Thursday 22 February 2018 / 05:41 AM


While the moves of marquee men such as Cooper Cronk, Mitchell Pearce, Kieran Foran, James Graham, Ben Hunt, Jarryd Hayne, James Maloney, Matt Moylan, Josh Dugan, Adam Blair, Dane Gagai, James Tedesco and Josh Reynolds dominate 2018 NRL premiership chatter, we identify the low-key pick-ups set to provide top value for each club.


The Broncos have been comparatively quiet in the player market, with big-name arrival Jack Bird and controversial prop Matt Lodge their only 2018 signings to create a ripple. With first-choice forwards Adam Blair, Jai Arrow and Herman Ese’ese leaving the forward stocks are looking a bit thin at Red Hill, but giant prop/back-rower Andre Savelio could help plug the gaps. The 22-year-old Englishman has more than 60 games in stints with St Helens, Castleford and Warrington under his belt, proving a handy bench weapon for the Wolves in 2017, and is set to flourish in the Broncos’ system.


As the Raiders attempt to pick up the pieces from Josh Hodgson’s long-term knee injury, the signing of ex-Dragons and Bulldogs utility Craig Garvey has become crucial to the club’s 2018 campaign. Kurt Baptiste looks to be on the move from the capital, ex-Warriors Erin Clark has been released and Adam Clydsdale – who was only recently announced to be returning to the Green Machine after a short stint at Cronulla – announced his shock retirement, which leaves the rugged Garvey virtually as the last No.9 standing. The 24-year-old has been on the fringes for several years – playing 23 NRL games since his 2013 debut – and the cards have fallen his way for a regular first-grade spot next season.


Among the best players not playing regular NRL footy, the versatile Fa’amanu Brown shapes as an excellent pick-up for the Bulldogs. The Christchurch junior has 24 first-grade games at Cronulla to his name and was a regular skipper of the Newtown Jets, despite his tender age. Depending on the make-up of incoming coach Dean Pay’s spine – with Moses Mbye reportedly being considered at fullback – Brown could find himself alongside Kieran Foran in the halves, or coming off the bench in rotation with hooker Michael Lichaa. The 22-year-old is a classy ball-player, a tough nut and one of the most personable young men in the game.


Veteran forwards Chris Heighington and Jeremy Latimore left the Shire at the end of season 2017, which makes the acquisition of Wests Tigers stalwart Ava Seumanufagai especially astute. The Wellington (NZ) product isn’t a big name by any stretch, but he has quietly made his way past 100 NRL appearances for the Tigers, playing at least 17 games each season since his 2013 debut. Seumanufagai, who should be entering his prime at 26 years of age, tips the scales at 116kg and averaged 103 metres and 23 tackles per game this year in a largely outplayed Tigers pack. He developed into a front-row starter over the past two seasons after coming off the bench in all but three of his first 69 first-grade outings.


With Jarryd Hayne mercifully off their books, the Titans can afford to splash the cash. Leilani Latu was a recent addition, while Michael Gordon is rumoured to be on his way to the holiday strip as a fullback replacement for Hayne. But the club has already made a handy outside-back buy in the form of Brendan Elliot. Though unable to cement a permanent first-grade role with the Roosters or Knights, the Brisbane-born 23-year-old has scored 19 tries in 37 games at fullback, wing and centre, and his versatility will be a boon for new coach Garth Brennan in a backline contingent short on depth.


Former Junior Kiwi Toafofoa Sipley played two first-grade games under Andrew McFadden at the Warriors in 2016, but was ignored by Stephen Kearney this year – despite the first-grade pack’s overwhelmingly woeful displays and Sipley being a constant InTrust Super Premiership standout. The Sea Eagles have thrown the 116kg powerhouse a lifeline for 2018, however, and he could get his big break with the club a little skinny on big men after veteran front-rowers Brenton Lawrence and Nate Myles headed elsewhere.


Patrick Kaufusi played the Cowboys’ first nine games in 2017 before joining a jam-packed casualty ward, ruled out for the season with a foot injury. But his promising career should get a quick reboot when he joins older brother and recent Kangaroos debutant Felise in Melbourne. The hardworking 23-year-old Patrick will be aiming for one of the spots vacated by Test forwards Tohu Harris and Jordan McLean, and premiership winner Slade Griffin.


The Knights line-up will barely be recognisable in 2017, with Mitchell Pearce, Aidan Guerra, Chris Heighington, Jacob Lillyman, Connor Watson, Kalyn Ponga, Tautau Moga and Herman Ese’ese all expected to command a spot in the top 17. A signing that went under the radar, though, was 26-year-old Slade Griffin – arguably the least-heralded member of the Storm’s grand final-winning squad. Born in Glen Innes, NSW, but a junior from the formerly rich breeding ground of the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the nuggetty hooker/back-rower shapes as the ideal bench utility for Nathan Brown’s side.


