The dreaded second-year syndrome has been a much-debated phenomenon in rugby league throughout the modern era. Some pundits declare it a myth, while others contend it is almost inevitable: an outstanding rookie struggling with form and confidence in his second season in first grade. While star youngsters are predictably targeted by opposition teams in their sophomore year – whereas they may have slipped under the radar as a rookie – some burgeoning young players’ form slides are beyond explanation.
The likes of St George playmaker Steve Linnane, North Sydney half Jason Martin, Newcastle No.7 Matt Rodwell and Manly winger Jack Elsegood fell off the map after rookie campaigns that saw them tipped for stardom; the trio’s careers never genuinely recovered. Rookie of the Year winners such as rampaging Balmain second-rower Paul Sironen and Souths hooker Jim Serdaris endured subpar follow-up seasons before finding their feet again and earning representative honours.
But there are just as many young guns who use their first-year success as a springboard to rugby league’s top echelon – Greg Alexander, Tim Brasher, Julian O’Neill, Steve Menzies, Andrew Johns, Paul Green, Stacey Jones, Darren Lockyer, Ben Kennedy and Trent Barrett are pertinent examples.
We’ve analysed the second-year fortunes of the finest rookies of the NRL era to reveal whether the second-year syndrome theory still carries any weight in the current era.
Diminutive Canberra utility-back Mark McLinden took the code by storm in 1998 and was duly named Dally M Rookie of the Year. Despite closer scrutiny from rivals the following season, McLinden was one of the Raiders’ most dangerous attacking weapons, although he was frequently shunted around the backline and never reached the top strata of NRL stars. Raiders teammate Lesley Vainikolo terrorised opposing wingers in his debut year and was similarly explosive in 1999. Fellow winger Brett Howland scored 13 tries for the Sharks in 1998 and backed it up with 18 in 1999. Manly’s twin 1998 outside back discoveries Albert Torrens and Alf Duncan had contrasting fortunes in their sophomore seasons – Torrens was the Sea Eagles’ top tryscorer while Duncan made just four appearances. Teenage Steelers fullback Luke Patten beat a hot field of contenders to nail down the St. George Illawarra No.1 jumper and play in the 1999 grand final.
Parramatta forward Michael Vella was named 1999’s Dally M Rookie of the Year (despite playing eight games in 1998), and represented NSW and Australia. He retained his rep spots in 2000, playing three matches of the Kangaroos’ World Cup campaign. Eels teammate and 1999 debutant Luke Burt suffered a mild case of second-year syndrome, struggling to maintain a starting spot amidst a host of outstanding outside-back talent at the club. Lote Tuqiri exploded in 2000, scoring 18 tries and winning a grand final with the Broncos, before captaining Fiji at the World Cup aged just 21.
Dally M Rookie of the Year Tasesa Lavea debuted for New Zealand at the end of his first NRL season and was selected at five-eighth against France mid-season in 2001, but his form for Melbourne lacked the same spark. Lavea switched to rugby union following a dismal stint with the Northern Eagles in 2002. Winger Pat Richards’ ’01 season was largely interrupted by injury after bursting onto the scene with the youthful Eels side that strode to the preliminary final in 2000.
Braith Anasta thumbed his nose at the second-year syndrome by making his Origin debut for the Blues in 2002. Dally M Rookie of the Year and a Kangaroo tourist in ’01, Anasta was also one of the key figures in the Bulldogs’ record winning streak in 2002, but became a focal point for derision following the club’s salary cap scandal that rocked the NRL late in the season. Matt Bowen, Michael Crocker and Mark Riddell all backed up standout rookie seasons with even better form in 2002.
After crossing for 13 tries in his debut year, 2002 Dally M Rookie of the Year Matt Utai proved he was no flash in the pan by collecting 21 touchdowns in 2003. Brent Tate and Luke Lewis kicked on in similar fashion – Lewis won a premiership with Penrith and both toured with the Kangaroos – but Warriors half and 2002 Kiwi Test debutant Lance Hohaia’s impact in 2003 was muted by injury.
Melbourne No.1 Billy Slater was a certainty for the 2003 Dally M Rookie of the Year gong before the awards were cancelled, and he was even more devastating in 2004. He wrote himself into Origin folklore with a memorable try for Queensland in Game Two and scored 14 tries for Melbourne. Injury restricted Dragons halfback Brett Firman to one game in 2004 after a superb debut season and his career never recovered.
