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Opinion

The top ten players in the NRL’s next generation

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Expert
16th April, 2020
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2541 Reads

The NRL is going to be back one day. One day soon. While fans hang out for that day, it leaves us plenty of time to talk, to ponder and to twiddle our thumbs.

I much prefer the first two options, though, and while the NRL not being on the field is a huge hit, the time off from the game is also greatly impacting on the next generation of stars who are currently working their way through non-existent junior competitions.

With the NSWRL and QRL cancelling all of their competitions for this year, including Jersey Flegg, SG Ball, Harold Matthews Shield, Hastings Deering Colts and the Mal Meninga Cup, it means junior players are going to effectively lose a full year of their development.

It’s not a good situation by any stretch of the imagination, but during this lay-off from the game we all love it’s time to look at that next generation and see which stars are going to eventually emerge from this mess.

The only criteria to make the list is that they have played fewer than five first grade games and are 20 years of age or younger.

Before we get into the top ten, some honourable mentions: Jake Averillo (Canterbury Bulldogs), Ky Rodwell (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow (North Queensland Cowboys), Sam Walker and Billy Smith (both Sydney Roosters), Josh Schuster (Manly Sea Eagles), Jock Madden and Zac Cini (both Wests Tigers) Eddie Blacker (St George Illawarra Dragons), Tex Hoy (Newcastle Knights), Elisea Katoa (New Zealand Warriors) and Matt Burton (Penrith Panthers).

10. Jayden Sullivan
Age: 18
Position: Halfback, five-eighth
Current club: St George Illawarra Dragons

If you haven’t watched highlights of Sullivan yet, I suggest in the strongest possible terms that you do so. His vision for the game, whether that be passing or kicking, is simply outstanding.

For an 18-year-old he plays so unselfishly yet has all the flashy skills to turn it on when he needs to.

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Part of the Illawarra Steelers premiership-winning team last year in the SG Ball before playing in the halves for the New South Wales under-18 side, he is now in the Dragons development squad and will move into the top 30 for 2021.

It’s still early days for the half, but if he can avoid the Paul McGregor coaching curse – think Matt Dufty, Luciano Leilua and Reece Robson, to name a few – then he has a brilliant career ahead of him.

9. Ethan Bullemor
Age: 20
Position: Front row
Current club: Brisbane Broncos

Bullemor made his NRL debut in Round 2 this season against South Sydney, making 32 metres in three runs, 14 of them post-contact yards.

It wasn’t a long performance by any stretch, but it sums up Bullemor. Whether it’s playing for Queensland in junior Origin or in the Queensland Cup, he always gives you 100 per cent and then some.

He runs the ball hard, tackles hard and never lets anyone down. Every team needs players like Bullemor to succeed, and he will be in high demand once his contract expires in Brisbane.

8. Bradman Best
Age: 18
Position: Fullback, wing, centre
Current club: Newcastle Knights

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Does Best have the greatest name in the history of rugby league? It’s hard to argue otherwise.

But on top of that, it seems like fans have been talking about him for years, and he is only 18! Some have begun to write him off because he ‘hasn’t kicked on yet’ but I’d say those people have forgotten he is 18.

Best is touted as a strong outside back prospect and, locked in at the Knights for at least the next two seasons, he has plenty of security to find a role in the side.

It won’t be his prefered one at fullback with Kalyn Ponga in the way, but he can use his damaging ball running in the outside backs to his advantage, defend strongly and push for a gig at fullback somewhere else when his current contract expires.

When he will still only be 20.

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7. Shawn Blore
Age: 19
Position: Lock
Current club: Penrith Panthers

There is every chance Blore wouldn’t be eligible to feature in this list had he not spent most of 2019 on the sidelines with an ACL injury.

That’s because he would have already made a name for himself in the middle third at Penrith. The 2018 season was a wonderful one for the young gun, leading Penrith to the SG Ball title, captaining the New South Wales under-18 Origin team and playing for the Junior Kangaroos.

The previous two captains of the under-18 New South Wales side, Cameron Murray and Payne Haas, have both gone on to do great things, debuting the year after, so Blore is following in convincing footsteps.

While last year was a setback, he is the best of a strong Penrith junior nursery – behind Spencer Leniu, who isn’t eligible for this list – and will look to put that into practice when he eventually makes his debut.

