Every season there are a swag of players under pressure to perform on the back of a disappointing year, or as a high-profile recruit – and the 2016 premiership will feature a bumper crop of stars entering make-or-break territory. We’ve assembled an entire line-up of players with a point to prove next year.
1. Ben Barba
Touted to resurrect his career at Cronulla – despite a dramatic fall from grace at Canterbury and a disappointing one-season stay in Brisbane – Barba could not cement the fullback or five-eighth role for the resurgent Sharks, making 13 of his 19 appearances off the bench. The arrival of James Maloney and Chad Townsend had created a halves logjam, while Dally M Rookie of the Year Jack Bird is tipped to be shifted to fullback; fellow boom youngster Valentine Holmes appears next in line for the No.1 jumper.
At this stage, all is pointing to an interchange role for Barba – or being left out of the 17 altogether. It’s a make-or-break year for the former superstar, who scored just three tries and produced only four line-breaks and four try-assists in an underwhelming 2015 campaign for a Sharks side that don’t really need him.
2. Dale Copley
Copley shaped as a Broncos backline certainty and a possible Queensland Origin bolter after top-scoring for the club with 16 tries in 2014. But he slipped well down the pecking order following Wayne Bennett’s return, with Jordan Kahu, Corey Oates and Lachlan Maranta preferred to play outside mainstays Justin Hodges and Jack Reed. Copley played just nine games and crossed for one measly try. Hodges’ retirement has created an opportunity – with Kahu favoured to slot in at centre – but Copley has a battle on his hands ousting Maranta and new buy Carlin Anderson for the vacant wing spot.
3. Konrad Hurrell
‘The Hurrellcane’ has been recognised as one of the game’s most destructive attacking players since debuting in 2012, despite intermittently finding himself dropped by the Warriors’ succession of first-grade coaches over a poor attitude to training and defensive shortcomings. His axings previously caused outrage amongst the club’s faithful, but this year the fans joined Andrew McFadden is losing patience. Injury, suspension and dusty form restricted Hurrell to just 12 games (three off the bench), in which he chalked up just four tries and four line-breaks.
Seemingly more preoccupied with social media and socialising than improving his game, the backline wrecking ball was told he was free to look elsewhere, but has opted to stay and is training the house down by all accounts. Potentially the best centre in the game if he gets into the right headspace, Hurrell is undoubtedly on his last chance with the Warriors, and will be competing with Solomone Kata, Tuimoala Lolohea, Blake Ayshford, Jonathan Wright and David Fusitua for a centre berth in 2016.
4. Dylan Walker
A prescription drugs scandal and a release from his contract to make way for Sam Burgess represented a rapid fall from grace for South Sydney’s gun outside-back Walker. He was superb for an inconsistent Rabbitohs outfit this year, scoring 13 tries and making 66 tackle-breaks, but now seems certain to be wearing the maroon and white of Manly in 2016. Walker is tipped to plug the Sea Eagles’ five-eighth gap, which would represent a new – and daunting – challenge for the 2014 Kangaroo.
5. Sione Mata’utia
After becoming the youngest Australian Test player of all time in 2014, with just seven NRL games under his belt, the most hyped of the ultra-talented Mata’utia struggled to find his niche in the Knights’ line-up this season. Starting off the bench early in the year before predominantly featuring at centre, the 19-year-old will battle with Jake Mamo for the fullback role in 2016 but is equally effective at centre or wing. Mata’utia will be looking to drastically improve on his 2015 tally of three tries and two line-breaks – particularly after averaged a try per game as a rookie.
6. Mitchell Moses
Emerging as one of the code’s most exciting, gifted playmaking talents in 2014 at fullback and five-eighth, few players underwhelmed this season more than Wests Tigers pivot Moses. He played all 24 games and notched a respectable 12 try assists, but his running game was rarely at its best – scoring three tries and making only four line-breaks – and he was regularly found out in defence. Off-contract at the end of 2016, several clubs are reportedly keen on securing Moses’ signature. The Tigers are among them, but with Jack Littlejohn and Jordan Rankin coming on board, there is a Plan B available is Moses struggles to live up to the hype again in his third NRL campaign.
