Round 11 of the NRL produced a succession of extraordinary form reversals by clubs towelled up a week earlier. Wests Tigers (46 points), Canterbury Bulldogs (46) and New Zealand Warriors (72) each achieved remarkable margin turnarounds to reinvigorate their respective spluttering campaigns. The Tigers’ two-point defeat of North Queensland was gritty and dramatic, but the Warriors’ recovery was arguably the most impressive. After being trounced by Penrith by a club record 62-6, the Warriors thumped in-form Newcastle 28-12, defying a season littered with late collapses by holding the Knights scoreless in the second half. The Tigers’ and Warriors’ victories continued the astonishing strike-rate of clubs rebounding from conceding a half-century of points – 12 of the last 23 and seven of the last nine teams to let in 50 points have won their next match.
The Most Improved:
Few aspects in rugby league are more satisfying on a sentimental level than previously unheralded players producing a belated breakthrough season, or an experienced performer seemingly on the downturn enjoying a second wind. The most improved NRL players of 2013 are recognised below:
Brenton Lawrence – The archetypal late-bloomer, hardworking 28-year-old prop Lawrence arrived at Manly this year with just 18 NRL appearances for Gold Coast to his credit. The Mackay-born, Adelaide junior has played every game in the Sea Eagles’ cast iron-tough pack in 2013, however, and is now a vital part of their premiership bid following long-term injuries to Jason King and Joe Galuvao.
Albert Kelly – Punted by Parramatta, Cronulla and Newcastle for off-field indiscretions by the time he was 21, livewire half Kelly has been one of the NRL’s genuine standouts, providing some of the season’s glowing attacking highlights. His solo try against Brisbane was the best individual effort since Shaun Johnson’s stunner against the Broncos two years ago. But there is more to his game than flash – Kelly is a tough nut, too, and has grabbed his last chance in admirable fashion.
Bryson Goodwin – The former New Zealand Test winger was seemingly on the scrapheap after failing to forge a place in the Canterbury line-up that charged to the Grand Final. But he was thrown a lifeline by Souths and has ousted the likes of Dylan Farrell for a centre spot, excelling on both sides of the ball. Goodwin’s defensive display on Jamie Lyon was first-rate, while he has built a dangerous left-side combination with Nathan Merritt in attack.
Corey Norman – His 2012 season at five-eighth was a mixed bag, but Norman has been the Broncos’ most creative and dangerous playmaker from fullback this year. An incisive ball-runner with a wonderful long pass, Norman may be better suited to the No.1 jumper – but is almost certain to return to five-eighth when he joins Parramatta next season.
Chris McQueen – Converted into a backrower early last year by Souths coach Michael Maguire, McQueen’s outstanding defence and forceful running has resulted in a spectacular rise to the Queensland Origin side. The Kingaroy product’s success is a testament to perseverance and hard work, battling back from successive knee reconstructions that ruined his 2010 season to now join the code’s elite.
Andrew Fifita – Giant prop Fifita was let go by Wests Tigers to make way for Adam Blair, reluctantly linking with Cronulla – it’s fairly obviously which club came out better from that deal. Barely on Laurie Daley’s radar at the beginning of 2013, Fifita’s explosive and consistent performances catapulted him into the NSW side for the series opener ahead of a host of contenders. His performance in the Sharks’ upset of Souths – 24 runs for 216 metres and 42 tackles – just 24 hours after being named by the Blues was mind-blowing.
Jason Bukuya – Although the arrival of Luke Lewis and Chris Heighington has made securing a permanent first grade spot more difficult, robust backrower Bukuya has been outstanding, scoring tries in consecutive wins over the Tigers, Raiders and Rabbitohs with Paul Gallen and Lewis sidelined. He is a tremendous 2014 acquisition for the Warriors.
Justin Horo – The hard-running, versatile backrower went off the boil in 2012, making just six appearances in Parramatta’s wooden spoon campaign. But he has proved a key figure for Manly this year, starting every game in the second-row as a worthy replacement for Canterbury-bound international Tony Williams.
Dane Gagai – Desperately unlucky not to be considered as the standby for club-mate Darius Boyd in the Queensland Origin side, Gagai’s rise at Newcastle after being jettisoned by Brisbane last year has continued in 2013. He is among the NRL’s most dangerous and naturally gifted three-quarters – an Origin call-up cannot be far away for the Mackay product.
Josh Hoffman – Shunted to the wing to accommodate Corey Norman at fullback, Hoffman has made the most of a potentially demoralising situation. After crossing for just 17 tries in his first 65 NRL appearances, he is among the premiership’s top try scorers in 2013 with nine in the opening 11 rounds – many of them spectacular efforts with little room to move. Hoffman retained his role as New Zealand Test custodian and scored a try in the Kiwis’ loss to Australia in Canberra.
Manu Vatuvei – ‘The Beast’ has been close to the Warriors’ best during a tough period for the club. The oft-maligned winger has enjoyed the most error-free period of his colourful career – despite being relentlessly targeted by opposition teams. Vatuvei was magnificent against Newcastle, gobbling up a succession of high balls, steamrolling opposite Akuila Uate and producing his customary strong charges out of the Warriors’ end of the field. He also scored a try for the fifth straight match, taking his career tally to 108 in just 159 appearances.
Thurston to Break Origin Iron-Man Mark:
While Gold Coast prop Luke Douglas charges towards the all-time first grade mark of consecutive appearances, Queensland five-eighth Johnathan Thurston is set to break the corresponding State of Origin record he co-holds with former Maroons workhorse Gary Larson. Thurston is the only player to appear in every match of Queensland’s seven-series winning streak.
Most consecutive Origin Appearances:
24 – Gary Larson (Qld) 1991-98
24 – Johnathan Thurston (Qld) 2005-12
21 – Danny Buderus (NSW) 2002-08
21 – Petero Civoniceva (Qld) 2002-09
21 – Wally Lewis (Qld) 1980-87
21 – Shane Webcke (Qld) 1998-2004
20 – Paul Harragon (NSW) 1992-98
19 – Martin Bella (Qld) 1988-94
19 – Greg Conescu (Qld) 1983-88
19 – Cameron Smith (Qld) 2003-09
Top 10 of the Week
Best Origin Debuts:
1. Michael O’Connor (NSW) 1985
2. Brett Hodgson (NSW) 2002
3. Allan Langer (Qld) 1987
4. Les Davidson (NSW) 1987
5. Adam Mogg (Qld) 2006
6. Michael Hancock (Qld) 1989
7. Paul Hauff (Qld) 1991
8. Danny Buderus (NSW) 2002
9. John Doyle (Qld) 2001
10. Peter Wallace (NSW) 2008
The Five Worst Debuts:
1. Justin Hodges (Qld) 2002
2. Phil Duke (NSW) 1982
3. Todd Carney (NSW) 2012
4. Steve Turner (NSW) 2008
5. David Williams (NSW) 2009