The Roar
The Roar

Advertisement

Bula & GI: Can a living legend help the Tigers superstar rookie to kick on in year two?

Autoplay in... 6 (Cancel)
Up Next No more videos! Playlist is empty -
Replay
Cancel
Next
Editor
31st January, 2024
17
1448 Reads

The appearance of Greg Inglis at Tigers HQ in full training kit certainly set tongues wagging across the NRL.

Fans love nostalgia, so the chance to see a legend like Inglis link up with another, new Wests coach Benji Marshall, was perfect for a bit of silly season content.

GI turning up at the ironically named Wests Tigers Centre of Excellence is thought to be as a mentor for gun rookie Jahream Bula, the brightest spot in an otherwise typically depressing season for Tigers fans.

Bula was a revelation from the moment he took to the field in the NRL against Manly in Round 8, propelling himself from near-total obscurity – he’d only played three games of reserve grade – to a hair’s breadth from Rookie of the Year, which he lost out to fellow Fijian international Sunia Turuva.

It’s hard to remember a fullback who broke onto the scene so quickly, instantly ranking in their side’s top three players from their first game.

James Tedesco would be the obvious one at the Tigers, but he didn’t arrive with the same explosion as Bula, being eased in with one game and then doing a few on the wing before taking the 1 jumper.

Advertisement

Daine Laurie might be another, becoming one the club’s main attacking weapons from his first appearance at the club, albeit that came after three for Penrith the year before.

No fullback has won Dally M Rookie of the Year since Karmichael Hunt in 2004 – despite a golden age for 1s in the top award – and the track record for guys who burst onto the scene is, to put it politely, mixed.

There’s the likes of Adam Reynolds, Daly Cherry-Evans, Payne Haas and Harry Grant, who have gone on to be some of the best players in the world, but also Ash Taylor, Nick Cotric and Jack Bird, all serviceable pros but who never lived up to their first year hype.

So where does Bula rate in relation to other NRL fullbacks, and what might Inglis get him working on in the coming weeks?

The difficult second season is always a problem, but the Fijian could find few better mentors than GI.

Inglis, remember, was already the subject of an eligibility Origin battle before he’d made first grade, scored 12 in five games in reggies and then went on to be nominated for Rookie of the Year in his first season despite only debuting, like Bula, midyear.

Though Bula was excellent straight off the bat, he’s now got to back it up. So how good was he? And where could he end up in the future?

Advertisement

First up, we need our data caveats. We’ll be chucking Bula in with all fullbacks who made sample size in the NRL in 2023 – so everyone you might expect – but while we do equalise across things like possessions,and time on field, the data can’t account for all of Bula’s minutes having occurred while playing for the Wests Tigers, who finished last.

It might be easier to stand out in a bad team, however in a spreadsheet, you look worse if the other guys were getting their ball in more advantageous positions. Bula gets some credit there.

He also gets the obvious credit of being a rookie, with no prior experience to last year.

So how good was he?

Bula was, as a bare minimum, fine. Looking at his stats through the prism of all NRL fullbacks, he’s pretty middle of the road, but that is pretty good for a guy in the worst team in his first year.

At the moment, you’d have him as better than most in terms of creativity but worse than average in yardage, which fairly matches the eye test as well.

Advertisement

Interestingly, his line break assists are above other players of his style and age like Tyrell Sloan and Jayden Campbell, and the equal of guys like Clint Gutherson and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow.

With a decent wind in 2024, you could see those getting better and better, especially if the Tigers work out a better plan of getting him involved.

On top of that, he also does the free things very well. Bula’s Off Ball Value is good, and that comes in no small part to his high volumes of support play, a key stat for fullbacks who thrive off their pace and elusiveness.

If the Tigers play better and introduce more second phase and broken play, you’d expect a better return out of Bula in tries and line breaks.

His own personal line break tally isn’t great, though that often requires someone else to put him through a hole, not always a given in a team as bad as the Tigers.

Where Inglis might have a word is in terms of bravery with the ball. Bula often played a little far from the line, with pretty poor line engagement numbers, and if they coul be improved then a benefit would surely follow in creative production.

What Inglis could also do is deliver his words of wisdom over dinner. Bula is listed as 187cm, pretty tall for a fullback, but only 93kgs, which is probably too low for player like him.

Advertisement

Player weights are always fluid and public information is in general quite sketchy, but if that weight is anything close to true, there’s a lot of scope for more to be added.

James Tedesco, for example, 2kgs heavier, Clint Gutherson is 3kgs bigger and Tom Trbojevic is almost 10kgs up.

That might be unrealistic, but there’s a Strength & Conditioning argument to be made that a fully-grown, NRL ready version of Bula would be able to keep his speed and elusiveness while adding to it with more size.

That current weakness is reflected in his running stats.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Bula ranks between Sloan and Keano Kini for metres per run, right at the very bottom, and, despite what you might expect from a jinking, elusive fullback, he also posts poor tackle break numbers.

It’s hard to split the stats based on what a run was intended to achieve, Bula was getting around a third of his total metres in kick return metres (KRM) – not far off the KRM king, Dylan Edwards – which puts him towards the upper end of that category, but that was an underperformance given the number of kick return runs (KRR) that he made.

Advertisement

What that means is that, assuming the same number of efforts, there is scope to pick up those metres through better returning.

Edwards, for example, had 31% of his runs from returns but got 35% of his metres that way, while Bula was the other way around.

Much as it is unfair to compare anyone’s kick returning ability to that of Edwards, Bula was one of the worst in turning opportunity into yardage in the NRL.

Looking through the whole data set, a few trends emerge that bode well for the Tigers.

Bula’s name often comes up close to that of Sloan, to whom he almost always compares favourably despite being the same age – there’s five months between them – and considerably less experienced in terms of NRL game time.

The next names you see most frequently are Hamiso and Gutho, which speaks to the sort of player Bula is now and the sort that he could become.

Hammer is roughly the same age, but kicked on massively at the Dolphins after a bright start at the Cowboys. Above anyone, he is the model that Bula would do best to follow.

Advertisement

Gutherson might not be an obvious comparison, but he is essentially what Bula would look like if he was a bit bigger and bit better in yardage.

Bula’s defence isn’t often talked about, but he topped the NRL in try-saving tackles last year – of course, he played for the Tigers, so had plenty of opportunity to make them – and has shown that he is decent as a last line.

Bula has plenty of the things you can’t teach, like pace and enthusiasm, as well as bucketloads of flair and talent.

Where he can improve is his body, his game sense and his organisation from the back. That comes with time, experience and coaching.

If he can do that, he can be right up there with the likes of Gutherson among big-hearted, consistent fullbacks who perform on both sides of the ball.

Given what he has shown in a short time in the NRL, there’s nothing to say that Bula can’t be even better than the King, or anyone else currently going around.

With GI in his corner, he couldn’t ask for a better mentor.

Advertisement
close