‘Family first’: How blue-collar kid became NRL’s richest
The NRL's highest-paid player was also once rugby league's most polarising individual.
Queensland and Manly skipper Daly Cherry-Evans is officially the top wage earner in the game today, but the playmaker has had to navigate savage abuse, and undergo searing self-analysis, in his journey to the apex of the NRL's Rich 100. Cherry-Evans' $1.25 million wage is the NRL's No.1 salary this season, with Manly's decision to agree to an eight-year, $10 million deal in 2015 propelling the Queensland Origin and Kangaroos halfback into a financial league of his own.
At the time, it was a head-spinning deal that changed the contractual landscape for the NRL.
No-one had ever signed a lifetime deal. And it also triggered a personal metamorphosis for Cherry-Evans, who was public enemy No.1 in his home state after reneging on the Gold Coast Titans at the eleventh hour and staying loyal to Manly.
On March 6, 2015, the Titans announced a major coup - the signing of Cherry-Evans on a three-year deal. But on June 3, Manly supremo Bob Fulton struck back, tabling the $1.25 million-a-season deal that convinced Cherry-Evans to sensationally U-turn at the Queensland border and head back to Manly's northern beaches.
Under NRL rules, Cherry-Evans had until June 30 to change his mind, so he did. The NRL axed the rule as a direct result of DCE's actions. To the letter of the law, Cherry-Evans had every right to walk away from the Titans.
Morally, many believed Cherry-Evans had sinned.
No amount of money will change the blue-collar kid who grew up in Mackay and Redcliffe but the beauty of the NRL's richest contract is the lessons it taught Cherry-Evans about on-field consistency - and off-field accountability.
"There are a lot of people who will say what I did was morally wrong, but I hope one day people can see that the offer from Manly gave me the opportunity to set up my family for life and I would never begrudge anyone the chance to do that," Cherry-Evans told News Corp in July 2018.
"People say I never took the Titans seriously, that I strung them along, that I played them. That's rubbish. I had bought a house on the Gold Coast. I was on my bike ready to go and I was so serious I asked my parents if they would also consider moving to the Gold Coast.
"When I agreed to join the Titans, I was absolutely going there.
"I thought there was no way in hell Manly were going to turn around and say we want you to stay.
"I just hope that one day the fans can say this bloke did the best thing by his wife and three kids."
It was Cherry-Evans' manager Chris Orr who helped negotiate the $10 million Manly bonanza. Orr, of Pacific Sports Management, had been involved in a number of career-changing deals in other sports and believed it could work in the NRL.
Historically, NRL clubs had entertained four or five-year deals, but never eight, or later the 10-season deal Orr brokered for Jason Taumalolo at the Cowboys in 2016.
"I came up with the idea for a lifetime deal from my time in surfing," Orr said.
"My client, Josh Kerr, just made the WCT so I flew to Perth to meet with his sponsor Rusty. I convinced them to make an industry statement and sign Josh to a 10-year lifetime deal as I believe it takes a very long time to rebrand a high-profile athlete from one brand to another.
"In rugby league terms, it took the right athlete at the right club to provide the lifetime contract opportunity. Daly and then Jason Taumalolo both had the right synergies with their clubs.
"On each occasion there needs to be a strategy. At the time people thought it would open the floodgates for everyone to sign lifetime deals, but it has to be selective. The fact is rugby league is a contact sport where a player's career can be over in one tackle, therefore the long-term financial security made complete sense as it helped assist the athlete to develop a plan for life after sport.
"It also reflects the individual. Both Daly and Jason are the best of the best, they are elite, and both wanted to be loyal."
Regarded as prickly and aloof in his younger days, Cherry-Evans has stepped up as a leader at the Sea Eagles. Since signing his lifetime deal, the 31-year-old has ascended to the Queensland Origin captaincy and worked harder to connect with the fans.
"It took me a while to grasp, but I've decided to give more of myself to the media and the fans generally," he says.
"It's given them a better understanding of who I really am."
Cherry-Evans will be 34 when his current Manly contract expires. There may yet be scope for one final Sea Eagles contract extension, with the 227-game veteran insisting he is still in good physical and mental shape.
"I do feel I am just as fast and fit and as strong as I have been," he says. "I don't feel I am losing anything physically at the moment but every year I play is another year I've had to experience the NRL and what comes of it.
"I do feel as though I have more clarity in what I need to do to play well. That's the penny that has dropped for me in the last few years."
Originally published as 'Family first': How blue-collar kid became NRL's richest