Every new season brings with it new players, and these are the young guns you should keep an eye on in the lead-up to the 2019 tournament. 6. Albert Hopoate – Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
The Sea Eagles have lost Brian Kelly, Akuila Uate and Matt Wright over the off-season. Furthermore, Dylan Walker was recently stood down from training following an assault charge.
This leaves Jorge Taufua, Brad Parker and Moses Suli as the only established first graders in the centre and wing positions. In fact calling Parker and Suli established first graders would be a stretch. With the arrival of a new coach, their positions are far from secure.
The opportunity is there for new players to establish themselves in the Manly three-quarter line. Rookies Albert Hopoate and Tevita Funa will likely be contending for a spot with signings Reuben Garrick and Brendan Elliott. Garrick and Elliott have been fringe first graders up until now.
Hopoate is a touted prospect, having impressed for NSW under-16s and Manly under-16s in 2017. Unfortunately he missed most of the 2018 season rehabbing an ACL injury. If Dylan Walker’s off-field indiscretions see him miss any NRL action, expect Hopoate to be in the mix for selection.
5. Dylan Brown – Parramatta Eels
Dylan Brown hasn’t played a game of first grade yet, but that didn’t stop him from being an off-season transfer target. Following Shaun Johnson’s departure from the Warriors, the media reported that they were set to offer him a six-year, multimillion-dollar deal. This never transpired, with speculation that the Eels issued a ‘hands off’ warning.
Brown is currently training with the Eels first-grade squad and occasionally lining up with Corey Norman or Mitchell Moses in opposed sessions. He impressed in New South Wales Cup last season after debuting in Round 19, with his running game being his greatest asset.
If injury were to strike, Brown may well make his first-grade debut this season. Parramatta are also rumoured to be shopping Mitchell Moses around, although at this stage he appears to be staying for 2019.
4. Chanel Harris-Tavita – New Zealand Warriors
Shaun Johnson is no longer a Warrior, meaning the halfback jersey is there for the taking. Johnson’s previous understudy, Mason Lino, has also left the club for Newcastle. Furthermore, coach Stephen Kearney has shot down talk of either Peta Hiku, Tohu Harris or Roger Tuivasa-Sheck moving into the halves.
Rookies Chanel Harris-Tavita and Hayze Perham have been nominated by Kearney as the frontrunners for this position. Harris-Tavita looms as the more likely starter in Round 1 given Perham played all of last season at Fullback in NSW Cup. Chanel was also impressive for the Junior Kiwis, producing a remarkable ‘scorpion kick’ try assist for the highlight reel.
3. Bronson Xerri – Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said he wanted to play rookie centre Bronson Xerri last season. Unfortunately Xerri hadn’t turned 18 yet. He scored a hat-trick on debut for the Newton Jets back in June and was a standout for the victorious Sharks Jersey Flegg side.
Edrick Lee, Ricky Leutele and Jesse Ramien have all left the Sharks. Josh Morris is the only notable signing and should slot into the left centre position, leaving Josh Dugan on the right. Sosaia Feki will likely start at left wing, but the right wing position is wide open.
Xerri will be competing with Sione Katoa and Aaron Gray to secure that final backline position in Round 1. Even if he is unsuccessful, Xerri is only one injury or suspension away from making his NRL debut.
2. Zac Lomax – St George Illawarra Dragons
Following the departures of Nene MacDonald, Jason Nightingale and Reuben Garrick, Zac Lomax appears to be a near-certain starter for the Dragons in Round 1. While Tim Lafai and Euan Aitken have the centre positions locked up, both Wings are largely vacant. Jordan Pereira will likely claim one spot, while Lomax takes the other.
Blues coach Brad Fittler has labelled Lomax as ‘the gifted one’. Lomax was impressive for a victorious NSW under-18s side under Fittler in 2017. Moreover, despite having just two regular season NRL games under his belt, Paul McGregor showed confidence in the youngster by playing him in the Dragons’ finals matches.
Lomax is a versatile backline player, having logged games at both centre and wing in the NSW Cup last season. Although he is expected to start on the wing, don’t be surprised if he ends up at centre or fullback by season’s end if injuries strike.
(AAP Image/Craig Golding)
1. Scott Drinkwater – Melbourne Storm
Scott Drinkwater is not expected to start in Round 1, but he is arguably the most exciting prospect on this list. Drinkwater is coming off a spectacular QLD Cup season in which he was named fullback of the year and posted statistics that fantasy players would drool over.
In 22 games Drinkwater had 17 tries, 24 try assists and 22 linebreak assists in addition to averages of 133 metres and seven tackle busts per game. He also made his NRL debut in Round 25, scoring a try and running for 146 metres.
Jahrome Hughes is the frontrunner to start at fullback for the Storm, but Craig Bellamy will find a place for Drinkwater at some point. When he eventually gets his opportunity, expect Drinkwater to take it with both hands.