TOP STORY: What is the Minor Premiership really worth?
Whether or not money was a large factor in Corey Norman’s decision to move from the Broncos to the Eels you have to give him credit for taking on the challenge. Norman will presumably start at five eight in the revitalized Parramatta line up. Who will partner him in the halves isn’t clear at this point. It won’t be easy to settle in with the enigmatic Chris Sandow next to him, however the other option is a still a very raw Luke Kelly. Despite the importance of a good halves partner, one of his main obstacles will be establishing a combination with Jarryd Hayne. Since 2009 Hayne has continuously produced brilliant numbers and carried the Eels attack, but after two wooden spoons and injury plagued seasons you start to realize he can’t do it all by himself. Norman needs to provide the perfect foil for Hayne and on paper it looks very possible. One of the biggest takeaways of Norman’s 2013 season was that he has a brilliant passing game. He provided all his outside backs with plenty of space and was lethal running the second man play. One of Haynes biggest problems over the past couple of seasons is that he’s been tasked with doing the majority of the playmaking duties at Parramatta. While he has the ability to do this, it takes away from arguably the best aspect of his game. His running game. Hayne looks most dangerous when running the ball and if Norman can provide him with the space he craves, the Eels might be that little bit closer to being an attacking force again. He’ll also have to readapt to defending in the line after playing fullback throughout 2013. He seems to be a solid enough defender but so do many players before they join the Eels. 2014 is not only a challenge for Norman, but also an opportunity. He has a chance to become a crucial player for the Eels and take his game to the next level. He has the potential to be one of the NRL’s premier playmakers and starring for the Eels might just get him there.
The tackle busting Penrith winger was tipped to graduate into one of the games premier wingers after an outstanding rookie season in 2012. However injuries and at times a lack of opportunity prevented him from getting consistent playing time in 2013.He only got onto the field for 16 games last season, two of which he played less than half the match. Nevertheless he did once again demonstrate his value to the Panthers – failing to run more 100 metres only twice, recording 27 offloads and 72 tackle busts. His hard work didn’t translate to tries though as he only managed to get across the line 4 times in what wasn’t the most prolific of years. He’s not a finished product yet but he certainly has the mental capacity and raw ability to be one of the NRLs star wingers. His willingness to carry the ball up and tendency to spin out of tackles are important for a winger and his finishing ability and try-scoring instinct will improve with experience. His one on one tackling is better than most NRL wingers and his decision making in defense is surprisingly good for a relatively inexperienced player. He can play centre and wing to equally high standards and can fill in at fullback when required. The NRL isn’t exactly short on young talented wingers with players such as David Nofoaluma, Roger Tuivasa Sheck and Jorge Tafua all making their way up in the rugby league world at a rapid rate. In 2014 Mansour can show he’s right up at their level and do everything he can to get his name into state of origin selection discussions. With Phil Gould’s five-year plan in place and a great blend of youth and experience in their rejuvenated roster, the Panther’s look well set for the future and this man will be firmly in their plans.
UPDATED: Injuries and Suspensions
The behavior of Blake Ferguson was a disaster for the Raiders but it’s given a chance to the extremely promising young Raider’s centre Jack Wighton. Tipped by many as a future New South Wales Blue, Wighton never fails to impress when given the opportunity at any level. He’s been remarkably consistent playing on the wing for the Raiders, but playing slightly out of position and injuries have stopped him from really making his mark on the NRL. He’s proven his versatility, by playing several different positions in the back line and he often-played five-eight throughout his junior career. There’s been a slight rumor that he could on his way out of Canberra and that they’re several clubs battling for his services. Canberra are having none of it though and having already lost three prestigious talents in Blake Ferguson, Josh Dugan and Anthony Milford, they will make sure not to lose another. With Blake Ferguson gone, there’s a centre position vacant. If Wighton stays injury free, you can guarantee that he’ll make that spot his own for years to come. Another perk of Ferguson being gone for Wighton is that he’ll likely be the Raiders main target for cross field kicks and he’s already shown how much of a threat he is under the high ball in attack. In 2014 Wighton will look to consolidate his status as one of rugby leagues best young talents and if he has a consistent, injury free year showcasing his talents, don’t be surprised to see his name thrown up as an Origin bolter in the next couple of seasons.
