A historic grand final win, Origin and an unlikely international debut. 2016 was one season to savour for James Maloney.
You couldn’t wipe the smile of James Maloney’s face. There in the bowels of London’s Olympic Stadium after Australia had wiped the floor with England was the Cronulla half, beer in hand and with a wide grin. Maloney might not have played against the Poms in the UK capital, with Cooper Cronk partnering Johnathan Thurston in the halves and Michael Morgan on the bench, but that mattered little.
Maloney enjoyed a rare season of success that few footballers get to match. The five-eighth played a starring role as Cronulla finally ended their 50-year wait for a premiership. He starred for NSW, scoring one try and keeping his place for all three games as he finally established himself in the Origin arena.
And then he made his Test debut for the Kangaroos, scoring a try against Scotland, and came off the bench against the Kiwis in Coventry a week later. His time in the green and gold, unexpected by the man himself, was the icing on the cake on a year of highs.
“It’s has been a crazy year,” Maloney admitted to Love Rugby League.
“I suppose I’m just enjoying it at the moment, it’s my first tour and I’m having a ball. Down the track when you look back it has been a big year and I’ve achieved a fair bit in the space of 12 months, so it’s a year I’ll look back fondly on I’m sure.”
“[Getting picked for Australia] was unexpected, I didn’t’ think anything of it really it came to me as a bit of a shock.
“I was stoked to get my debut against Scotland then to play a bench role the next week against the Kiwis. It’s something now that it’s happened and I would love to do again.”
Maloney earned his first Kangaroo cap at Hull at the ripe old age of 30. The playmaker would have to be one of the oldest players in recent memory to play for Australia, and in the Kangaroo touring party he was one of the more senior members of the squad.
Until late last year Maloney, who broke into first-grade in 2009 and has had four NRL clubs, thought his chance of a shot in the green and gold jumper had been and gone.
“It’s probably something I thought would never happen so now that it has it’s something I’m pretty proud of and it’s been an enjoyable tour.”
Mal Meninga has only been in charge of the Australian team for a year but there has clearly already been an attitude shift in the national set-up. The current edition of the Kangaroos seem more united than previous squads, with no hint of a divide along Origin lines.
The bond paid off when Australia reclaimed the Four Nations trophy in style over New Zealand in Liverpool. Maloney credits Meninga for bringing the team closer together.
“It’s a good environment, Mals’ been really good and we’ve had plenty of time to enjoy each others’ company and have fun together and that’s important and that helps build that bond. It’s been a ball, you can probably hear in the sheds it’s a lot of fun.”
It’s been just over four months since Cronulla made history by defeating the Storm and claiming their maiden premiership. Maloney, who has also won a grand final with the Roosters, says the enormity of the Sharks’ achievement is still sinking in somewhat.
“I suppose any grand final’s special but I think it sort of hit after the game. I remember seeing guys like ET and that in tears on the ground and that sort of hit home a little bit of how important and how much it meant to so many people.
“The reception that we got in the next couple of days was mental. It was great, good for the area; good for the club and its good for rugby league so it’s something no one will take away. It’ll always be the first.”
Maloney will be seeking to maintain his golden run for club and country in 2017. With a World Cup and another State of Origin series on the horizon, there is plenty to look forward to it. Cronulla will also be fighting to break the record that no NRL club has won back-to-back titles in more than 24 years.
“It’s a big ask. I suppose everyone thought it was possible at the Roosters after we won, but it’s very hard to do. That’ll be the goal [though], it’ll be a long way between start of the season and the end.”
The Sharks’ season has already taken a hit with defeat in the World Club Challenge against Wigan and the controversial departure of Ben Barba after a positive drugs test. The loss of Valentine Holmes to injury, and the retirement of Michael Ennis, hasn’t helped matters either.
But with Maloney in the halves Cronulla have a safe pair of hands at the wheel. If they are to have any chance of success this year, they will need to rely on their man from the Central Coast once more.