could not care what you think; how he’s perceived, considered, talked and tweeted about. “That doesn’t bother me,” he says when told there’s a perception he’s money hungry. “I don’t care. I’ve never been worried by someone who doesn’t know me. The majority of people get it. If they don’t, I couldn’t care less.”
Some might read all this as arrogance. Indeed, some of his former teammates can’t cop him. Some love him. From this vantage point, it’s refreshing to speak to a player who cuts through all the cliche and crap. At the very least, you will always know where you stand with Jimmy Maloney.
At League Central, he’s hardly their favourite person. They call him the RLPA’s “attack dog”.
Champ: Maloney celebrates a premiership with the Sharks last year. Photo: NRL imagery
Like an overconfident singer at a late-night karaoke bar, he’s stepped forward and grabbed the microphone and told the NRL that Todd Greenberg isn’t doing a good job, branded head office “smug”, demanded a better go for the players.
There’s a belief he’s only being this militant at the request of others. As Maloney explains it, he’s been conscious about players’ rights ever since former RLPA boss David Garnsey pushed through “a bad deal” when the last collective bargaining agreement was struck five years ago.
“I remember being at the Roosters and taking some interest in it,” Maloney says. “The deal was pushed out and we were told it was a good deal and we should take it. And I remember thinking, ‘No, it’s not’. I talked to the Roosters boys and as a team we voted unanimously against it.
“We deserved more and, looking back, that was the right opinion. When they ousted Garnsey, and brought in new people, I said that instead of sitting on the outside and whinging I would get involved and make sure players were treated fairly.
“I’m happy to do it. I probably don’t get a lot out of it. I’m at the end of my career and all these young boys will get the benefits. But players do put too much on the line … The public misunderstand it because they see the big names making the stance but it’s not for them. Cameron Smith and Johnathan Thurston aren’t doing it for them. I’m not doing it for me. We’re doing it for the blokes who we play with every week, flogging their bodies on $150,000 a year.”
Proven in heat of battle: Maloney enjoys a title with the Roosters. Photo: AAP
I tell him his comments about Greenberg were rather strong.
“They needed to be,” he said. “Five years ago, [Greenberg’s predecessor] Dave Smith said we had no assets, we need to put away this war chest of $50 million a year so we’ll have $200 million in our back pocket … and then you hear we’ve had to borrow $100 million. Then they ask the players to take less. You wonder where the money’s going. There’s no-one accountable for the spending. The players are your most important commodity. Without them, there is no game. Everyone who works around it are just accessories.”
Ask him about the NRL’s integrity unit wanting access to players’ bank accounts and phone records so it can stop match-fixing and salary cap rorting and he has a clear answer for that, too.
“It’s an attack on our privacy,” he insists. “I understand you need to protect the purity of the game. But nobody has shown me that betting on games is a massive issue. How many have we got? One guy, Tim Simona. And he was doing $10 bets. The integrity unit didn’t find out, his missus dobbed him in.
“Instead of spending all this money on a witch-hunt that pretty much hasn’t found anything, don’t worry about it. If something happens, I’m sure you’ll find it without going through people’s bank records. Instead of the witch-hunt, put the money in bush footy.
“In terms of the salary cap, if someone pays it in cash you’ll never find it anyway. I just don’t get it. They think they’re running the FBI instead of a game of footy.”
So, no, Jimmy Maloney isn’t just a hired gun for the RLPA. He thinks deeply about the game and its issues. He has something to say. Good on him.
While Maloney has been asking for more money on behalf of all players, he’s also asking for more money from the Sharks for himself.
Maloney signed a three-year deal with Cronulla in late 2014 after the Roosters ??? who he helped steer to a premiership the season before ??? decided to keep Jackson Hastings instead. It’s understood the Roosters threw about $450,000-a-season at him. It wasn’t enough. He went to the Sharks for about $600,000-a-season. With a young family to look after, he signed a three-year deal instead of two simply for the purposes of security.