The 2004 season produced another remarkable crop of new faces, headed by Dally M Rookie of the Year Karmichael Hunt. The Brisbane fullback – along with fellow 2004 discoveries Anthony Tupou, Sonny Bill Williams and Frank Pritchard – went on to have a stellar 2005 season. All four were internationals by the end of 2006. New St George Illawarra halfback Mathew Head had a forgettable sophomore campaign, however, suffering a season-ending injury midway through the year to miss the Dragons’ finals charge.
One of the most celebrated recent cases of second-year syndrome beset Parramatta halfback Tim Smith. A runaway winner of the Dally M Rookie award, Smith was a shadow of the 2005 version the following season, before leaving the club in acrimonious circumstances in 2008. Broncos winger Leon Bott suffered an equally unhappy 2006, playing just one game after scoring 13 tries in 2005. Greg Inglis bucked the trend, however – the 2005 rookie was lauded as potentially one of the best players ever after an incredible 2006 season that saw him play in a grand final and dominate at Origin and Test level.
Jarryd Hayne’s brilliant Dally M Rookie award-winning 2006 season led to Origin and Test debuts in 2007. Second-year syndrome hit a year late with Hayne struggling throughout an indifferent 2008, but he bounced back to win the Dally M Player of the Year award and the RLIF Player of the Year award in 2009. Brett Morris played just two games in his second season after a stellar 2006 rookie year, while Darius Boyd maintained his solid form for the Broncos.
Israel Folau enjoyed arguably the greatest debut season in history in 2007 – he broke Melbourne’s tryscoring record, won a Grand Final and became Australia’s youngest-ever Test player in a two-try debut against New Zealand. He was equally dominant in 2008, becoming a permanent fixture on the flank for Queensland and Australia. Roosters halfback Mitchell Pearce debuted for NSW in his second season, but Parramatta outside back Krisnan Inu failed to rediscover the magic of his 2007 rookie year (which included a shock Kiwi Test debut) and has been branded with the ‘enigmatic’ label ever since – despite playing in grand finals with three clubs.
The batch of rookies that entered the NRL in 2008 provided some fuel for devotees of the second-year syndrome theory. Dally M Rookie of the Year Chris Sandow was a hit-and-miss proposition for Souths in 2009, despite playing all but one game. Manly winger David Williams became a cult figure, grand final winner and international in his rookie season, but had a woeful Origin debut in 2009 and was less effective at club level, while his 2010 campaign was ruined by injury.
Dreadlocked 2009 Dally M Rookie of the Year Jamal Idris debuted for NSW in 2010. Despite being inexplicably dropped after one game for the Blues, he was awesome for the misfiring Bulldogs, proving equally explosive in the centres and during a late-season stint in the back-row. Although he represented Australia in 2011, subsequent stints with the Titans and Panthers have been mired in injury and off-field problems, however, and the giant centre has not come anywhere near adding to his one Test cap and solitary Origin jersey.
Parramatta half Daniel Mortimer was one of the stars of Parramatta’s surge to the Grand Final in 2009, but could not handle the extra responsibility thrust upon him in a difficult second season. He was tried in the No. 7 jumper on several occasions – with little success – and was briefly dropped from first grade late in the year. Mortimer made just nine first grade appearances in 2011 and joined the Roosters at the end of the year in an attempt to revive his flagging fortunes. Canberra fullback Josh Dugan showed no signs of second-year jitters by becoming one of the game’s hottest properties in 2010, while teammate Jarrod Croker was similarly outstanding after a superb rookie year in 2009. Warriors winger/fullback Kevin Locke gave further indication of his sublime match-winning talent in 2010 after an impressive NRL introduction the previous season.
Versatile Brisbane back-rower Matt Gillett soared to the Dally M Rookie honours with 12 tries (an equal premiership record for a first-season forward) and a dazzling array of skills. After a spluttering, injury-hampered start to 2011, Gillett was one of the Broncos’ trumps during their admirable charge to the preliminary final and he was unlucky to miss out on Kangaroos selection, but he debuted for Queensland the following season and broke into the Test side in 2014.
Trent Hodkinson, outstanding in his debut season for Manly in 2010, initially struggled after joining the Bulldogs in 2011, but enjoyed a form revival late in the season. Lightweight Cronulla fullback Nathan Gardner emphasised the courage and blistering pace that marked his 2010 rookie season with a magnificent follow-up year but faded out of the limelight thereafter. Storm winger Matt Duffie made a tryscoring Test debut for the Kiwis in 2011 after providing a rare highlight during Melbourne’s gut-wrenching 2010 campaign with an excellent debut year, but his subsequent campaigns were derailed by a string of injuries.