After deputizing as Isaac Luke’s back up, Nathan Peats is making a move to the besieged Parramatta Eels in search of more minutes in his favoured role as hooker. It’s been a troublesome position for the Eels over the past few years. Kevin Kingston provided a ray of hope after some stunning performances off the bench in late 2009 before moving to the Panthers. In fairness to Matt Keating, he was always a hard worker and often found himself at the top of the tackle tally but his slow service out of dummy half, almost non-existent running game and lack of a creative spark prevented him from being an NRL quality dummy half. Despite Peats just being a back up at the Rabbitohs his quality is obvious and there were even short periods of time that he displaced Isaac Luke as the clubs first choice dummy half, despite this, it was clear he would never get the minutes he deserved due to being stuck behind such a great player. It was a big call from Peats to move on from the only club he’s ever played for to an Eels side glued to the bottom of the table. But it was the right call, Peats looks to be a great fit for the Eels. Aside from what he brings to the table with the no.9 jersey on, he can also contribute as a back rower. It’s very possible that he’ll play 80 minutes for Parramatta and part of that could be in the back row. The first thing Peats will need to bring to the Eels is fast service and running out of dummy half to get the forwards on the front foot. Something the Eels urgently require if they want to start winning games again. Peats will need to provide attacking flair to take the pressure off the playmakers, something the Eels haven’t had from hooker in a long time. His attack will also actually need an end product, even when Keating did look dangerous, the danger would rarely end in points. While he should be able to more than fill Keating’s boots in attack, filling them in defense won’t be anywhere near as easy. When the worst defensive team in the NRL, loses one of their best defenders it’s never good, especially after recently losing Nathan Hindmarsh as well. Peats will have to carry a lot of the burden in defense; improved work rate and solid chemistry in defense with teammates will be necessary. At South’s Peat’s didn’t have to control the game because he was surrounded by world-class players who could do that for him. However he won’t have that luxury at the Eels and will really need to help steer the ship in an organizational sense. While Peats does have a mountain to climb at Parramatta, he always knew it was a gamble coming here and with the first team opportunity comes responsibility. I have no doubts Peats can handle it and will have a real breakout year with Parramatta.
Rounding off the list is back rower Jason Taumalolo, the young cowboys wrecking ball is set to absolutely explode in 2014. 2013 was a mixed year for Taumalolo, he struggled to nail down a first grade spot for the Cowboys before returning to the team just before the finals and playing a starring role in the controversial loss to the Sharks. There’s never been a question over his ability and when he gathers up a head of steam it’s a terrifying prospect for any defender. There have however been doubts raised over his attitude and defensive work rate. With a new coach on the way, there’s no doubt he’ll be keen to impress and get those particular issues up to scratch. It’s unlikely that he’ll start for the Cowboys and for the foreseeable future he’ll likely be used as an impact player off the bench. This shouldn’t restrict his influence, as throughout 2013 he would often run 100 plus metres in 40 minutes or less. The Cowboys perhaps lack some impact off the bench with the majority of their forward being workhorses rather than dynamic, formidable forwards. This means both Taumalolo and fellow young forward Tariq Sims will have crucial roles to play this season. There’s no doubting that Taumalolo is a force to be reckoned with on pure power alone, as demonstrated by him running straight at Dave Taylor and leaving him sprawled on the floor. With many of the Cowboys key players, most notably Brent Tate and Jonathon Thurston on the wrong side of 29 the chances for the Cowboys to win a premiership anytime soon is fading. If they are to mount a respectable title challenge this season Taumalolo will need to play an important role, coming off the bench and using his size and speed to dominate the opposition towards the latter end of both halves. It’s seemingly inevitable that Taumalolo will eventually make a huge splash in the NRL and this season might be the true beginning of a great career.
*Note, players on this list must have played 20 first grade games.