It was universally believed North Queensland centre Justin O’Neill had taken up a one-year option this season but NRL.com can reveal that last year he re-signed with the club until the end of 2021.
The 28-year-old has outlined how the story of the one-year option gained traction, while also setting the record straight about the true nature of his deal.
When asked about the saga, O’Neill shook his head and grinned.
"It was really weird because I had spoken to the club last year and they had offered me another three years and I said I was happy to re-sign, and then I did an all-in interview and someone said ‘you have taken up your option’ and I sort of said ‘yeah, I am definitely staying’," O’Neill told NRL.com.
"So every interview after that they would say 'you’ve taken up your option' and in the end it started to make me rethink to myself 'I am sure I have re-signed for three years, haven’t I?''
"It kept coming up so in the end I went back and checked with my manager about what had definitely happened…and yes, I had definitely signed for another three years."
Rabbitohs v Cowboys - Round 9
Adding to the confusion was the fact the Cowboys did not officially announce O’Neill’s re-signing.
O’Neill, who won a title at the Melbourne Storm in 2012, joined the Cowboys in 2015 and said it was where he had played his best football. It was never an option for him to look elsewhere when the Cowboys tabled a new deal.
"First and foremost, if I was to get another few more years at the Cowboys I was always going to take that," he said.
“In negotiations they had offered three years so I didn’t want to look elsewhere, and that’s because some of the achievements I’ve had here at the Cowboys have been highlights of my career.
"The year I arrived in 2015 we won the premiership that year and then I played Origin for Queensland while I was at this club, and was fortunate enough to play for Australia as well.
“It is a club where I found my feet and I played a lot of my best footy and I feel like I am starting to get back to that. So I felt like another three years here would enable me to play my best footy."
Those rep days may not be over. The Maroons have lost Greg Inglis to retirement and are short on class centres for this year’s series which could give O’Neill an opening for a recall.
"It hasn’t crossed my mind to be honest. The last couple of years it feels as though I fell away from the best footy I was playing at the Cowboys when I first came here," he said.
"It felt like I fell away a bit and have only just started getting back to that ... To get selected again would be great but it is not a focus at the moment."
O’Neill scored a try in each of the five NRL games he has played this year and has averaged 131 metres per game. He was dropped to the Intrust Super Cup with the Townsville Blackhawks after the round two loss to Brisbane, before returning to the Cowboys side in round six after handling his demotion well.
"I didn’t want it to happen. I would have loved to have been able to help the boys any way I could have. Even though they had some losses I wanted to be a part of that," O’Neill said.
"If ever I have to go back to Q Cup I go back with a level head and don't think that I am better than any of the boys back there. Those boys want to win games as well and I try and do my role for their team and the best job I can to help them get a win."