My series continues with four more young guns to watch in the NRL this season.
South Sydney Rabbitohs – Keaon Koloamatangi
The South Sydney Rabbitohs have a vacant position in the left back row heading in 2021. There are a number of candidates who could fill the position including Jed Cartwright, Hame Sele and recruit Jacob Host. While it remains to be seen who super coach Wayne Bennett will opt for to fill this void, no other option poses the attacking threat of Keaon Koloamatangi.
Koloamatangi debuted in 2020, playing 14 games off the bench exclusively as a middle forward. He may yet resume this role in 2021 where he uses his size and footwork at the line to great effect. However he is wasted in the middle. The extra space on an edge would allow him to better use his footwork, and his size and speed would make him a nightmare for opposition halves.
Souths’ left side is already one of the most potent attacking edges in the NRL with the dual threats of the superb passing and running games of five-eighth Cody Walker and fullback Latrell Mitchell to add to the speed of 2020 leading try scorer Alex Johnston.
The big body of Koloamatangi will only create additional space for these attacking aces as he provides a threat defences cannot ignore. We saw how dangerous Viliame Kikau was for Penrith both with the ball and when being used as a decoy and this should provide the blue print on how to best use Koloamatangi.
St George Illawarra Dragons – Jackson Ford
Jackson Ford has always been the standout back-rower coming through the Dragons’ system, typified by a swag of player of the year awards. In 2017 Ford was the Dragons’ under-20s player of the year and in 2019 he was their Canterbury Cup player of the year. He also made his NRL debut in 2019 as a development player. He continued his Canterbury Cup form in the top grade.
Awarded a top 30 contract for the 2020 season I had high hopes that Ford would start on an edge for the Dragons. It wasn’t to be, however he did firmly establish himself in the top 17, primarily coming off the bench in the middle, as well as starting a few games at lock.
(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
With Tyson Frizell leaving there is an opportunity for Ford to secure an edge role for the Dragons in 2021. Ford will bring an outstanding attacking game to the role, highlighted with some top shelf line running.
In his stellar 2019 reserve grade season he recorded 13 tries, 12 line breaks and 82 tackle breaks. He hasn’t yet had the opportunity to showcase this ability while playing in the middle in first grade but watch for him to excel on an edge for the Dragons this season.
Sydney Roosters – Egan Butcher
With the retirements of Sonny Bil Williams and Mitch Aubusson, the departure of Poasa Faamausili and no forward recruitments, the Roosters will need to look within for forward depth in 2021. Egan Butcher, younger brother of Roosters first grader Nat, will be one young player looking to step up.
Going through his third pre-season with the Roosters, Butcher is yet to debut however he made the 21-man team several times last season. A natural footballer who is deceptively strong, Butcher has made a name for himself in the lower grades as a back-rower but will likely be used in the middle as he becomes accustomed to first grade.
With Boyd Cordner reportedly set to miss the start of the season, Butcher will be under consideration from Round 1. However having only six senior games to his name, all from 2019, the Roosters may want him to spend some time in reserve grade this season before being handed his debut.
Wests Tigers – Stefano Utoikamanu
Stefano Utoikamanu was a targeted signing by the Wests Tigers prior to the 2020 season. The then-19-year-old was yet to debut but had come through the Parramatta system with massive raps, having represented Australian Schoolboys and NSW under-20s. So highly was the young front-rower thought of, NSW coach Brad Fittler identified him as a possible Origin bolter prior to the start of the season.
Drawing comparisons to Payne Haas, Utoikamanu reportedly has a huge motor to go with his six-foot-three and 115-kilo frame. With the Tigers’ forwards struggling to make metres in 2020, he looks to have the skills to fill a much needed void in the Tigers’ game.
Having played just the 24 minutes across three games of first grade he is yet to show what he can do in the top grade, but he looks to likely make the 17 from Round 1 and should flourish under the guidance of experienced recruit James Tamou.
Souths are set to make two huge calls in their spine ahead of their crunch clash with the Wests Tigers this Saturday teatime, with captain Cameron Murray slated to return ahead of schedule from injury and Blake Taaffe ditched as their run-on fullback.