Few clubs have benefitted as spectacularly from one season of recruitment as the Gold Coast Titans did in 2016.
Beset by off-field scandal, poor on-field results and financial ruin, the Titans made a string of astute buys to transform from cellar-dwellers into a finalist for the first time since 2010.
Young Broncos No.7 Ashley Taylor took out Dally M Rookie of the Year honours, while ex-Newcastle playmaker Tyrone Roberts starred alongside the novice in the halves, journeyman forward Zeb Taia provided outstanding value, and evergreen hooker Nathan Friend made a fine return to the club.
Meanwhile, mid-season recruits Nathan Peats, Konrad Hurrell and Jarryd Hayne turned what was regarded as arguably the NRL’s weakest roster into one of the most exciting.
But the career revival of another Titans recruit, Chris McQueen, was perhaps the most underrated success story of last year’s transfer market narrative.
The versatile back-rower was a key member of South Sydney’s euphoric 2014 premiership triumph, but his form fell away the following season – mirroring that of the struggling defending champs – and he lost his place in the Queensland Origin side.
He was then moved on at the end of 2015 by the Rabbitohs, who needed to free up salary cap space to bring English superstar Sam Burgess back from rugby union.
The make-or-break move back to his home state could hardly have paid off more emphatically for the gutsy workhorse, however, playing all 25 games of the Titans’ watershed campaign and scoring a career-high nine tries.
— FOX SPORTS NRL (@FOXNRLLive) September 9, 2016
McQueen’s renaissance began with a trip to the NRL Auckland Nines, where the unfancied Titans set the tone for 2016 by reaching the semi-finals, with McQueen and teammate Agnatius Paasi named in the official Team of the Tournament.
“Before the season started everyone wrote us off, we were wooden spoon favourites,” McQueen told Commentary Box Sports.
“The Nines isn’t a reflection of how the season’s going to be, but to go over and play some good footy with the boys gave me some confidence, and it gave the boys some confidence for the season.”
McQueen was strong again as the Titans reached the quarters at Eden Park earlier this month, and he’s happy to accept his reputation as something of a ‘Nines specialist’.
“I don’t mind that, I’ll take it,” McQueen laughs.
“I’ve played every Nines tournament so far, and having that experience as a winger when I was a bit younger and now in the forwards, I’ve still got a little bit of pace about me.”
The Kingaroy Red Ants junior arrived at Souths via Wynnum Manly as a raw-boned three-quarter, making his NRL debut late in the 2009 season and scoring two tries as the also-ran Bunnies won three of their last four games.
Two knee reconstructions halted the 22-year-old’s progress – wiping out his entire 2010 campaign – but he returned impressively the following season, with coach John Lang giving McQueen his first taste in the second-row. A call-up to the Prime Minister’s XIII was the reward for a superb first full season of first grade.
Incoming coach Michael Maguire liked what he saw and used McQueen predominantly as a forward who provided a handy back-up option out wide from 2012 onwards.
He broke into the Maroons’ squad for the 2013 series opener and played in five straight Origins before injury ruled him out of the 2014 dead-rubber, but he returned in time to feature in Souths’ grand final victory.
But the utility, who had his Rabbitohs player number inked on his neck among a multitude of tattoos, learned little is permanent in rugby league during a 2015 campaign that would conservatively be described as a step backwards.
But after seven seasons in Sydney, McQueen – whose mum Donna lives in Brisbane – quickly slotted back into life in the Sunshine State, and adapted seamlessly to becoming a Gold Coast Titan after bleeding red and green in 116 first-grade games.
“Obviously I’m a Queenslander, born in Brisbane and brought up in Kingaroy, so it feels like home.”
McQueen has also enhanced his reputation as one of the code’s good guys thanks to his off-field work with charities, including as an ambassador with Animal Welfare League Queensland and the Mudgeeraba Rebacks junior club.
— AWLQ (@AWLQ) December 10, 2016
As quickly as he regressed in the pecking order during his last year with the Rabbitohs, McQueen has risen again after arguably the best season of his career – to the extent that he is right in the mix for an Origin recall.
Ironically, McQueen made himself available for England’s Four Nations campaign last year, qualifying through a British-born grandmother…but he was surprisingly overlooked for Wayne Bennett’s squad.
That leaves the door ajar for a return to the Queensland fold, though, and McQueen confirms that is one of his goals for 2017.
“I put my hand up for England last year but that didn’t work out,” he says.
“But I’m still eligible to play for Queensland. I just want to play as much footy as possible, and I want to play at the highest level.
“My hand’s definitely still up to play Origin.”
Broncos duo Matt Gillett and Sam Thaiday are near-certainties for the Queensland team if fit, but Corey Parker’s retirement opens up a back-row spot, while Roosters forward Aidan Guerra is under pressure to retain his place after a subpar 2016.
But Josh Papalii, Gavin Cooper and Josh McGuire are all in the Maroons’ back-row mix, and a maiden call-up is not beyond the likes of Coen Hess, Jayson Bukuya and Ethan Lowe.
McQueen’s versatility – starting 21 NRL games at centre or wing (and scoring an impressive 12 tries) – gives him an edge over most contenders, and Queensland’s selectors and coach Kevin Walters won’t have to delve too far into the memory bank to recall the excellent contribution he made in 2013-14.
It’s also a handy asset for Titans coach Neil Henry to have up his sleeve, with the burgeoning club desperately short on depth out wide.
McQueen’s solid averages of 69.4 minutes, 74.4 metres and 28.7 tackles per game – along with totals of eight line-breaks and 30 tackle-breaks for the season – are integral to the highly-respected Gold Coast pack’s modus operandi, but you never know when his ability to slot into the backline will come in handy.
The catch-22 of McQueen’s 2016 renaissance for the Titans is that he is again attracting the attention of Sydney clubs.
The Courier-Mail is reporting the 29-year-old will meet with three teams down south to discuss his future from 2018 onwards, with the Titans’ hopes of retaining him narrowing if the $900,000 figure over two seasons on offer with a rival outfit is accurate.
— ZeroTackle.com (@zerotackle) February 16, 2017
“Chris has interest from Sydney clubs,” Titans recruitment chief Tony Mestrov said.
“We will meet with his management and see where we go.
“Chris is in his last year here and he’s been a very good player for us. He’s extremely consistent and he can play several positions, so we need to sort out his future.
“Chris has indicated he is keen to stay. He likes living on the Gold Coast but we’re aware of the interest from other NRL clubs.
“Hopefully we can sort out a deal that is acceptable to all parties.”
Wherever he plays his footy in 2018, there’s little question McQueen will give the Titans exceptional value this year, and the contractual rewards set to come his way are due recognition for the perseverance and consistency of one of the NRL’s most likable stars.
— Lisa Brown (@vanilla6873) February 15, 2017