Following a debut-season premiership and Test jersey, Daly Cherry-Evans maintained his high standards for Manly in 2012 and confirmed his status as one of the NRL’s biggest superstars in ensuing campaigns. DCE’s fellow rookie halfback opponent in the 2011 grand final, Shaun Johnson, made his Kiwis debut in 2012, but despite producing frequent flashes of brilliance he was largely inconsistent and was dropped from first grade for the final round of the year as the Warriors hit the skids; he shook an enigmatic reputation with his Golden Boot win in 2014.
Will Hopoate represented NSW and won a grand final with the Sea Eagles in a brilliant rookie campaign, before shocking the league world by embarking on a two-year Mormon mission. He returned to the NRL via Parramatta in 2014 and reclaimed his Origin spot, but has been unable to replicate the magic of 2011. Explosive Cowboys backrower Tariq Sims had his sophomore 2012 season wrecked by a broken leg, while he has not lived up to his future Origin star wraps as yet despite representing Country four years in a row.
Halfback Adam Reynolds, the 2012 Rookie of the Year, was equally influential the following season as Souths cemented themselves as heavyweights. But after 17 rookie-season tries, Rabbitohs teammate Andrew Everingham lost his first grade spot in 2013 and took up a Japanese rugby union deal. Konrad Hurrell enhanced his reputation as one of the most destructive centres in the code in 2013-14, but attitude and defensive lapses saw him regularly dropped and the powerhouse is at a crossroads with the Warriors as 2016 approaches. Josh Jackson and Josh Mansour continued their steady ascent in 2013 and both won Kangaroos call-ups for the following year’s Four Nations campaign.
George Burgess backed up his stellar rookie season by becoming an integral member of Souths’ side in 2014, culminating in an unforgettable try in the club’s resounding grand final win. Canberra livewire Anthony Milford starred again throughout 2014 and accepted a massive deal from Brisbane, where he shone even brighter this year. Rookie-year grand final winner Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was eased into the Roosters’ fullback role in a fine follow-up campaign, before becoming universally recognised as one of the world’s best players in 2015. Fellow Kiwi Tohu Harris became a Test regular in 2014 and was an ultra-consistent backrow presence for Melbourne. Matt Moylan finished equal-seventh in the Dally M Medal and was named in Australia’s Four Nations squad in a brilliant second season.
Luke Brooks edged Alex Johnston for the Dally M Rookie of the Year award, but the Tigers halfback failed to kick on as expected in 2015. Conversely, Souths winger Johnston played for Australia and scored another 17 tries. Sione Mata’utia became the youngest ever Kangaroos Test rep after just seven games in 2014, but couldn’t quite live up to that status the following season, shifted around the backline at Newcastle and failing to figure in NSW Origin calculations.
Grand final winner Kyle Turner and exciting outside backs David Fusitu’a and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak were significantly hampered by injuries in 2015, while Kirisome Auva’a sat out most of the year through suspension, Corey Thompson made only 10 appearances in a revamped Bulldogs backline and Pauli Pauli struggled to make the same impression. Bryce Cartwright was arguably the most impressive of the previous year’s rookies, starring in the Panthers backrow and stamping himself as one of the NRL’s hottest prospects. Bursting onto the scene late in 2014, Valentine Holmes also shapes as a future rep star after producing a swag of highlights this year.
Last year’s rookies did about as much as any rookie class to dispel the second-year syndrome theory. Reigning Dally M Rookie of the Year Jack Bird attained NSW Origin status despite a positional switch for Cronulla; Warriors Solomone Kata had a spectacular season that ended with selection in the Kiwis Test team; Cameron Munster developed into one of the game’s best fullbacks after injury again beset Storm legend Billy Slater; Manly forward Jake Trbojevic won a Kangaroos call-up, while younger brother Tom became established among the NRL’s hottest properties; and Euan Aitken was one of the few shining lights in a misfiring Dragons backline.
Perhaps only Tuimoala Lolohea, shuffled around the Warriors’ backline, and Kodi Nikorima, who battled injuries in his second year as a Broncos utility, failed to enhance their reputations after debuting for New Zealand as NRL rookies.
The class of 2016 – which includes Dally M Rookie of the Year Ashley Taylor, Nathan Cleary, Coen Hess, Tom Opacic, Nathaniel Roache, Jazz Tevaga, Bevan French, Suliasi Vunivalu, Latrell Mitchell, Connor Watson, Clay Priest, and Jacob and Daniel Saifiti – will be under the pump to produce the goods again next year.
History shows that most of the promising tyros will lift another gear in 2017, and although a couple are likely to struggle in the face of sky-high expectations, today’s young guns seem better equipped to deal with the sophomore-season blues.