The 2015 NRL season threw up a host of breakout stars, including young rookies such as Jack Bird, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Tom and Jake Trbojevic, Kane Elgey, Cameron Munster, Tuimoala Lolohea and Solomone Kata, along with relatively unheralded first-graders like Blake Austin, Leeson Ah Mau, James Roberts, Valentine Holmes, Siosiua Taukeiaho, Tyson Frizell and Bryce Cartwright.
We’ve scoured the 2016 squad lists and gazed into the crystal ball to bring you a line-up full of potential breakout candidates, featuring a clutch of untried youngsters awaiting their NRL debuts, some possible representative bolters and a string of players who are set to vie for the ‘most improved player’ tag.
1 Brad Abbey (Bulldogs)
Brett Morris, arguably the world’s best winger, made an outstanding transition to the fullback role in his first year at Canterbury. But Warriors recruit Abbey is being pegged as the Bulldogs’ long-term No.1, boasting the ball-playing ability vital to excelling in the custodian role in the current era – as well as a brilliant running game and superb positional sense. Question marks over halves Josh Reynolds and Moses Mbye handling the playmaking load could hasten the 19-year-old’s elevation to first grade, while Abbey is also a viable five-eighth option.
2 Cheyse Blair (Storm)
The departure of Matt Duffie, Mahe Fonua and Kurt Mann from Melbourne may see strapping new arrival Cheyse Blair finally find his NRL niche. The big three-quarter has played 44 games in four seasons for Parramatta and Manly, but has not racked up a double-figure appearance tally since his 2012 rookie season with the wooden-spoon Eels. The 23-year-old, who received limited chances in a talent-laden backline contingent at the Sea Eagles, could prove one of the year’s best bargain buys.
3 Clint Gutherson (Eels)
Cruelled by a Round 1 knee injury this year, Gutherson was released by Manly following the emergence of boom outside-back Tom Trbojevic. But the 21-year-old Gutherson is one of the NRL’s most promising backline talents, making starts at fullback, wing and centre in the top grade already despite having made only five appearances, while crossing for four tries. The Parramatta three-quarter contingent has been crying out for more firepower to complement tryscoring machine Semi Radradra, and Gutherson is likely to get first crack at a wing or centre berth.
Looking forward to what is ahead pic.twitter.com/3jjtNwfdAh
— Clinton Gutherson (@ClintGutherson) November 3, 2015
4 Brendan Elliot (Roosters)
The Brisbane product emphatically grasped the opportunity handed to him by Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s late-season stand-down, scoring seven tries in the space of five games – including a hat-trick against Manly in his last top-grade appearance. SKD’s return saw Elliot demoted on the eve of the finals, but he surely cannot be denied much longer. Blake Ferguson’s likely retrenchment to fullback should open up a permanent backline spot for the 22-year-old, who has crossed for nine tries in as many NRL outings. Elliot seems a real natural with the invaluable trait of finding himself in the right place at the right time with remarkable regularity.
5 Carlin Anderson (Broncos)
A speed machine and a out-and-out game-breaker, Ipswich Jets recruit Anderson has his work cut out forging a place on the wing for Brisbane – particularly following James Roberts’ arrival, which prevents Jordan Kahu from moving in to the centres from the flank – but he may ultimately be too special a talent for Wayne Bennett to leave out. Corey Oates is destined for a career in the backrow, which could provide the opening the gifted Gympie-born Anderson needs.
CARLIN Anderson has already landed a contract with the Broncos but fans are a long way from seeing the best of… http://t.co/kbdCjjCWMm
— Ipswich Jets (@JetsRLFC) September 19, 2015
6 Fa’amanu Brown (Sharks)
The emergence of Christchurch product Nu Brown at five-eighth as a replacement for wayward gun Todd Carney was a rare bright spot in Cronulla’s wretched 2014 campaign, but a knee injury cut him down during last year’s Nines tournament. With rookie sensation Jack Bird and former Origin star James Maloney now on the Sharks’ books, the skilful and rugged Brown has been earmarked for a utility role in 2016. Seeking to add to his 11 NRL appearances, the 21-year-old shapes as a potential No.13 successor to Paul Gallen, while coach Shane Flanagan sees the robust Brown playing a ‘Ryan Hinchcliffe-type role’ for the club.
7 Te Maire Martin (Panthers)
Injuries, form, coach’s preference – whichever way you look at it, it’s hard to imagine veteran halves duo Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward playing the full 2016 season together, and Kiwi prodigy Martin is the next big thing amongst the NRL’s young playmakers. Martin has followed the same path as Benji Marshall – joining Wests Tigers via Keebra Park High School after growing up in New Zealand – and bears a striking resemblance to the ball-playing genius in style. The acquisition of the 20-year-old is viewed as a major coup for the Panthers, with Martin is expected to eventually form a long-term halves pairing with ex-Parramatta young gun and Junior Kiwis teammate Zach Dockar-Clay.
