Kieran Foran’s career could easily have ended in western Sydney. It could have drifted into anonymity across the ditch, or it could have steadily declined at Canterbury.
But after an incredibly challenging and unsettled five seasons, Foran returned to the Manly Sea Eagles ahead of the 2021 season. He was no longer the big name signing that defected to Parramatta for 2016, nor was he expected to carry the team.
Where he was once the talisman, now he was a cog in the team. Relied upon to fulfil his role while the likes of Daly Cherry-Evans and Tom Trbojevic took the reins.
Although it was Trbojevic who collected the Dally M Medal and Cherry-Evans who earned Queensland honours, Foran quietly put together one of his best individual seasons, indicating there was life in this Sea Eagle yet.
No longer the brash kid from New Zealand who won a competition at the age of 20 that shredded opposition defences. Now he was the grizzled veteran, adding stability to a Manly spine that had flitted through a range of five-eighths since his departure at the end of 2015.
He could do a thing or two, because he’d seen a thing or two.
After five years in the wilderness, there was seemingly only one club still keen on the then-30 year old who was fighting his body and time to keep playing in the NRL.
His old club, Manly, had long been searching for his replacement. They had played Blake Green, Trent Hodkinson, Apisai Koroisau, Jamie Lyon, Lachlan Croker, Cade Cust, Kane Elgey, Pita Godinet, Curtis Sironen, Dylan Walker, Matt Wright and Tom Wright all in the five-eighth position.
But why try to replace Foran Mk1.0 when Foran Mk2.0 is on the market and available for a lot less than he once commanded?
The Sea Eagles tabled him a one year contract and partnered him up with 2011 partner in crime Daly Cherry-Evans at the scrum base.
The results were probably more than what Manly were hoping for and showed there is life yet in the career of Kieran Foran.
In somewhat of a reminder of why he was once one of the most sought after players in the game, he produced 20 line break assists alongside 13 try assists.
He was the steady hand as Cherry-Evans and Trbojevic marauded their way to 31 try assists each. The Sea Eagles halfback managed 26 line break assists, while Tom managed a whopping 45 line break assists.
While his numbers may not have been those of his now more noted teammates, he played the role most needed by his side.
It was a similar job he’d done during his first stint with the Sea Eagles when he partnered the likes of Matt Orford and Cherry-Evans while Brett Stewart flew around at fullback, and Steve Matai and Jamie Lyon tore it up in the centres.
Across his initial seven seasons at Manly, he averaged 11 line break assists per season, with his best showing coming in 2016 with 16. He also averaged 15 try assists in that same time period.
Most notable though is the reduction in his number of runs per game. In 2021 he only ran the ball on average 3.8 times per match, well down on his career average of 5.7.
Now 31 and turning 32 in 2022 he’s done what many halves do as they age. He’s using more of his guile, positioning and ability to read the play to put his teammates into gaps, than using his body with reckless abandon.
Statistically speaking, and as expertly analysed by Rugby League Eye Test, 31 is the age when halves reach their playmaking peak, seeing their try assists per game, line break assists per game and general play pass per game all hit their apex.
Good halves play hasn’t exactly been a mystery for Foran, though. Whether as a halfback or five-eighth, he’s always been seen as a nearly complete package.
During his time at the ever-struggling Bulldogs who finished 12th, 12th and 15th during Foran’s three seasons there, he produced 29 line break assists and 32 try assists in 40 games.
It was that last number though, that was the real issue.
Ankle injuries, severe shoulder problems, foot injuries and troublesome hamstrings restricted his game time.
It was at the Bulldogs where his career could very well have ended.
In 2019 when playing for New Zealand, he dislocated his left shoulder and tore the rotator cuff tendons completely off.
It required two surgeries to repair, with the surgeon believing it would take at least 12 months for him to recover.
Had Foran taken 12 months, he would have missed the entirety of the 2020 season and watched his Bulldogs contract wind down.
Even before he lobbed at the Bulldogs, he had managed 17 games for the Warriors, supplying 10 try assists and 10 linebreak assists alongside 20 tackle breaks.
Prior to that he had an ill-fated season with the Parramatta Eels in 2016.
It was a massive coup for the club at the time which was rebuilding following the sudden defection of Jarryd Hayne to the NFL at the end of 2014.
The Manly five-eighth was at the top of his game. An automatic New Zealand selection who had bagged 34 tries across the previous three seasons.
The Eels had been searching for a well-balanced, steady half to help guide the side around and free up Corey Norman. Foran seemed like the perfect fit.
Foran’s recruitment was seen as the most important for the club in well over a decade as it searched to return to the finals for the first time since 2009.
He came to the Eels with the blessing and assistance of legendary halfback Peter Sterling who said at the time,
“I’ve spoken to Kieran during the course of this and one thing with Kieran that never changed was his belief in the footballing side of things.
“I think he’s excited by the fact Parramatta have a host of good young players out there and you throw in Beau Scott and Michael Gordon around Anthony Watmough and Kieran Foran … on the field they are going in the right direction.
“In his relationship with Brad Arthur and what he thinks will be the best for his football future, that never really wavered, despite all the problems over the last couple of weeks in getting the contract sorted.”
Storm clouds gathered on the horizon though.
A hamstring strain ruled Foran out of round one. It was effectively the canary in the coalmine.
Foran would only play nine matches for the Eels after originally arriving as the team’s great hope. Such was the expectation on him, he was named a captain alongside Beau Scott and Tim Mannah.
Parramatta lurched from crisis to crisis throughout 2016 as a salary cap scandal saw the club stripped of 12 competition points and the board removed by the state government.
Nathan Peats was forced out of the club while Junior Paulo departed early to the Canberra Raiders.
Foran, struck by continued injuries and issues in his personal life, struggled with his mental health and by the end of the year had asked to be released from his contract.
Across his nine matches for Parramatta he still managed five try assists, four line break assists and 16 tackle breaks.
And it’s that tackle break statistic that becomes even more interesting, the more you look at it.
According to Rugby League Eye Test data, once a half, be they five-eighth or halfback, reaches 26 or 27, they run the ball far less. And for Foran, that remains true.
His runs per game in 2021 were 3.8. His peak was in 2010 when he ran the ball 7.4 times per game and it has steadily declined since.
Yet despite his runs per game dropping off, his tackle breaks have increased from 1 per game across his Bulldogs career, to 1.2. He averaged 1.7 tackle breaks per game during his nine games for the Eels, but across a 20-plus game season, this is his best return since his first stint at Manly.
It means he remains a handful for defences when he tucks the ball and runs, but is still as deadly as he was in his early 20s when setting up his teammates.
Alongside an attacking output that rivals his physical peak at Manly from 2009-2015, Foran also seems to have reached a place with his body that once again allows him to play 25 games per season.
It’s a combination that could once again see him recognised as one of the best five-eighths in the game and may even see him represent the Kiwis at the World Cup by the end of the year.
Foran may not have had the world beating career that seemed ahead of him, but he’s enjoying a bright twilight that will only enhance his legacy when his time in the game comes to an end.
He once appeared as though he’d be a player cursed with the “what if?” question. What if he didn’t retire at 29? What if he didn’t finish at the Bulldogs?
Well, armed with a new one year contract, he has a chance to write his own answer and his own ending.
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