Why the NRL career of Super-League-bound Matt Moylan is a cautionary tale

Australia World

There are two things they used to call Matt Moylan.

The first one was “young Matt Moylan”. Why that happened so often and why it stuck remains a mystery – Moylan wasn’t a teenage prodigy given he debuted just shy of his 22nd birthday.

But it did have a staying power to it, even as Moylan aged through his mid-20s, enough so that even now with Moylan’s time in the NRL coming to an end after he signed with Super League club Leigh Leopards, the old joke is being wheeled out again.

The other name didn’t last as long but it was far more dangerous. There was a while there when Matt Moylan wasn’t just called young; he was called “the next Darren Lockyer”. You heard it in commentary, read it in newspapers, saw it said on television panel shows. It was inescapable and while it was meant as a compliment, it ended up being a prison. 

Rugby league is never shy of making a comparison between a rookie and a legend – just ask the litany of next Billy Slaters, Cameron Smiths, Sonny Bill Williams or Andrew Johns that have come through the ranks – and always, without fail, they do not live up to it.

Moylan is not without his talents. At his peak, he was a gifted attacking player, and right to the end of his NRL career he had a brilliant understanding of space and how to exploit it for both him and others. He was a sharp executor of attacking shape, and before injuries slowed him down, his touch football background made him a dangerous man off a quick play the ball.

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But he was not Darren Lockyer. He never could be because nobody can. There can only be one Darren Lockyer and rugby league has already had him. Moylan, through no fault of his own, was hamstrung by one of rugby league’s greatest sins – the sport’s use of its past to imagine the future, as if it cannot conceive of something that doesn’t already exist.

The early days of Moylan’s career at Penrith were exhilarating enough to understand why people were ready to get carried away. His debut against Parramatta in 2013 was a 44-12 romp where his composure and attacking class shone through like a beacon in the night.

In the next season, he played a huge role in the Panthers’ improbable run to the preliminary final, while finding a gift for match-winning plays. He made the Australian squad for the Four Nations and things were moving along exactly as they were supposed to.

But when you are the next Lockyer, there is no time to wait. When you are the next Lockyer, you have to be that right now and always. When you are the next Lockyer, yours is the world and everything in it. It doesn’t matter if you can wear the crown that rests so heavy, you’re going to have to bear it anyway.

That’s how Moylan was appointed captain of the Panthers in 2016 after just 50 NRL matches and when he was still discovering himself as a footballer. He was asked to be a leader before he’d been led himself, and the results didn’t agree with him.

Penrith's Matt Moylan breaks the Broncos' line

Moylan captured rugby league’s imagination in his younger years. (Getty Images: Renee McKay)

That’s how, when his move from fullback to five-eighth happened, it did not occur in the fullness of time but on the biggest stage of all. The first time Moylan played a first-grade game at five-eighth was not for Penrith, but for New South Wales in Origin III that same season.

That’s how Moylan left the Panthers just one season into a five-year deal  —because the Darren Lockyer comparisons weren’t just the usual media and fan hype. This time the calls were coming from inside the house, with then-Panthers coach Anthony Griffin himself making the Lockyer comparison.

Eventually, it all became too much. Moylan, who was made the face of a false-dawn Panthers revolution that only truly arrived years later, eventually left Penrith in bitter circumstances for the Sharks. By this time, the Lockyer comparisons had died down. If you cannot fulfill impossible expectations, the rugby league discourse will not hesitate to leave you behind.

Moylan’s years with Cronulla were a mixed bag. His first campaign with the club in 2018 was one of his best seasons in the top grade, culminating in a sudden-death finals showdown with his former club where Moylan produced one of the toughest performances of his career in a 21-20 victory.

The next three seasons were blighted by injury and they turned him into a different sort of player. He still understood space and how to use it, but he didn’t have the speed to complement the skill. Moylan could still be sharp and dangerous, but he was no longer deadly.

He considered retirement before, to his great credit, he produced a strong comeback year in 2022 when he played 24 games and helped steer the Sharks to second on the ladder.

This year was not as kind. Moylan — never the strongest of defenders or most physically robust of players — became a target for opponents and got dropped with a few weeks to go in the regular season.

His move to Super League looks to be coming at the right time. He leaves the NRL with a fine, accomplished career but not a great one.

There is so much wreckage in the fast lane these days and Moylan could never really avoid it. Some of what happened was within his control but a lot of it wasn’t. He was not allowed to be Matt Moylan, or even work out what that really was because he had to be so many other things all at once – a saviour, a leader, a prodigy, a Darren Lockyer-type.

No wonder it never happened the way so many people said it would. Nobody is really ever ready for the weight of the world to be on their shoulders, but that won’t stop rugby league from putting it there.