In the current climate, with young players suddenly asking for close to $1 million based on promise instead of achievement, Maloney realises he’s undervalued. With that in mind, he asked the Sharks if he could dip his toe in the open market.
Separating fact from fiction around Maloney’s contract negotiations this season isn’t easily done. It’s been suggested he asked for a release; the Sharks say he didn’t.
They won’t even acknowledge that he was allowed to speak to other clubs. About four or five clubs have been circling him, though. South Sydney were keen. So, too, the Bulldogs. Canberra, the Warriors and the Knights have also been in the mix and still might be. Maloney’s asking price of about $950,000-a-season, along with that fact he’s 31, has seen by some as a barrier.
“There have been a lot of reports that I have been kicking and screaming,” Maloney says. “We just inquired ??? we’d be stupid not to ??? about upgrading and extending. It caused a big hoo-ha. I’m not on a bad contract. That money next year is still available. Yes, I asked for more. But it was always the club’s decision and I was fine whichever way I went.”
Whichever way it swings, Maloney is sure he’ll end up getting a fatter contract at some stage: next season or the one after. If he has to move, so be it. He didn’t play his first game in the NRL until he was 22 and has moved from club to club, from contract to contract, ever since.
Cronulla meet the Roosters at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Saturday night. All-powerful Roosters chairman Politis will be watching from wherever he happens to be in the world and each time Maloney touches the ball he will probably wince. Politis rarely speaks publicly but told Fairfax Media in grand final week last year he should never have let Maloney leave Moore Park.
“Does that make me feel good? No, not really,” Maloney says. I don’t need that justification to know that I can play. I know what I can bring to a footy team. It’s not about me being the most brilliant player. But I know footy and know how to make the players around me understand footy and get them going.”
And this is where it gets tricky. Talk to those who have played alongside Maloney, and those who have coached him, and the reports are mixed.
They will throw up statistics that Maloney seemingly owns. This season, he has missed 108 tackles. He’s given away 31 penalties. The mere mention of the word “stats” elicits Maloney’s raspy laugh.
“I’m not a stats man,” he says. “Penalties, I get watched quite closely because I’ve become a serial offender, I suppose. Missed tackles can be misleading because of the way they stat them. Someone can run in, I run hit them, bounce off, he drips to the ground and someone else falls on him and they mark is as a missed tackle. I know when I defend badly. I’ve heard people say I’m a defensive liability but I don’t think you win competitions and play rep footy if you’re such a liability.”
The errors Maloney makes are reflective of the way he plays: the niggling, yapping little playmaker who’s first downfield on the kick-chase, getting in the winger’s face, sometimes getting away with the sneaky leg pull coming out of the tackle, sometimes not.
He’s known to challenge teammates and coaches off the field. Some roll with it, many don’t.
“If what the coach is telling me isn’t the right thing, I question it,” Maloney offers. “Of course I do. I think I have a good knowledge of footy. If you challenge a player, you’re accountable as well. Players need that.”
So maybe this is why Maloney isn’t a million-dollar man. Has his cheeky personality cost him money?
“Nope,” he says after a long pause. “Not at all, because I feel like I’ve got the money that I’ve deserved. Now, money has stepped up and I’m on an existing deal. If I was off contract, I’ve got no doubt I’d get market value again.
“It hasn’t cost me money. If a club doesn’t want to re-sign me because of that, that’s their call. I’ve got no doubt that I’ll find a spot somewhere else.”
Right on the cue, the young man wearing a green hi-vis jumper who has been eavesdropping on our conversation swivels around. He politely asks for a photo.
“Up! Up! Cronulla,” the man says. “Last year, me and my mate snuck into the grand final pretending to be garbos. We picked up some bags of rubbish and just walked in. It was good until the cops found us and kicked us out … Win another premiership for us, brother!”
Who says you’re undervalued?
Maloney smiles. “Hopefully, I won’t be for much longer.”