Bryce Gibbs is the joker in Cronulla’s pack.
AS Lote Tuqiri prepares to negotiate his future at Wests Tigers, the dual international is conscious of past mistakes.
“You don’t know what impact contract negotiations have,” he says.
“As much as we’d like to think it didn’t, the stuff with Bryce Gibbs and a few others probably had an effect last year.”
Is it any coincidence Gibbs is the only player nominated to illustrate the painful shake-up at Concord in 2011? Andrew Fifita was also forced out.
And popular quartet Tim Moltzen, Chris Heighington, Beau Ryan and Liam Fulton were all shopped to rival clubs before staying put.
But it was nonetheless Gibbs who unsettled the team the most.
Coaches can put an empirical value on his metres gained and tackles made. But what simply can’t be measured is the importance of a quirky persona to overall harmony.
The prop’s humour might be from another planet, but it still speaks a universal language to a roster comprised of diverse ages, cultures and marital statuses.
That’s why Sharks rake John Morris - who previously played alongside Gibbs at Wests - was heartened to learn his old front-row partner would pack down at Cronulla this season.
“I told the boys they wouldn’t know what was about to hit them,” Morris recalls.
"Gibbo just has this weird personality that brings people together through humour.
“It’s light-hearted and a timely reminder that footy is not the be-all and end-all in life.”
While at the Tigers, Gibbs and sidekick Fulton would have the team in stitches with their equivalent of Jackass.
“He just has no fear of hurting himself and it’s hilarious,” Morris continues. "At the Tigers, him and Liam would do some crazy stuff like whipping each other with a foam roller until they bled.
“They’d run full pace into one another with heavy Swiss balls or crank the treadmill up to full pace and see who could last the longest running backwards.”
Prudish readers might label such stunts immature, dangerous and out-dated in the do-gooder climate of professional sport. But NRL clubhouses are not the House of Representatives either.
They are collectives of young men who started off in carefree environments at their local footy oval which built a tendency to bond over pubescent humour.
Even Wayne Bennett - a former police officer and the game’s most famed disciplinarian - needs a joker in his pack.
At Brisbane, Bennett enjoyed the bonus of his best players also being happy-go-lucky types.
There’s none cheekier than Allan Langer and Kevin Walters, and both are now lifting the mood as assistant coaches at Brisbane and Melbourne Storm respectively.
At St George Illawarra, Bennett also pulled off an unsung masterstroke by convincing larger-than-life Wendell Sailor to continue training after retirement. But when he arrived at Newcastle, Bennett noticed something was missing.
The place lacked a big personality capable of providing levity to help get through the tough periods.
So he took a gamble on the biggest joker available: Willie Mason.
“Wayne noticed the dressing room was a little sterile,” a Knights insider said.
"The boys were quiet and they needed someone to break the ice and lighten things up a little.
“In that regard, there’s probably still none better than Willie.”
Newcastle’s sanitation is reflective of how stiff rugby league has become over the past decade.
When Michael Hagan led the Knights to their second title in 2001, the club boasted some of the game’s best characters in Andrew Johns, Clint Newton and Mark Hughes.
“You need to have guys in the team who can keep a bit of fun in the joint,” Hagan says.
But as they struggle to overturn the club’s worst start in 52 years, the current Eels could desperately use some light-hearted relief.
To a man, Parramatta players nominate prop Shane Shackleton as the funniest bloke in blue and gold.
“His impersonations of Fuifui Moimoi just make the entire team crack up,” one Eel said.
But Shackleton’s exile in NSW Cup after calling coach Steve Kearney a “f…wit” on Facebook, has robbed the team’s dressing room of a vital component.
To address the mood, Kearney arranged a bonding camp and team dinner at Michael Cronin’s Gerringong pub a fortnight ago.
The trip was well-received, but after last week’s narrow loss to St George Illawarra there was only more devastation and silence.
Canterbury were in similar shape 12 months ago, when a dark cloud hung over the future of then-coach Kevin Moore.
Desperate to repair their broken brand after years of scandal, Bulldogs also dispensed with a cast of bold personalities - Mason, Willie Tonga, Reni Maitua, and Mark O’Meley - in favour of clean-cut family men.
Skipper Michael Ennis concedes there’s still not one single player at Belmore who looms largest over the group, which is scattered all over Sydney. But he nominates the return to Belmore as an enormous boost to morale.
“We’re probably a bit different in the fact we’ve got pockets of guys living in different places like the Sutherland Shire and out west,” Ennis says. "That’s why coming back to Belmore has been such a huge thing. It’s like our own little community.
“It’s just easier to all get together at one of the local cafes and do stuff outside of training as a team.”
This is why stalwarts Hazem El Masri and Luke Patten privately described the move to Homebush Bay in 2008 as eminently regrettable.
In their four years away from Belmore, the cashed-up powerhouse made just one finals series and also collected the wooden spoon.
In the same period, Manly - forced to go cap in hand for $1 million-plus hand-outs from their owners - have contested every finals series and won two premierships.
“It’s not rocket science,” one veteran Sea Eagles official says. "This is such a tight group because the boys all live close to one another and have become great mates off the field.
“And that’s a big reason why we’ve been able to keep the majority of the squad together for so long, despite the salary cap.”
Your club’s link man:
Broncos: Sam Thaiday had been using his dry wit to break the ice long before he assumed the captaincy of the club from Darren Lockyer.
Raiders: The departure of social butterflies Troy Thompson and Joel Monaghan left big shoes to fill, but giant prop Dane Tilse has stepped up.
Bulldogs: Converging at training from all over Sydney, Bulldogs players have relished their return to the cafes of Belmore. Trainer Tony Grimaldi is as instrumental as any player in gathering the team for ten-pin bowling competitions.
Sharks: John Morris took on the job of organising end-of-season holidays three years ago. But the addition of noted funnyman Bryce Gibbs has really livened things up and given the players constant light relief.
Titans: Players credit unsung utility Luke O’Dwyer for organising team dinners at the Titanium Bar or screenings of American Pie IV: The Reunion.
Sea Eagles: Arguably the tightest knit bunch in the NRL. Back-rower Glenn Stewart is the common factor in cards nights and BBQs.
Storm: Wacky centre Dane Nielsen is the unlikely glue for the purple juggernaut, keeping teammates in stitches with his sarcasm.
Newcastle: Mastercoach Wayne Bennett signed Willie Mason to help in this department after becoming concerned his sheds lacked a character capable of lifting spirits.
Cowboys: Recently re-signed forward Glenn Hall is the common denominator in most of the hijinks at Townsville.
Eels: The cellar-dwellers could use out-of-favour forward Shane Shackleton’s wisecracks and Fuifui Moimoi impersonations to help lift the gloom.
Panthers: Cheeky playmaker Travis Burns provides the buzz at training, while veteran recruit Clint Newton has
quickly fallen into the role of social co-ordinator.
Rabbitohs: He’s been providing gossip columnists with plenty of fodder since arriving Down Under, so it’s no surprise Sam Burgess has proved crucial to Rabbitoh bonding efforts.
Dragons: Prop Dan Hunt is the punchline of just about every joke in Wollongong.
Roosters: One of the last remaining Bondi bachelors, back-rower Aidan Guerra collects money for holidays and
oversees the team’s Wheel of Death.
Warriors: The ultra-organised Micheal Luck is in his final NRL season so the Auckland boys are on the look-out for
Tigers: Liam Fulton has been forced to carry on a one-man show in the absence of his long-time sidekick, Gibbs. Benji Marshall has impressed with his desire to include youngsters on lunches at inner west cafes.