Rising stars: Knights flyer could be ‘better than Best’
EVERY year a bunch of kids most footy fans have never heard of jump out of the ground and stamp themselves as the NRL's next big things.
In 2019 it was the likes of the phenomenal Payne Haas, Maika Sivo, Bronson Xerri and Ryan Papenhuyzen.
Who will it be in 2020?
PAUL CRAWLEY looks into his crystal ball and picks out 13 rookies you will not forget.
TOMMY TALAU (Wests Tigers)
Bulldogs fans will be hoping this is not another Johnathan Thurston tale of regret. Michael Maguire has already handed the son of former star Willie his NRL debut and Tommy could haunt Canterbury for years to come. Tommy was a junior rep sensation at five-eighth and in the back-row, making the Australian Schoolboys and NSW Under-18s. Not unlike a young John Sutton with his skill and big frame. Should start next year in the centres following Esan Marsters' move to North Queensland but Talau will probably end up in the back row.
XAVIER COATES (Brisbane)
He's 194cm tall, weighs 100kg and flies through the air like a young Israel Folau. After his debut in that wonderful baby Broncos win over Cronulla, you would imagine Xavier Coates is giving Anthony Seibold pre-season nightmares. Not because the kid they call "Little Inglis" isn't something very special. The issue is how Seibold can find a place for Coates and Darius Boyd in the same backline. Word out of Red Hill is Jamayne Isaako will play fullback, while Corey Oates is a certainty for one wing spot. However, Coates can't be left waiting in the wings for too much longer.
MATT BURTON (Penrith)
While it initially looked as though Jarome Luai would be Nathan Cleary's long-term halves partner following the exit of James Maloney, Burton tossed that theory out the window the moment he made his debut. When a suspended Maloney could not play against Cronulla, the Dubbo teenager turned on a performance that highlighted his immense talent. It led Phil Gould to comment that Burton "might be the best" of all the Panthers' super youngsters. "He will mould into a great NRL player," Gould said. That's some rap coming from Gus, who is always mindful of not putting pressure on young players before they are ready.
STARFORD TO'A (Newcastle)
It's no secret Newcastle young gun Bradman Best is something out of the ordinary, but don't ignore this young Knights outside back. Some very good judges are extremely excited, one going as far as to say To'a could be "better than Best". His freakish footwork and super speed won him the fullback spot for the Junior Kiwis. To'a had a luckless run in 2019, missing 16 weeks after having wrist and ankle surgery. But he showed resilience to fight back and make his NRL debut in the final round. Might struggle initially to unseat seasoned pros Edrick Lee and Hymel Hunt, who are the leading contenders for the wing spots, but this young man is a star on the rise.
JOSH SCHUSTER (Manly)
A superstar in the junior reps playing as an edge backrower or five-eighth. The question now is when Schuster will be ready to make the step up to the NRL - and in what position. He has that David Fifita hype about him and, like Fifita, he had clubs queuing up to sign him before recommitting to Manly. He is on a development contract in 2020 but his skill, size and speed have everyone wondering just how long coach Des Hasler will wait before giving him a run in the NRL. Should be a household name in years to come if he stays fit and focused.
BRANDON WAKEHAM (Canterbury)
Has already had three starts in the NRL and will put pressure on Lachy Lewis and Jack Cogger in 2020. That is only going to intensify with Kieran Foran sidelined for an extended period. Has a super footy brain, silky skills and plenty of self-belief and cheek. There's a terrific story about when Wakeham was playing in the national schoolboy final a few years back for Westfields against Keebra Park. Apparently the young playmaker walked straight through the middle of the scrum at one point, looked big Payne Haas in the eye and scoffed: "Geez, I was expecting you would be better with all this talk about you."
HAMISO TABUAI-FIDOW (North Queensland)
Since the Cowboys made a huge mistake in letting Kalyn Ponga leave, they have been on the lookout for the next big thing. Well, this man of the match in the Australian Schoolboys' recent win over the Junior Kiwis could be the one. Still extremely raw but super exciting and has a wonderful ability to make the most amazing plays look effortless. Has been rated as Queensland's most exciting young player and is really impressing the right people during pre-season training in Townsville. While the young fullback won't be pushing Valentine Holmes out of the No.1 jumper just yet, he is comfortable on the wing or at centre. If the Cowboys have a big 2020, expect this youngster to be in the thick of it.
KY RODWELL (South Sydney)
This young Rabbitoh has the potential to step up and take his opportunity following the retirement of Sam Burgess. A middle forward from the country town of Bombala, he has a massive motor and an outstanding attitude. Rodwell was a standout in Souths' premiership-winning Jersey Flegg team. He was even voted players' player for the season despite managing only eight games because of injury. He was also really impressive in Mark O'Meley's NSW Under-20s team that beat Queensland.
BRADMAN BEST (Newcastle)
Big, fast, strong and aggressive. Smart judges have been talking about this teenager from Woy Woy since his primary school days and now Best is ready to play with the big boys. Played only three NRL games in 2019 but everything suggests he can graduate top of the class in 2020. Poor Newcastle Knights fans have been through some tough seasons lately but with youngsters like Best emerging, the future looks bright. The Knights have developed some outstanding centres over the years, including Matt Gidley and Timana Tahu. Best will be up with the elite.
EGAN BUTCHER (Roosters)
If a young forward can cut it at the Roosters, he can cut it at any rugby league club in the world. And that's where Butcher is at right now. The kid brother of fellow Rooster Nat, this tough backrower is going to be extremely hard to hold out, regardless of who stands in front of him. Even in the best forward pack in the NRL, Egan is seen as an undeniable talent. Reliable and relentless are two words used to describe the way he goes about his football.
JASON SAAB (St George Illawarra)
They are saying he might be the tallest man to ever pull on the famous Red V jumper. At 199cm, this immensely gifted 18-year-old is understandably phenomenal in the air. He made his debut in 2019 and looked right at home. Astonishingly, he couldn't make the cut in the Parramatta and Balmain junior competitions but went on to play for the Australian Schoolboys and in the NSW Under-18 team. In a side that has limited competition for the wing spots, this teenager already looks to be the standout.
BLACK BOOK SPECIALS
JAKE SIMPKIN (Wests Tigers)
This one is a bit left field but a tremendous attitude could result in a young Queenslander's dream coming true at the Tigers in 2020, if not beyond. Simpkin was the Maroons Under-18s hooker who many believed would be a future No.9 at the Broncos before the Tigers swooped. Now he has been given his opportunity to train with the big boys on a development contract over summer and who knows what might be around the corner, especially as Robbie Farah has retired and Jacob Liddle is recovering from a serious ACL injury. While Josh Reynolds is the front-runner to take over at dummy-half, coach Michael Maguire will need a back-up given Reynolds' injury run in recent years.
TREY MOONEY (Canberra)
It is gobsmacking that Parramatta let this young bloke go. Westfields Sports High's longtime rugby league coach Wayne Lambkin rates his work ethic and ability as good as any kid he has coached. Canberra's respected recruitment boss Peter Mulholland has similar thoughts. Mooney was the Parramatta SG Ball captain a year young and those who have watched him develop say he is mature beyond his years. He was also elevated into the NSW Under-18s because he was so dominant. No wonder Raiders coach Ricky Stuart decided to have him train with the NRL players over summer. Won't be ready in 2020 but don't forget the name.