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.
10. Latrell Mitchell, 20
Bursting onto the scene so young garnered high expectations, and comparisons to Greg Inglis sent the hype train into overdrive, but two years into Mitchell’s career, we’ve seen enough to justify the anticipation. His rangy stride and ability to break tackles with ease has already made him a dangerous ball-runner and genuine game-breaker, and once he finds his feet defensively and starts impacting games on a consistent basis, he will quickly become one of the best centres in the league.
+ Combination of size and speed can make him unguardable
+ Potential to be lethal strike weapon
– Struggles with defence, consistency
9. Coen Hess, 20
The Hess Express charged into 2017, armed with a powerful leg-drive and an uncanny knack for finding the try-line, and immediately begun climbing the ranks. What’s most scary? Hess is still raw, and whilst he isn’t yet suited for long spells, he’s still finding ways to contribute to winning, making a genuine impact off the bench. At just 20 years old, that’s a triumph. Impossible to defend, even at the deepest position in the league.
+ Destructive ball-runner
– Still not ready to play big minutes
8. Anthony Milford, 23
A rare hyped prodigy who immediately impresses at NRL-level, Milford burst onto the scene with Canberra and has been terrorising defences since. More inclined as a game-breaker rather than an offensive co-ordinator, the Milf is one of the most effective players with ball in hand and space to move. What separates him from the tier above is the ability to remain dependable when his team isn’t flush with momentum and move from X-factor to match-winner, a transition that is expected to happen with experience.
+ Game breaker, loves the big moments
+ Elite ball-runner
– Needs to find more balance
7. Nathan Cleary, 19
Put simply, Cleary looks like a prototype, possessing all the skills required for an elite modern-day halfback. Comfortable playing at the line or in the pocket, stout defensively and a precision kicking game – not to mention the best goalkicker in the NRL. Up until just recently, he continued to flash his immense potential but wasn’t in the business of consistently impacting winning. Even that’s begun to turn a corner in the last month, allowing him to flash some tactical awareness, revealing yet another layer of ability. Cool, calm and collected, Cleary consistently displays patience beyond his years and is looking like a surefire rep player.
+ Template to grow into an ideal halfback
+ Already comfortable orchestrating the attack
+ Room for massive growth at just 19
6. Jake Trbojevic, 23
Some players just do everything right on the field. Need a big hit-up, a timely offload or a sharp inside ball? Trbojevic has got all the skills, his offensive repertoire constantly expanding whilst his defence remains as powerful as ever. A workhorse, a leader and now set to be a representative fixture, only three years into his career, Jake T looks set for a big future.
+ Rare combination of high workload and silky skills
+ Leadership material
5. David Klemmer, 23
Quickly becoming one of the game’s most fearsome figures, bending defensive lines with every charge. Klemmer had already become a staple in both the Blues and Kangaroos sides before his move to lock took his game to the next level. Combining a high workload with momentum-altering vigour, Klemmer’s presence is noticed whenever he’s in the game, making sure any playing time is used efficiently whilst remaining as passionate as ever.
+ Quickly established himself as a dominate presence
+ Sets platform for team to play off
+ Reached the elite level almost instantly
4. Valentine Holmes, 22
No player in rugby league matches Holmes’ combination of fluidity and explosiveness. It’s a testament to his tremendous talent that he makes some of his dazzling plays look so effortless. His game progressed as expected since moving to fullback, and whilst he’s still putting together the final pieces of the puzzle, his lightning first step and fearless style have already made him a chief contributor on a contending team.
+ Unmatched combination of flair and explosiveness
+ Elite strike weapon, dangerous with ball in hand
– Needs to polish up his passing to reach the elite level
3. Cameron Munster, 22
Within the secure infrastructure of the Storm system, Munster has been able to seamlessly climb the mountain in less than three years of first grade. What we thought was his breakout season in 2016 was blown out of the water again this year, moving into the halves and flashing a combination of running and playmaking far beyond what was expected of him. His rise to the top was capped with one of the finest Origin debuts in history at five-eighth, further proof of his brilliance. The best current player on the list, expect him to be among the league’s very best for many years to come.
+ Elusive with ball in hand
+ Continues to grow in all elements of his game
2. Tom Trjbojevic, 20
When Tommy Turbo’s on, he’s the most dangerous player on any given field – high praise for a player who is only 20. Given space to work his magic, the sharp acceleration and lengthy strides have him streaking down the field in an instant. The growth of his passing game has been a pleasant surprise, often proving adept at making the correct decision and picking out the right man when the defence converges. His ability to use his size, speed and skills to pull off difficult manoeuvres separate him from the field, the next step is working the kinks out of his game, the random lapses in concentration, and rounding out with some consistency. But from a production point of view, he is already among the game’s elite.
+ Uses ability to pull off high-level plays
+ Outstanding production
+ Room for growth, projects to be a top-five player
1. Ashley Taylor, 22
With an impressive debut season that earned him rookie of the year honours, Taylor has continued to refine his tremendous playmaking skills whilst flashing a sneaky-dangerous running game that looks set to push his game to the next level. The ease in which he leads the attack, even on a subpar Titans outfit, is a testament to his ability. A halfback of this calibre is the rarest of commodities, and if he is one of the three best players in the NRL in three years’ time, no one will be remotely surprised. The type of player premiership teams are built around.
+ Commands the attack with ease
+ Continued improvement each year
+ Passing and kicking game already among the game’s elite
*All stats and ages correct as of 01/08/2017