These are the rookies to watch from the Warriors, Cowboys, Eels and Panthers in 2022.
I covered the Broncos, Raiders, Bulldogs and Sharks in Part 1 then the Titans, Sea Eagles, Storm and Knights in Part 2.
New Zealand Warriors – Taniela Otukolo
A product of the Warriors’ development system, Otukolo is one of the game’s most exciting young hookers.
His most exciting attribute is his powerful running game out of dummy half, particularly close to the line. This was most evident in his start to 2020 with nine tries from six matches before COVID put an end to the competition.
He is yet to show his attacking abilities in the three NRL matches he played in 2021 but has shown a willingness to work in defence, making a total of 92 tackles in 125 minutes of game time.
In a sign the club will be looking to use Otukolo more in 2022, the 19-year-old was upgraded to the Warriors’ top 30 from a development contract in November.
Having spent most of last year in the Queensland Colts competition, I’d expect him to get some more experience in senior games before earning a bench role later in the year.
Look for the Tonga-born Otukolo to be pushing for World Cup selection at the end of the year.
North Queensland Cowboys – Jeremiah Nanai
Still only 18 years old, Nanai is a powerfully built backrower already making a name for himself with the Cowboys.
A regular in junior Queensland and Australian rep or merit teams, Nanai has one of the more impressive junior resumes.
(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)
After moving from Cairns to Townsville as a teenager, as part of the Cowboys’ development system, Nanai was a part of Kirwan State High’s 2019 National Championship and their 2020 Queensland State Final win.
A devastating ball runner, Nanai breaks tackles with ease and can often find an offload.
Nanai is not the type of player to produce large volumes of work, as you don’t want to fatigue a key an attacking weapon, but he produces high quality with his touches.
Nanai’s most telling statistic from his seven Intrust Super Cup games in 2021 is an average of 34 of his 75 metres per game came after contact.
In what may be a sign of what’s to come, Nanai played in the Cowboys’ final four games of 2021, scoring a try in his first game, making a line break in each of his next two games before playing the full 80 minutes of the final game.
With Shane Wright moving to the Super League and Coen Hess transitioning to the front row, there are opportunities in the Cowboys’ back row.
Nanai will be competing with Mitch Dunn and fellow young gun Heilum Luki for a starting position in 2022.
Parramatta Eels – Solomone Naiduki
Parramatta are another club that will likely have few opportunities for rookies in 2022.
Tom Opacic and Hayze Perham will provide depth to the backs, while the versatility of many of the forwards such as Isaiah Papali’i, Marata Niukore and Ray Stone means they can cover any forward before reaching too far down their depth chart.
I’ve been going back and forth between a couple of young forwards and a player who is probably their fourth-choice winger. But I eventually chose the winger, due to Maika Sivo missing the opening two months of the season.
Naiduki is the latest Fiji-born Parramatta winger. Naiduki was first scouted in 2018 by the Raiders when representing the Junior Bati as a centre, before a late three-year offer from the Eels secured his services.
Naiduki fits the prototype of the typical Fijian winger: athletic, quick, strong in contact and a good finisher.
Naiduki scored three tries in his six NSW Cup appearances last season and contributes handily when coming out of his own end, averaging 152 metres per game.
With Sivo injured to start the season, Naiduki looked to be likely to start on the wing in Round 1 until the recent signing of Bailey Simonsson.
He likely needs an injury to one of the starting wingers before a debut, and even then, he will still be competing with two-gamer Sean Russell for a spot.
Naiduki is no guarantee to play first grade this year but will not let anyone down if selected.
Will Eels coach Brad Arthur blood Solomone Naiduki in 2022? (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
Penrith Panthers – Taylan May
With the Panthers losing Matt Burton, Paul Momirovski and Brent Naden from their 2021 squad, there will be a first grade opportunity for one of the plethora of talented young backs.
The suggested reshuffle is for Stephen Crichton and Izack Tago to be the centres and Charlie Staines to return to the side on the wing.
While this seems likely, do not be surprised if Taylan May pushes Tago to the bench or Staines out of the side.
If not, May’s ability to play bother centre and wing will at least see him as the next man up, if one of the back line were to miss a game.
May made an admirable start to his NRL career in his one and only game NRL appearance in 2021. Playing on the wing, May broke six tackles, made two line breaks and ran for 194 metres, including 57 post-contact metres.
This high work rate and strong ball running is the basis of his game.
In May’s 11 NSW Cup games in 2021, he played two at centre and nine on the wing. He scored six tries and averaged 157 metres, 44 post-contact metres and five tackle breaks per game.