Sunday 18 March 2018 / 04:44 PM


Ranking the top 20 prospects in the league


Who are the best young players in the game?

Rugby league is a young man’s game, and as always, the NRL is blessed with an impressive crop of future stars coming through the ranks.

This list, as much as possible, attempts to rank those players in a vacuum, taking in only their ability and where they project to be long-term. Essentially, think of the defining question as “if you were building a franchise tomorrow, and you could have any player, who would you take first?”

Players usually begin to perform at a level close to their peak after roughly their fourth to sixth year, and enter their primes at about 25. To restrict this list to genuine prospects, the cut-off age was set at 23 (or under 24 years of age before the end of the 2017 season).

A few other important notes:

• Potential, an estimation of future performance level based on current ability, age and capacity for improvement, of course weighs heavily. Players with the highest overall ceiling embody the quality that makes a prospect most appealing.

• Whilst this list focuses on ranking prospects, past performance remains the best indicator for future performance. Players who have scaled the heights already give us best reason to believe they will continue to contribute at such a level. Thus, those who are currently operating at a specific standard are given credit for that play, and players who project to reach roughly the same level are separated off this metric. The gap between any development/reserve grades and the top flight basically removes any players without NRL experience from contention, and none made the list.

• Speaking of, experience is another distinguishing factor, as the more time they’re given to establish themselves and develop in an NRL system, the better shot they have at reaching said potential. The age/experience relationship works inversely: in that measure, the youngest player with the most experience is the most valuable.

• In the same vein, sustainability matters: three good seasons are better than one good season or a great 10-game stretch. Evidence that they are capable of hitting a certain level over a longer period gives us most belief they will reach their potential.

• Finally, position matters: player ability is the deciding factor here, but the league landscape dictates that the value of certain positions is much higher – a spine player can be considered more important to a team compared to a forward of the same ability as a by-product of impact. Because of this, depth at those positions is considerably less, so finding an elite player becomes much more valuable. When projecting value, this obviously has to be considered.

Without further ado…


Honorable mentions

Players who are looking promising, but we haven’t seen enough of: Matt Dufty, Brodie Croft, Curtis Scott, Morgan Boyle

Former touted prospects who have fallen out of favour in recent times: Bryce Cartwright, Kane Elgey, Michael Lichaa, Moses Mbye and Luke Brooks

Great prospects who are simply buried under the tremendous depth of emerging talent: Mitchell Moses, Alex Johnston, Bevan French, Brian Kelly, Dylan Edwards, Daniel Saifiti, Tepai Moeroa, Te Maire Martin, Corey Harawira-Naera, Connor Watson

The Top 20

20. Jayden Brailey, 21, Sharks
Last year’s NYC player of the year and a front-runner for 2017 Rookie of the Year, Brailey filled the void left by the departure of Michael Ennis instantly, his composure and control translating to first grade and providing steady production from a difficult position on the field. His work defensively is exceptional, especially for a first-year player, and his service from active-half is reliable and consistent. For him to enter the elite ranks at his position, he’ll need to add more elements to his game.
+ Transitioned into top grade seamlessly
+ Impressive defensive efficiency
– One-dimensional

19. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 21, Panthers
I might be higher on DWZ than most, but considering the tools at his disposal (athletic, 186cm, 97kg frame), his experience (70 first grade games, 3 international caps) and his youth, he has the potential to grow into a legitimate game-breaker sometime into the near future. What makes his prospects so tantalising is how he is already able to reach high levels whilst still being so clearly raw. If he continues to develop and eliminates the inconsistencies, we’re looking at an elite outside back.
+ Immense potential
– Inconsistent, raw

18. Nelson Asofa-Solomona, 21, Storm
Armed with a gigantic 200cm, 115kg physique, NAS immediately stands out on any field. Throughout his first full year, he’s shown an increased understanding and willingness to use his size to his advantage, a scary proposition for opposing forwards. Whilst he continues to be used predominantly as impact off the bench, limiting his playing time, expect to see his production sky-rocket when he is handed a bigger role next season with another year of experience under his belt.
+ Already overwhelming opponents physically
– Still suited to low-minute spells

17. Corey Oates, 22 (Broncos)
Already in his fourth year of top grade, Oates has already proven capable at the highest levels of the game and stands as one of the best finishers in the league. With the résumé he’s quickly amassed, it’s easy to forget he’s far from his prime, and only moonlighting as a winger. The fact that we’re yet to see him in what’s expected to be his long-term position – second-row – holds him back in the rankings, but once he makes the Luke Lewis-like transition, expect his second life as an edge forward to be as effective as his work on the flank.
+ Big game experience, and success
+ Great frame, uses his body well
– Yet to move into his presumed position

16. Kalyn Ponga, 19
Perhaps the most likely to climb much higher up the list, only eight games into his NRL career, the sample size for evaluating Ponga makes it tough to compare him against more proven commodities. From what we have seen, the Tuivasa-Sheck-esque sidestep and exceptional game awareness has him primed for superstardom, but how he stacks up to his contemporaries will come down to how he handles the full-time role once he joins the Knights in 2018.
+ Elite footwork
+ Great instincts
– Small sample size


15. Sione Mata’utia, 21
The youngest Kangaroo in history is a completely different player to the one featured on this list. Mata’utia’s dramatic transformation from speedy fullback/winger to rugged, mobile back-rower has gone smoother than expected. His outstanding defensive ability has been put on full display as he grows more comfortable in his new role. As he gets more familiar with what’s needed from him as a forward, and puts more size on to suit the role, his output will increase.
+ Best pure hitter since Steve Matai
+ Plenty of experience at such a young age
– Still growing into new role

14.Clint Gutherson, 22
A frontrunner for breakout star of 2017, ‘Gutho’ went from interesting role player to crucial contributor and managed to flash a range of intriguing skills that increases his value moving forward. A true footballer, Gutherson is as well-rounded as any player in the game, solid in defence and able to give you whatever you need in attack. Nailing down a position long-term is the next step.
+ Versatile, can slide between multiple positions
+ Two-way player
– Jack of all trades, master of none

13. Angus Crichton, 21
After impressing in brief stints last season, Crichton quickly made the starting spot his own, his output growing exponentially with his experience, where he now leads the league in tackles busts in the second half of the season. Rugged, strong and mobile, Crichton has shown a heightened ability to use his unique tools to his advantage. If he sustains the level of play he reached through the second half of the season and increases his workload, he will quickly become one of the best back-rowers in the competition.
+ Combination of mobility and strength tough to stop
– Needs to sustain elite level for longer periods

12. Jack Bird, 22
Gritty, aggressive and skilful, Bird’s intriguing mix of talents made him a contributor from day one. As competent in the halves as he is using his flair out wide or mixing it up in the middle, his confidence has helped amass an impressive résumé including Rookie of the Year, five Origin caps and a premiership. A victim of his own versatility, Birds future success will depend on what position he settles at long-term when he makes the switch to Brisbane.
+ A real gamer, plays fearless and tough
+ Extremely versatile
– Impact dependent on position

11. Nick Cotric, 18
The youngest player featured on this list, Cotric has thoroughly impressed throughout his rookie campaign, entering the league with surprising comfort. What’s truly astonishing is his output compared to his experience. When you consider that in six years’ time he’ll still be under 25 with his prime ahead of him, it’s fair to expect big things. Projecting long-term, he appears to have the frameworks of a cross between Josh Mansour and Josh Dugan, which, in theory, is a nightmare for defences over the next decade.
+ Very young, already competent
+ Outstanding frame, especially at his age
– Has to transition to either fullback or centre to maximise talent


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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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