Youth is the key to any team out there. While it’s the older heads, the veterans, providing the experience, it’s the youngsters that keep the team on their toes. The creativity and pure energy they can show week in, week out, brings fans back every week.
And in 2017, the ten youngest players in the NRL are sure to deliver on a whole heap of excitement in rugby league.
Kalyn Ponga (North Queensland Cowboys) – 18 years, 292 days old
Despite only having two NRL games under his belt, Kalyn Ponga has already started an eligibility tug of war between the Maroons and the Kiwis and secured a multi-million contract for the future. The evasive young fullback has signed a four-year contract with the Newcastle Knights valued at $2.4 million starting in 2018, a deal which will see Ponga play in his natural position of custodian, opposed to biding his time on the wing. With Antonio Winterstein, Kyle Feldt and Lachlan Coote making up the Cowboy’s back three, Ponga will have to wait for an injury to strike to get his chance in 2017.
Nathan Cleary (Penrith Panthers) – 19 years, 63 days old
At just 19 years old, young halfback Nathan Cleary is a bona fide superstar of the game. In his debut season, Cleary amassed 106 points along with 8 try assists – in just 13 games of football. One of many young superstars in Penrith’s squad, 2017 is set to be a breakout year for Cleary as he forms a combination with New Zealand international Te Maire Martin, with some even mentioning Cleary in State of Origin selection talks.
Jaydn Su’a (Brisbane Broncos) – 19 years, 85 days old
It’s not easy being a young backrower in Brisbane. With international stars Matt Gillett, Alex Glenn, Sam Thaiday and Corey Parker making up the sides backrow for the past few years, it’s hard to get a look in. But with Parker’s retirement and Thaiday getting older, the doors starting to open. And Jaydn Su’a has his foot in that door. Debuting last year, Su’a managed to play four first grade games in 2016, whilst also featuring for the Junior Kangaroos and captaining the Queensland under 20s squad. Su’a will battle it out with fellow youngster Jai Arrow to fill Parker’s vacancy in Brisbane’s top 17 this year.
Curtis Scott (Melbourne Storm) – 19 years, 96 days old
For a young bloke, Curtis Scott sure is tough. Playing two matches for the Storm last year, Scott had his chance to impress head coach Craig Bellamy in Round 4 when he managed to play 10 minutes of football with a broken leg. While the injury prematurely ended the youngster’s season, it showed Bellamy he’s made of the right stuff. The outside back is in direct competition with recruit Josh Addo-Carr for Melbourne’s vacant left wing spot, with his guest role last season sure to be a factor in Bellamy’s decision.
Billy Bainbridge (Manly Sea Eagles) – 19 years, 129 days old
Like Brisbane, being a young backrower in Manly isn’t easy. Their starting backrow is made up of internationals, with Lewis Brown, Marty Taupau and Jake Trbojevic all representing their country in 2016. After debuting in the last round of the season, Bainbridge will fight it out with recruits Curtis Sironen and Shaun Lane for a bench spot this season.
Jack Cogger (Newcastle Knights) – 19 years, 164 days old
Hailed as Newcastle’s future halfback alongside fellow youngster Brock Lamb, Cogger has had a rough start to his NRL career. Featuring in six first grade games, Cogger is yet to taste victory at NRL level. To make matters worse, four of the six losses would be by twenty points or more, including the 62-0 drubbing they copped from eventual premiers the Cronulla Sharks. While he’s not winning games, it’s a start for Cogger, who’ll look to earn a first-grade spot in 2017 despite former State of Origin halves Jarrod Mullen and Trent Hodkinson being in the side.
Nat Butcher (Sydney Roosters) – 19 years, 175 days old
The Sydney Roosters completed a recruitment masterstroke by snaring Nat Butcher from rivals the South Sydney Rabbitohs at the start of 2015. The young lock debuted in the last game of 2016 for the Roosters, returning to the Holden Cup for the finals, where he earned the Jack Gibson medal for being the best on ground in the grand final. Carrying a high work rate and surprising speed for a forward, it’s no wonder teammate Jared Warea-Hargreaves stated that he’d be ‘packing into a lot of scrums’ with Butcher in 2017.
Brodie Croft (Melbourne Storm) – 19 years, 186 days old
When you’re labelled as ‘Cooper Cronk’s successor’, you know you’re special. Deputising for Cronk in the Origin period, Croft didn’t disappoint in his only match of the season, setting up one try as well as making 29 tackles, a fair few for a halfback. Viewed as the Storm’s next generation, Croft is seen as the halfback in Melbourne’s spine in the future, a spine also set to feature Cameron Munster, Scott Drinkwater and Brandon Smith.
Cory Denniss (Newcastle Knights) – 19 years, 212 days
Another player yet to taste victory at NRL level, Newcastle winger Cory Denniss impressed in attack in 2016, scoring three tries in seven games for the wooden spooners. A lanky outside back, Denniss will need to improve his defence this pre-season if he is to break into the first-grade side, with Peter Mata’utia, Ken Sio and Nathan Ross the club’s likely back three.
Latrell Mitchell (Sydney Roosters) – 19 years, 214 days
Last but certainly not least, Mitchell has been hailed as ‘the next Greg Inglis’ throughout his juniors and now into his NRL career. Born in Taree, the young fullback featured in all 24 of the Rooster’s matches in 2016, scoring 14 tries throughout the season. Despite being selected on the bench for the Indigenous All Stars, Mitchell is expected to spend 2017 on the wing for the Roosters, with new recruit Michael Gordon set for the custodian role. Forming a strong right edge combination with Blake Ferguson, Mitchell is set to explode in 2017.