It has become almost cliche, but with each passing season, the class of NRL newcomers seems to get better and better. When it comes to 2017, the cliche may very well be spot on the mark, as we have seen a group of rookies become household names, while others who debuted in 2016 have become among the first players picked for their respective sides.
Below is the best 13 (to date) of the NRL’s best rookies. To clarify, the list contains only players who had played fewer than five NRL games prior to this season. Left and right combinations have been largely ignored.
Fullback: Dylan Edwards (Panthers)
The 21-year-old Panthers excitement machine debuted in 2016 but it is his performances since returning to the side a fortnight ago that have had all eyes on the man who looks to make the Panthers number one jersey his own. ‘Young’ Matt Moylan’s move into the halves has kick-started his own form and has allowed the Panthers to further develop arguably their most exciting young player. A ridiculous 13 tackle busts last week against the Raiders sees him emerge as arguably the most exciting number one in the competition. His involvement with the game on the line showed a maturity far beyond his years.
Wing: Nick Cotric (Raiders)
We all heard the hype in the pre-season. He was the reason the Raiders were willing to let both Edrick and Brenko Lee leave if need be, and 19-year-old Cotric has not disappointed. Debuting in round one, Cotric has scored eight tries in his 14 games, a stat made even more incredible by the fact Jarrod Croker missed the start of the season and was not there to mentor the youngster in his early rounds. An absolute monster for his age, Cotric is firmly in the talk for Rookie of the Year honours. Scary considering his best position is at centre, where he was named in the last year’s NYC team of the year.
Centre: Moses Suli (Tigers)
19-year-old Moses Suli has been a rare standout in an otherwise unhappy 2017 for Tigers fans. His efforts were such in the early rounds that he was given a debut for Tonga, where he scored his first international try. Two tries at club level mirror the Tigers attacking woes, however, there are huge things ahead for the gigantic centre. Seriously, what do they feed these kids? He could be a fixture in Tiger Town for the next decade.
Centre: Brian Kelly (Sea Eagles)
21-year-old Brian Kelly has been a revelation in the centres for the resurgent Sea Eagles and was rewarded with a country jersey in his debut season. The Lismore product has terrorised more than his fair share of defenders thus far in 2017 and has helped ease the pain of the loss of two mega star centres for the Manly side. Having scored five tries thus far this season, expect Kelly to reach double figures in his first season in the big leagues.
Wing: Kalyn Ponga (Cowboys)
If young Edwards isn’t the best young fullback in the game, Kaylyn Ponga certainly is. What a talent. Would be a regular in the run on side, you’d have to imagine, if not for his decision to sign a big deal at the Knights. You can’t blame the Cowboys, who would rightfully be filthy at his signing away from the club, cause this kid is special. He debuted in the pressure cooker of finals footy last season and performed extremely well. Newcastle spent big on the 19-year-old but very few would deny he is worth the gamble. On the wing here due to not being able to leave him out of the side. The fact Edwards now looks the Panthers number one for the foreseeable future forces the move to the flank.
Half: Brock Lamb (Knights)
Thrust into the ‘senior’ halves position following the ban to Jarrod Mullen and loss of form by Trent Hodkinson, 20-year-old Brock Lamb has performed well beyond his years. Handed arguably the toughest gig in rugby league, guiding the hapless Knights around the park, Lamb has exceeded expectations. Having played three games last seasons in difficult circumstances, 2017 was never going to be easy for the youngster, but I am a big fan. He will only get better with age, and hopefully, the Knights brass can stack the weapons around their talented pivot.
Half: Matt Frawley (Bulldogs)
22-year-old Matt Frawley has made ten appearances for the Bulldogs and in that time has shown his talents. Injected into the side to provide some much-needed creativity, the Dogs have looked a better side since his debut. He has pushed Moses Mbye into the number nine spot in the past and has filled in well for the injured Josh Reynolds. He will likely move back to the bench when Reynolds returns but will be of importance for the Dogs if they are any hope of continuing Des Hasler’s amazing record of playing finals.
Front Row: Hame Sele (Dragons)
20-year-old Sele debuted for City after a huge number of withdrawals from the fixture, however, this kid has plenty of talent, and would very possibly be in the discussion for another city jumper in the not too distant future regardless. As many NRL rookies do, he has plenty to work on, but his raw ability has plenty within the Dragons brains trust looking at him with a view to the future.
Hooker: Jayden Brailey (Sharks)
For mine, an absolute lock on Rookie of the Year honours, the 2016 NYC Player of the Year has been absolutely massive in his debut season for the reigning premiers. Losing Michael Ennis looked as though it may prove to be a huge thorn in the side of the side, but Brailey has stepped up with amazing results. Don’t get me wrong, he still has a long, long way to go to fill the shoes vacated by Ennis, but he has tackled his backside off, has scored tries, and has provided aggression and determination. The hype was huge, but Brailey is the find of the season thus far.
Front Row: Luke Yates (Knights)
At 22 years of age, Yates has been given a baptism of fire but has stood up and has been counted. He has not, and likely won’t create the headlines of the likes of others on this list, but Fifita and co aside, not many front rowers do, especially with less than 20 NRL games to their name. A quiet achiever, Yates is growing into his role and has a bright future on the Hunter.
Second Row: Corey Harawira-Naera (Panthers)
The New Zealand born wrecking ball has created headaches for many opposition defenders while making those of us who play Supercoach look very clever in the process. At 22 years of age, CHN has broken open defensive lines almost at will. Rumours are that he will re-sign with the Panthers, although there is certainly interest from other clubs. One to watch, it’s safe to say there are higher honours in this youngster’s future.
Second Row: Sam Stone (Knights)
Another who has been thrown into first grade under tough circumstances, the 19-year-old has handled the transition extremely well. Obviously, his best years are still yet to come, but the 100 kilo Gold Coast product has shown he is not afraid to mix it with the competition’s far more experienced big men. Has pitched in with two tries and a mountain of work up the middle. I had to google multiple sources to confirm he was only 19. Genuinely shocking considering his efforts.
Lock: Joe Stimson (Storm)
Given the names of the players he runs out with each week, it’s not likely 19-year-old Stimson will attract any headlines anytime soon, but in his short career, he has continued to prove how good an eye for talent his coach Craig Bellamy has. His debut game was followed by a two-year contract extension. If Craig Bellamy gives you the thumbs up, you’re a player to watch. Has already scored a try and will continue to play a big role from the bench. With the mass exodus of players from the Storm at the end of 2017, he shapes as a big piece of the puzzle moving forward.