Young Talent Time
While the match-winning performances of established superstars Greg Inglis, Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith, Ben Barba and Jarryd Hayne were arguably the highlight of the NRL’s opening round, the abundance of quality debutants and emerging guns was also an overwhelming feature. Few things are more exciting in Rugby League than a brilliant new star on the rise – and 2014 is set to harvest a bumper rookie crop.
Rangy Penrith centre Isaah Yeo was a surprise replacement for the injured Jamal Idris, but the 19 year old – promoted ahead of Kevin Naiqama – was superb on debut up against Newcastle’s crack backline. Athletic, quick and an excellent defender, Yeo appeared far from overawed. Highly touted former Cronulla backrower Tyrone Peachey showed early signs of being one of the buys of the year for the Panthers, causing problems with every carry in his eighth NRL outing.
Penrith’s backline depth is emphasised by NYC superstar Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, and powerhouse duo Eto Nabuli and George Jennings – who both starred in the Nines before suffering injuries – all champing at the bit for a first grade opportunity.
Corey Thompson was sound on debut on the wing for Canterbury, while front-row behemoth David Klemmer also impressed on the back of his four NRL appearances early in 2013.
Victorian junior Young Tonumaipea justified his maiden NRL call-up with a powerful display on the flank for Melbourne, while Ben Hampton appears to have cemented the Storm’s No.6 jumper after just three first grade appearances; the utility back was brilliant in the golden point win over Manly.
After earning just eight NRL appearances in two seasons at Souths, rugged young prop Josh Starling shapes as an excellent pick-up for the Sea Eagles, who have encountered a dearth of front-row talent.
The debutant who most impressed me was Canberra centre Matt Allwood. Lining up against the imposing Kane Linnett, the 21 year old was dangerous with every touch and defended strongly. Giant forward Shannon Boyd also looked the goods with 17 tackles and eight hit-ups in 27 minutes off the bench in his first outing.
Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt further enhanced his burgeoning reputation in his fourth NRL appearance, while fellow breakout Nines’ star Curtis Rona is sweating on a first grade chance with the club.
Despite a mixed bag against the Dragons, Luke Brooks represents the future of the Wests Tigers, while 24-year-old Kiwi James Gavet – who played one game for Canterbury but has been plagued by injuries – has a ton of promise as a game-breaking forward.
Mature-age debutant Manu Ma’u was named man of the match for Parramatta in his maiden first grade outing. Ma’u, 25, has followed a similar path to Warriors sensation Suaia Matagi – using football as a path to redemption following a stint in jail – and terrorised Matagi’s team with his wonderful footwork and powerhouse running, recording 188 metres and two line breaks in a stellar display. Fellow backrower Kenny Edwards, who made his second NRL appearance, is also a fine prospect, while barnstorming Fijian winger Semi Radradra picked up a memorable hat-trick in just his eighth NRL game.
Warriors lock John Palavi was solid, if unspectacular, on debut in a badly beaten side, but ousted a host of impressive candidates for the No.13 jumper. Look for three-quarters David Fusitua and Solomone Kata, dazzling half Tuimoala Lolohea, and backrowers Raymond Faitala-Mariner and David Bhana to earn NRL call-ups during 2014.
Tupou Sopoaga, making just his second NRL appearance, gave a strong account of himself with 19 tackles and 10 carries in a hard slog at Remondis Stadium on Monday. The 21 year old is set for several weeks in the top flight as the Sharks battle several injuries in the engine-room department.
Glass half empty
Brisbane’s gritty win over Canterbury and Ben Barba’s star turn against his former club temporarily masked the club’s halves conundrum, with halfback Ben Hunt’s kicking game and option taking leaving plenty to be desired. The heavy responsibility of steering the Broncos around without the crutch of Scott Prince at five-eighth also appeared to weigh heavily on Hunt’s natural game – the livewire ran the ball just twice for 10 metres gained. Josh Hoffman’s maiden outing in the No.6 was also underwhelming, and the Broncos will struggle to make the finals with this duo at the scrumbase. Bringing troubled Parramatta halfback Chris Sandow back to Queensland isn’t as crazy as it sounds and don’t be surprised if it happens – he certainly possesses the right kicking attributes and could form a handy combination with Hunt, despite their shared reputation as rocks or diamonds players.
Meanwhile, Trent Hodkinson was ordinary for Canterbury, leaving pivot Josh Reynolds to carry the can in the creativity department; the No.7 needs to find touch swiftly or Des Hasler will have to look at other options. Daniel Holdsworth’s performance at halfback on Monday proved Cronulla’s season will once again hinge on the health of Todd Carney, while Jack Wighton and Chad Townsend are likely to come under pressure from Mitch Cornish and Thomas Leuluai respectively if their Round 1 five-eighth showings are anything to go by.
On the rise
- After a shaky first half, Josh Mansour lived up to his NSW Origin bolter billing with a mesmerising double after the break. Mansour’s blend of pace, power, skill and athleticism – qualities which were all on display against the Knights – will be tough for the Blues selectors to ignore.
- Paul Green may have belatedly unlocked Kiwi wrecking ball Jason Taumalolo’s best form. Regarded as an unfulfilled talent despite still being only 20 years of age, Taumalolo’s return of 19 runs for 226 metres and 23 tackles in an unprecedented 80-minute display could see the backrower develop into the Cowboys’ premiership X-factor.
On the slide
- Anthony Minichiello will never commit a bad deed off the field, but the notorious ‘Face of the NRL Curse’ looks set to strike the popular Roosters skipper on the field. Minichiello chalked up a miserable 40 metres from eight runs and made two handling errors in arguably one of the poorest performances of his career. Trent Robinson’s hand may be forced shortly, with winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in line for a permanent switch with the 33 year old.
- A highly contentious selection at right centre over Konrad Hurrell, Warriors utility back Carlos Tuimavave failed his first grade audition spectacularly on Sunday. Parramatta ran roughshod down Tuimavave’s corridor during the first half, with the 22 year old repeatedly made to look foolish by Willie Tonga and Manu Ma’u. He scored a try on halftime, but the difference in defence when Simon Mannering was stationed on the right after Tuimavave left the field with a suspected broken nose was palpable.
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Will has published two books on Rugby League:
- A History of State of Origin
- A Short History of Rugby League in Australia