It is September 2008 and Cameron Smith, age 25, has already captained Queensland and Australia and is deep in talks with Melbourne Storm about a rich new contract. Isaac Moses, an ambitious Sydney sports agent doesn’t know Smith well but he has his phone number.
The international hooker has opted against renewing a deal with his long-time manager, Jim Banaghan, and with a virtual feeding frenzy for his signature Moses and David Riolo, the former Illawarra and Parramatta fullback who co-owns the management company where the young agent is working, are among those eager for Smith’s business.
Moses is eight years into his career in the management game and after hundreds of visits to junior footy grounds to size up emerging talent, this is the big fish he has been waiting for.
In the end, it is Smith who approaches him, asking him to come to Melbourne to pitch to him, as he has done with other more prominent agents. Moses is barely 30 and looking after only a handful of NRL players but by November, with Gold Coast Titans still dangling a $3 million offer to Smith negotiated by Banaghan, it is him that the Storm captain chooses.
Smith ultimately stays in Melbourne but this is not his story. It’s the story of the rise and potential fall of the enigmatic man in his corner and how he became one of the most influential and powerful figures in the NRL. It is based on more than a dozen interviews including with club chief executives, chairmen, coaches, managers and recruiters, as well as documents from Moses’s Supreme Court battle with mind guru and former associate Joe Wehbe that he settled this year. Most of those contacted declined to go on the record; more still preferred not to talk at all.
Loved by those loyal to him and loathed in equal measure by those he has fallen out with and those who won’t deal with him, there is not a more polarising figure in rugby league.
Smith, arguably the greatest player the game has seen, remains Moses’s most high-profile client 12 years on from that phone call. But the cross-code empire the agent has built with a stable of more than 50 NRL players, three head coaches and Queensland mentor Kevin Walters is in danger of crashing down after a determination by the NRL that his accreditation should be cancelled.
Moses, who declined to comment to the Herald, is appealing last week’s decision, contesting League Central’s finding that he “procured and assisted” former Eels captain Tim Mannah to give false evidence to an integrity unit investigation three years ago as the NRL probed the role of players in the Parramatta salary cap scandal.
An in-camera hearing before the game’s independent appeals committee, where Mannah is expected to appear as the NRL’s star witness if Moses if given leave to appeal, is unlikely to be the end of the matter, certainly if Moses doesn’t get off and takes his battle to court. Moses is fiercely protesting his innocence and with two decades of intimate knowledge of the underbelly of NRL player contracting and the salary cap many believe that if he is goes down he take others with him.
It is a long way from the days when Moses first joined the industry part-time in 2000. He began in a commission-only role while still employed at Stadium Australia, where he had taken an entry-level job straight out of finishing at Parramatta Marist High School in 1996. Moses worked in membership and then for several years after the Sydney Olympics in event and operations at the stadium under Todd Greenberg, the future Canterbury and NRL chief executive, who last year recused himself from the investigation into the agent to avoid a perception of bias.
While he was at the stadium it was Riolo, then playing in the old Metropolitan Cup with Guildford after retiring from the NRL in 1998, who brought Moses on at his business Titan Management, which he owned with Warren Craig, Riolo’s former manager and the long-time agent of cricketers Glenn McGrath and Steve Smith. Moses was playing in the lower grades at Guildford and made it clear he had bigger things in mind.
Managers are all part of the game, and they play a bigger role than most people think. I haven’t had great experiences with them so far
James Tedesco last year
Moses would spend more than a decade with Titan as part of a double act with Riolo that proved enormously successful. The duo were behind the scenes of the groundbreaking code switches of Israel Folau and Karmichael Hunt from the NRL to the AFL in 2010 – Moses as Folau’s manager, Riolo as Hunt’s agent.
But as Moses’s stature grew so did his belief that he should have a bigger slice of the pie. In 2011, he became a minority shareholder at Titan when Riolo and Craig agreed to sell him 20 per cent of the business at a cost of $600,000.
He didn’t have the money so, according to court documents, took out a $400,000 loan from the Bank of Queensland in his wife’s name as well as vendor loans of $100,000 each with Riolo and Craig.
Two years later, with his debts all but unpaid, he moved to exit Titan and turned to Wehbe, a property developer who was playing an increasing role in his life, to help him negotiate a way out.
According to court documents, a verbal agreement was struck that Wehbe would repay Moses’s loans and would become a silent partner in a new sports management partnership and Moses would grant Wehbe access to players to give them property and financial advice and mentoring. The so-called ‘football whisperer’, as Wehbe is now known after being a guiding light for the likes of James Tedesco, Daly Cherry-Evans and Mannah, was born.