8 Albert Vete (Warriors)
Warriors CEO Jim Doyle lamented being unable to entice Roosters front-rower Jared Waerea-Hargreaves back to New Zealand, but the highly-rated enforcer’s heir apparent may already be at the club in the shape of 110kg prop powerhouse Vete. The aggressive 22-year-old was outstanding in 21 rookie-year appearances – and perhaps most encouragingly, he stood out even more as the club’s season began to unravel. Vete refuses to take a backwards step and could become one of the code’s elite front-rowers in a Warriors side on the upswing.
A photo posted by Albert_Vete (@albievete) on
9 Danny Levi (Knights)
The fact that Newcastle was happy to let Adam Clydesdale and Chad Redman go and went cold on Robbie Farah – on top of versatile veteran Kurt Gidley’s departure to Super League – speaks volumes for the esteem 20-year-old hooker Levi is held in. The Wellington (NZ) product was superb in seven rookie-year appearances in the top flight: skilful and nippy around dummy-half, mature beyond his years and boasting the hallmarks of a real leader. Wests Tigers No.9 Manaia Cherrington and utilities Kodi Nikorima and Lewis Brown may be the next cabs off the rank for the Kiwis Test job if Issac Luke was unavailable, but look for Levi to surge into Four Nations contention by the end of 2016.
10 Mose Masoe (Dragons)
The likes of Sam Moa and Sia Soliola have made an enormous impact in the NRL in recent seasons after returning from lengthy Super League stints, and giant prop Mose Masoe is set to continue the trend with St George Illawarra in 2016. The nearly two-metre, 130kg wrecking ball, who played 63 games for the Roosters and Panthers before becoming a Super League grand final winner during two seasons with St Helens, still has his best football in front of him at 26.
11 Raymond Faitala-Mariner (Warriors)
A member of the 2014 NSW Cup Team of the Year, Faitala-Mariner made a hefty impact during 11 rookie-season appearances for the Warriors last year. The big, imposing 22-year-old offers something a bit different in the backrow from workhorse starting trio Simon Mannering, Ryan Hoffman and Bodene Thompson; he should cement a place in the Warriors’ 17 this season. Faitala-Mariner’s contract was extended last year, while fellow backrow youngsters Sebastine Ikahihifo (Dragons) and David Bhana (Knights) were moved on, giving an indication of the Otahuhu junior’s huge promise.
12 Paul Carter (Rabbitohs)
It seems Souths’ 2016 fortunes are resting on the shoulders of returning superstar Sam Burgess – but the Englishman is going to need some help in the forwards, particularly with Chris McQueen and Glenn Stewart departing. The dynamic Carter, hopefully past the off-field issues that curbed his stint with the Titans, could develop into a strike weapon for a Rabbitohs side looking to bounce back from a dismal title defence. Very similar in style to Greg Bird, the 23-year-old is skilful, robust and versatile. Expect Carter to play many more than the four games he played for Souths after joining the club midway through last season.
— NRL Feeds (@nrlfeeds) December 17, 2015
13 Michael Chee Kam (Tigers)
Despite the decimation of the Manly pack over the past two seasons, Chee Kam has managed just five interchange appearances at NRL level. A move to Wests Tigers – whose forward stocks are looking desperately thin – could provide a springboard to regular first-grade action, however. A tall, mobile backrower with the ability to play in the centres, the Auckland-born 23-year-old shapes as an excellent pick-up.
14 Tyler Randell (Knights)
Scone-born Randell was a revelation for the Knights in 2015, making starts at hooker and five-eighth as well as fulfilling a bench specialist role. He will challenge Levi for the No.9 jersey this year, but may provide more value for the club as a game-breaking Mr. Fix-it. This gem of an individual try against the Dragons highlights the ability of the tenacious 23-year-old. Expect a Country jumper to come Randell’s way in 2016.
15 Paki Afu (Roosters)
Signed by Canterbury as a teenager, Afu failed to capitalise on his first NRL opportunity and after stints at Parramatta and Wentworthville, his career was interrupted by a two-year Mormon mission. But after dominating the local club scene with Port Chevalier Pirates over the past two years, the giant 24-year-old has been given another chance by the Roosters – and his front-row education will get a nice boost playing alongside the likes of Waerea-Hargreaves, Moa and Dylan Napa.
16 Rod Griffin (Tigers)
A seasoned Papua New Guinea international with extensive Queensland Cup experience, the 29-year-old Griffin has cult hero written all over him. More importantly for his new club Wests Tigers, however, will be his capacity to add grunt and size to a young and depleted pack.
17 Coen Hess (Cowboys)
It’s not easy breaking into a premiership-winning line-up – particularly when said club’s entire grand final squad has been retained for its title defence. But Hess will be frothing for another opportunity in the top flight after a eye-catching, tryscoring debut for the Cowboys against the Warriors late in 2015. Only 19, Hess was named in the Holden Cup Team of the Year and collected the Cowboys’ Rookie of the Year gong.