Brandon Smith was placed on report for an alleged 'hip-drop' tackle on Titans skippers Tino Fa'asuamaleaui. Craig Bellamy doesn't want the previous week full…
This is Part 2 of four articles about each club’s rookie to watch in the 2022 NRL season.
While I would like to see which rookie players you are most excited about, and please do let me know if you think I’m wrong about my selections, I would like to remind everyone this is the rookie player I believe to feature most prominently for their team this year.
For example, I have been quite outspoken for well over a year about the prospects of Storm young gun Jack Howarth and I believe we will see him in the NRL this year.
However, I believe he will be limited to a just a few games whereas another Storm rookie – in my opinion – is in for a much larger role than Howarth this year.
Gold Coast Titans – Toby Sexton
With a very young squad there are a number of rookies who will likely feature for the Gold Coast Titans in 2022.
However, none will be more important than their halfback Toby Sexton. With last year’s halves pairing, Ash Taylor and club captain Jamal Fogarty, being moved on from the Titans, the club has put a lot of faith in Sexton as the future of the club.
For anyone who has seen Sexton play it is hard to disagree with this move.
Sexton is the complete package at halfback as highlighted by his 2021 stats across his 13 Intrust Super Cup and four NRL games.
He has maturity beyond his years, he has an outstanding kicking game (averaging over 200 metres and 0.7 forced drop outs per game) and he is an astute playmaker (five tries and 13 try assists).
He is willing to take on the defensive line (68 metres per game). He is an accomplished goal kicker (26 from 31, or 84 per cent).
Most impressively, he has a tackle efficiency over 90 per cent and handled his step up to first grade, winning three of his four games.
There are genuine concerns regarding the inexperience of the Titans’ spine. Sexton will need to lead for the Titans to be a success.
However, I am confident that Sexton will deliver for the Titans in 2022 and beyond.
Manly Sea Eagles – Tolu Koula
Koula is a prodigious talent who excelled in both rugby codes as a junior, having represented the Australian schools and under-18s rugby teams as well as playing fullback in Manly’s 2018 Harold Matthews premiership-winning team.
He has continued to impress as he has made his way through the grades for Manly, most recently scoring five tries in his five NSW Cup appearances in 2021.
Koula has all the physical attributes you could want of someone in your back line. He is strong in contact, agile and fast.
Boasting a 10.58-second 100 metres at a 2019 schoolboy carnival, Koula would likely be the quickest player in the NRL.
Koula’s preferred position is fullback but he is equally adept as a winger or a centre.
There may not be a position available in the Manly back line to start the 2022 season but his versatility as well as the departure of Moses Suli will undoubtedly see him debut at some stage during the season.
I would even suggest that if Morgan Harper or Brad Parker were to miss a few consecutive games, they may not find their way back into the team.
Melbourne Storm – Jordan Grant
Even as junior Jordan Grant was never a mainstay in many teams, spending time in the Panthers’ system then the Eels’ and Tigers’ systems, but he is a good story of perseverance.
After graduating from the Tigers’ under-20s side at the end of 2014 to their reserve grade side in 2015, Grant looked to be progressing well as a footballer.
He played every game of the 2016 NSW Cup season, averaged over 100 metres and 24 tackles per game, and took out the Wests Tigers’ Intrust Super Premiership player of the year award. Grant’s path to the NRL looked assured.
However, Grant later fell out of favour in the 2017 season before continuing his career in the QRL Intrust Super Cup from 2018.
Grant remained a standout at the reserve grade level, making the Intrust Super Cup team of the year in both 2018 and 2019.
With the 2020 season being abandoned due to COVID, Grant’s progress was halted before he was signed on a train-and-trial by the Melbourne Storm for the 2021 season.
The 2021 pre-season did not start well for Grant, tearing his hamstring off the bone on just his third day. However, the Storm stuck by him and Grant made his long awaited NRL debut in Round 18 shortly before his 27th birthday.
In his six Intrust Super Cup games last year, Grant averaged 150 metres and 25 tackles and he looked as though he belonged in his two first grade games, earning him a top-30 contract for 2022 and 2023.
The incredibly reliable front rower looks to have a greater role to play this season with the departures of Dale Finucane and Aaron Pene as well as questions surrounding the future of Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tui Kamikamica.
I expect Grant to feature on the Melbourne bench in Round 1 and to be a mainstay there throughout the year.
Newcastle Knights – Mat Croker
The Knights have a number of very promising rookies but it is hard to see any playing a significant role in 2022.
Outside their predicted starting 17, the Knights still have Starford Toa and Dominic Young as coverage for the backs, Phoenix Crossland as a half and Chris Randall at hooker.
Outside a long-term injury to Kalyn Ponga, the only position I can see a rookie possibly getting more than a few games in is when the Knights call upon their front-row depth.
The pick of the bunch of the young Knights’ forwards is Mat Croker.
Croker has steadily made his way through the Knights’ development system, achieving representative honours with the Australian Schoolboys and NSW under-20s along the way.
At six foot two and 108 kilograms, Croker has filled out his frame and he put that size to good use in the NSW Cup last year.
Across his 11 games he averaged 122 metres and 32 tackles, earning him their player’s player award.
Croker was given a tough initiation into first grade in 2021 with two games off the bench in losses to top six teams Parramatta and South Sydney.
Croker will no doubt be better for that experience and hungry for more first grade in 2022.