7. Trent Hodkinson
Ben Hunt, Daly Cherry-Evans and Moses Mbye all have extra-strong motivation for producing a standout campaign in 2015, but few clubs’ fortunes rest as heavily on its halfback as Newcastle on its marquee recruit. Controversially retained by NSW coach Laurie Daley, he was ineffective in the 2015 series and struggled to take control for an up-and-down Canterbury outfit, to the extent that the club was happy to offload him and bet its future on the Moses Mbye-Josh Reynolds combination. Whether Hodkinson can live up to the saviour role for the reigning wooden spooners looms as one of the big question marks of the 2016 season – but at his best, the 27-year-old rates as one of the NRL’s most astute No.7s. He led the Bulldogs with 12 try assists in 19 games before breaking his arm and missing the 2015 finals.
8. Andrew Fifita
Andrew Fifita was devastating when on the paddock in 2015, with the front-rower averaging 30 tackles, 166 metres and two offloads in 18 games, while also bagging seven tries. But the bottom line is the Sharks were unable to rely on his presence due to suspension, injury and off-field issues. He is too vital to the club’s chances to be intermittently sitting on the sidelines, while the NSW selectors are likely to ignore his unique talents unless he can string plenty of games together.
9. Robbie Farah
Farah’s touted moves to the Dragons and Roosters both fell through, and now, against the odds, he looks set to stay at the Tigers despite the furore that gripped the club in August. The presence of Manly recruit Matt Ballin and Kiwi tourist Manaia Cherrington has clouded the role that Farah, arguably the Tigers’ greatest-ever servant, will play in 2016, but he will be hell-bent on proving he is still an elite hooker and retain his NSW No.9 jumper. He will also be looking to prove Jason Taylor wrong – but the strained relationship between coach and incumbent captain is the biggest question mark hanging over a bizarre situation.
10. Ali Lauitiiti
The Warriors’ shock decision to bring former backrow star Lauitiiti home to Auckland for a farewell season was met with scepticism by most. A Leeds legend, the 36-year-old’s form for Wakefield Trinity in 2015 was not overly convincing. It’s difficult to see where he gets a run in first grade with Lillyman, Matulino, Hoffman, Thompson and Mannering established in the starting pack, and tyros Sao, Vete, Lisone, Faitala-Mariner and Gubb also in the mix. If he can make his first NRL appearance since 2004, Lauitiiti will be the competition’s oldest player, and will stretch his career span to 19 seasons – the second-longest in premiership history.
11. Tony Williams
One of the most maligned players in the NRL, Tony Williams’ 2015 season was curtailed by injury, but next year shapes as a crossroads for the former Origin and Test forward. Des Hasler will be looking to the 26-year-old to fill the breach left by Pritchard. Everyone knows what Williams is capable of on his day, but he managed just one line-break and failed to score a try in 11 appearances this season and will be under pressure from the Bulldogs’ clutch of outstanding young forward prospects.
12. Chris McQueen
The hardworking backrower regained his South Sydney starting position but lost his Queensland bench spot during a lacklustre 2015 campaign. Now he appears almost certain to make way for the return of Sam Burgess, his teammate in the Rabbitohs’ 2014 grand final triumph. After a deal with Penrith fell through, Gold Coast is his likely destination. Wherever he ends up, McQueen needs to improve on modest 2015 stats of 74 metres and 29 tackles per game, along with the paltry two tries and four line-breaks he produced this year. A Super League stint beckons if the veteran of five Origins fails to regain his best.
13. Sam Burgess
The best forward in the world when he left for rugby union following his heroic Churchill Medal-winning performance in the 2014 grand final, Souths have thrown all their eggs in one basket by bringing the code-hopper back. The coup has created major salary cap pressure for the Rabbitohs, with rep stars Dylan Walker and Chris McQueen on their way to rival clubs and standout rookie Chris Grehvsmuhl may also depart to make room for Burgess. The dual international’s output must match the fanfare.