The Warriors have gone all-in on a ‘buying back the farm’ policy, forking out for Kiwi expats Adam Blair, Leivaha Pulu, Peta Hiku and Gerard Beale. But the best value may come from Agnatius Paasi, who played one game for the Warriors in 2014 before making his name with 54 games for the Titans in the past three seasons. Stephen Kearney’s retooled pack is in desperate need of big bodies that can break tackles and use the ball like Warriors forwards of old – and the 26-year-old Mangere East junior fits the bill on all counts. Injuries restricted Paasi to 11 games this year, but his breakout 2016 campaign for the Titans – playing all 25 games and averaging 105 metres and 20 tackles, as well as chalking up five tries, five line-breaks, three try-assists, 24 offloads and 36 tackle-breaks – showed what he is capable of.


For the third year in a row the Cowboys will endure minimal disruption to their squad, with new Kangaroos prop Jordan McLean the only major addition to the squad and just a clutch of fringe players departing – though Paul Green will be relishing the prospect of co-captains Scott and Thurston returning from long injury layoffs. But if the casualty ward starts filling up again in 2018, they’ll need back-up, and Francis Molo provides engine-room depth after playing just six NRL games for the Broncos in 2014-15.


OK, we’re not sure this one is going to pay off, but with Kane Evans and Jarryd Hayne the only other names in Parramatta’s arrivals column, the club’s only potential ‘bargain buy’ contender at this stage is Tony Williams. The former Test and Origin star was a one-game flop at Cronulla after a much-maligned four-year stint at Canterbury, but he’s still only 28 and a return to the club he started out at in 2008 may just provide a nice little post-script to a career that fizzled out as rapidly as ‘T-Rex’ soared to rugby league’s heights at Manly.


The Panthers are well-served for backline talent, but former Canterbury flyer Tyrone Phillips provides quality depth out wide and is a better player than his six NRL appearances under Des Hasler (2015-16) would suggest. A powerful finisher, Phillips has his work cut out squeezing into a side that contains Dylan Edwards, Josh Mansour, Waqa Blake, Dean Whare, Tyrone Peachey and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, but he’s certainly up to first-grade standard.


Jeremy Latimore is the epitome of the journeyman prop, but the likable veteran has provided value at every club he has gone to. Boasting 139 NRL games in nine seasons with Parramatta, New Zealand, St George Illawarra, Penrith and Cronulla, Latimore returns to the Dragons, where he spent the 2012 season, and shapes as a key addition to a pack that has lost Russell Packer and a handful of fringe forwards. The 30-year-old came off the bench 19 times for defending champs Cronulla in 2017, and should provide a steady, no-frills element to a dynamic Saints pack.


Dane Gagai is the Rabbitohs’ only big-name signing, but the pick of a host of second-tier buys promises to be tall ex-Canberra and Melbourne front-rower Mark Nicholls. The 27-year-old Leeton product came off the bench nine times for the stacked Storm in 2017, impressing with his work-rate, and he’ll put some pressure on Souths’ underperforming front-row rotation.


Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco are expected to take the Roosters to the next level, and the club has been otherwise quiet on the recruitment front. But with veteran Michael Gordon’s likely departure to the Gold Coast, Reece Robinson could get the chance to play plenty of NRL footy in 2018. Blake Ferguson, Latrell Mitchell and Daniel Tupou will surely get first crack at three-quarter line spots, and Joseph Manu is an impressive specimen, but Trent Robinson choosing back-rowers in the centres during this year’s finals suggests he is far from settled on who will wear jerseys 2 through 5 next season. The wiry Robinson boasts 57 tries from 116 games for Brisbane, Canberra and Parramatta, while the 30-year-old’s body should be freshened up by two Super Rugby seasons with the Waratahs. Can kick goals, too.


Only the Knights have bought more extensively than the Tigers, with Ben Matulino, Russell Packer, Benji Marshall, Josh Reynolds, Robbie Rochow, Mahe Fonua, Corey Thompson and Alex Twal getting on Ivan Cleary’s bus for 2018. But with Cleary struggling to find an adequate centre combination this year, and Kevin Naiqama shaping as a potential fullback replacement for James Tedesco, the Tigers will be expecting plenty out of ex-Dragons centre Taane Milne. After playing 18 games for St George Illawarra over the last two seasons, Milne had a breakout World Cup campaign for Fiji, scoring four tries, kicking seven goals, and racking up six line-break and five try-assists in five Tests. The move to Concord is his chance to put a stamp on a regular NRL spot.

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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