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6. Sione Fainu
Age: 18
Position: Front row, lock
Current club: Manly Sea Eagles

Manly have a talented crop of young forwards coming through the ranks, with Josh Schuster only just missing this list, but Sione Fainu stands out as one of the more talented middle third players under the age of 20.

While it may be still some years before he is able to lock down a first-grade spot, Manly fans will be familiar with the last name. The younger brother of Manase, he was immense for New South Wales in the under-18 State of Origin game last year, scoring a try and playing most of the game in the middle, running for 150 metres and making six tackle busts to go with almost 60 post-contact metres.

His ability to perform under pressure in big matches, where he has been immense for both Manly at SG Ball level and for Westfields Sports at schoolboys level, stands out, and Fainu, who could well be compared to the Payne Haas type model, could well be in line for a debut in the next 18 months.

5. Cory Paix
Age: 20
Position: Halfback, hooker
Current club: Brisbane Broncos

A half who has the defensive capabilities of a hooker, Paix has been on the cusp of making his debut for some months now and is likely to at some point in 2020 should Brisbane suffer any injuries in the spine to cause a reshuffle.

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Having represented all of Queensland’s three junior Origin sides, the crafty and versatile youngster started at hooker in the 2018 under-18 match before starting at halfback in the 2019 under-20 match, which shows just how strong he is.

With a full Queensland Cup season for the Redcliffe Dolphins now behind him, the Broncos product is locked up at the club until the end of 2022 and should be a hot product on the market when that deal expires.

4. Tanah Boyd
Age: 19
Position: Halfback
Current club: Gold Coast Titans

Like Paix, Boyd has played in all of Queensland’s junior representative teams, although he was forced to settle for a spot off the bench last year.

His kicking game has been noted as the outstanding quality to his game, but he still looks strong running the ball and is excellent at putting a creative spin on his team’s attack.

Moving from the Broncos in June last year, it took just three weeks on the Gold Coast to earn an NRL debut at the struggling Titans following strong performances for the Burleigh Bears.

He will look to get back into the top 17 once the competition returns and make a name for himself.

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3. Fanitesi Niu
Age: 18
Position: Centre
Current club: Brisbane Broncos

The run of outstanding Queenslanders through the second half of this list continues with a player who could well be the best in his position for much of his career.

Niu has all the skills of a modern-day centre and then some, with positional changes likely throughout his time in the game. Some of the footwork and acceleration in high highlights packages look like a young Greg Inglis crossed over with Latrell Mitchell at his best, and that’s exactly the way he could end up being regarded.

After a strong 2019 season at Souths Logan, he set the world on fire in the under-18 Origin clash last year and is likely to be part of Brisbane’s long-term plans, starting almost immediately.

2. Ben Trbojevic
Age: 19
Position: Centre, back row
Current club: Manly Sea Eagles

When you have a player being talked up as ‘better than both of his brothers’ and those brothers happen to be Jake and Tom Trbojevic, who are both undoubtedly in the top 20 players in the NRL, and arguably the top ten, the potential is limitless.

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Ben Trbojevic has been huge for Manly through all the junior competitions, playing in the same team as Sione Fainu, which made the SG Ball grand final last year, and also coming off the bench for the NSW under-18 side.

In a team which were well beaten, he was close to best on ground for the Sky Blues, his edge running as dangerous as brother Tom with the ball in hand and his offloading game looking a little like Jake’s.

On top of that, he is rock-solid in defence, reads the game well and is likely to make his first-grade debut at some point in the next year or two.

1. Stefano Utoikamanu
Age: 19
Position: Front row
Current club: Parramatta Eels (Wests Tigers from 2021)

Normally we talk about the Wests Tigers letting good players go, but this time around they won the contract fight for possibly the brightest young star rugby league has to offer.

If you thought Payne Haas was scary, then you probably haven’t seen Utoikamanu play yet. Officially listed at 191 centimetres and 115 kilograms, the 19-year-old has made a name for himself pushing through the Eels junior ranks, so it’s little surprise the contention for his signature ran hot in January.

He has played for New South Wales throughout the junior age brackets and was playing for Wentworthville in reserve grade action before most of his peers had finished playing SG Ball.

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And for New South Wales fans, Utoikamanu and Haas as a starting front row combination somewhere into the future. Talk about scary.

Roarers, which career on this list are you most excited to watch develop?