The relationship with Wehbe soured spectacularly two years ago when Moses denied they were ever in a joint venture, but not before the mind guru helped the agent flex his muscles even more by stretching his realm of influence from individual players to entire NRL clubs.
The most glaring example was at Wests Tigers, who three years ago found themselves in the unenviable position of having their four best players, all managed by Moses and three of them mentored by Wehbe, off contract at the same time
“We felt like we were hostages,” recalls one Tigers official.
While Wehbe tried to secure a full-time role at the Tigers, Moses ran negotiations on behalf of “big four” Tedesco, Mitchell Moses, Aaron Woods and Luke Brooks in a damaging episode during which Jason Taylor lost his job as coach. The Tigers ended up keeping only Brooks after they pulled an offer for Moses’s cousin, Mitchell, because of salary cap re-forecasting and the others signed elsewhere.
It was a harsh lesson for the Tigers in not ceding control of your club to an outsider, a mistake they have vowed never to repeat. There are other clubs who have been careful to maintain a more even spread among agents in terms of which players they manage and the likes of Sydney Roosters, South Sydney, St George and Penrith have had only limited or no representation from Moses clients in recent times.
However, Moses’s influence has again been a discussion point of late, particularly because of his management of coaches. In Brisbane he has Anthony Seibold on the books as well as nine players and several players including Tevita Pangai jnr and Josh McGuire, now at the Cowboys, have switched to his stable while at Red Hill.
While other agents have grown reticent to send players to Brisbane for fear they may be poached, the closeness of Moses’s relationship with Broncos recruiter Peter Nolan, who was at Parramatta when the agent had a large cast of players at the Eels, has also been questioned. The club argues this is unfair.
“We’ve never had a more proportionate number of management companies managing our players across our business since I’ve been here,” Broncos chief Paul White said. “Yes, his [Moses’] management company is well represented as are a number of others. We’ve got a fair bit of diversity. I’m totally comfortable with where we are at with our playing group.”
The other club where Moses now carries most weight is the New Zealand Warriors, where the recently sacked coach Stephen Kearney, who is his client, has been replaced temporarily by another, Todd Payten, and where he has four leading players on the books: Adam Blair, Blake Green, Kodi Nikorima and Gerard Beale. At Newcastle, where he has coach Adam O’Brien, he has seven players; and at the Storm, there are six in the Moses stable.
Moses gets criticised for, among other things, claims he tries to manipulate rosters, uses players as recruiters and networkers, is temperamental in the way he operates and in the grand tradition of rugby league, holds grudges like the best of them.
In the messy split with Wehbe, who himself intends to become a registered agent, he lost the support of Tedesco, the game’s best player, who had joined Moses from fellow manager Sam Ayoub while at the Tigers.
“Managers are all part of the game, and they play a bigger role than most people think,” the Roosters fullback said last year. “I haven’t had great experiences with them so far.”
Moses does, though, retains the grudging respect of heavyweights like Nick Politis for his ability to close a deal and determination to squeeze out every last dollar for his clients.
He is unapologetic about putting his players first and maintains the staunch backing of the likes of Smith, Woods and Matt Lodge, who rallied behind him publicly when the NRL last week announced an intention to cancel his registration. Smith did not return a text from the Herald.
“The thing I like about him is he’s a very good family man,” Knights coach O’Brien told the Herald. “He cares about his clients. He’s helped me along the way grow as a person and a coach.
“I’m not across all the detail [of the disciplinary proceedings] but I can only judge him on what he’s been for me and that’s being professional and a good friend and mentor. I’m a loyal person and I’ll be sticking by him.”
Crucially for Moses, however, Mannah has not. One of four agents to be suspended for six months in 2012 over the Melbourne salary cap affair, Moses was among several agents given a so-called letter of comfort from the NRL in relation to the Eels cap scandal when the governing body took over the oversight of agents in 2018.
The gist was that as the old agent accreditation committee, which was run in connection with the players’ association, had not gone down the path of taking action against managers about Parramatta, there would be no double jeopardy from the NRL.
That all changed, though, when Mannah, who remains on staff at the Eels and close to Wehbe, returned to the integrity unit and told investigators that when he and other players were offered immunity in 2017 to tell the truth about what went on at Parramatta, Moses had persuaded him to lie to them. The Herald reached out to Mannah and Wehbe but did not hear back.
The admission of the former front-rower came amid a crackdown on agents from head office that is still in the works. It may well lead to managers no longer being able to represent both players and coaches and for the rules around deregistration to be tightened to prevent those who have been rubbed out from continuing to pull strings in the background.
For now, though, the attention is squarely on Moses, who continues to manage players and front negotiations while he battles to clear his name.
The NRL’s super agent has fought hard for many a player’s contract but this is the fight of his professional life.
Chris Barrett is Chief Sports Reporter of The Sydney Morning Herald.