2015 was an incredible season of rugby league. The Cowboys captured their first premiership on the back of the greatest player in the modern era.
Queensland regained the Origin shield in one of the most one sided, dominant displays the game has ever seen.
Semi Radradra terrified opponents on his way to becoming the top try scorer.
I could go on, but something that will be remembered as a feature of 2015 is the number of youngsters who established themselves at NRL level.
Below are the ten players I consider to have had “breakout years”. To qualify players do not have to be rookies, however due to the nature of the list, most likely will be. These are players who announced themselves in 2015 in a big way and are positioned to become genuine stars of our game.
Anthony Milford was not considered, as although he had his best year to date, I consider his 2013 a breakout season.
Honourable mentions to Chris Grevsmuhl, Solomone Kata, Shaun Lane and Euan Aitken who all could have made this list.
10. Sio Siua Taukeiaho (Roosters)
Although he made his debut in 2013 at the Warriors, most fans will remember his 2015 as a brilliant “rookie” season. Although he scored just the one try and only had four line breaks, his 110+ metres a game and big hits in defence highlighted his skills and importance to the Roosters. Playing mainly off the bench, he added impact, and metres, exactly what you look for from your bench players. His season provided enough quality to see him awarded a New Zealand international jumper in the series against England.
9. Reagan Campbell-Gillard (Panthers)
22 year-old Panthers forward RCG managed to play each of his club’s 24 fixtures this season. That is an incredible stat for any prop forward, let alone one in his rookie season. Given the Panthers low finishing position, and the nature of his position in the front row, he is unlikely to attract too much attention, but his efforts didn’t go unnoticed after being handed both a City Origin and Prime Minister’s eleven jersey. He also signed a contract extension for four years at the foot of the mountains, proving how valuable he is likely to be in the Panthers long-term future.
8. Tom Trbojevic (Sea Eagles)
19 year-old Tom Trbojevic announced himself to Manly fans with eight tries in nine first grade games this season. Peta Hiku’s move to the Panthers frees up a spot for the young try scoring machine to play plenty of games next season. It’s unusual for a player to make such a big impact in less than ten games in a season but Tom looks like the ultimate modern day footballer. Big, tall, and fast. He will have a chance to learn from the best as he will likely play outside Jamie Lyon (if he is not moved into the halves, Dylan Walker if he does) next season. He will see plenty of ball and opportunities to score. Given his record thus far, he certainly doesn’t have any problem finding the line.
7. Jake Trbojevic (Sea Eagles)
Although younger brother Tom will likely hog the headlines in the future, it was Jake who took the honours so to speak in 2015. He played 23 games in arguably the toughest position at prop. He was the star in an otherwise disappointing Manly forward pack averaging over 100 metres per game, as well as 26 tackles and 12 hit ups. Props often don’t get the credit they deserve as they typically aren’t as flashing as halves or outside backs, but having made five line-breaks this season, he will feature on the odd highlights package. His fitness levels will be tested with the reduced interchange next season but Jake looks like the sort of player who will be able to play big minutes up front.
6. Kane Elgey (Titans)
21 year-old Kane Elgey was a rare highlight in an otherwise horrible season on the Gold Coast. He would have been right up there on Rookie of the year voting after scoring six tries and assisting for 11 more. He will be under huge pressure next year after his side missed out on DCE and retaining Aidan Sezer, but he has showed that, in attack, he has all the tools to build on a brilliant rookie season. Due to his size he will be targeted in defence, but a big off-season in the gym should help with confidence. His kicking game is incredible for a player in his first season. He certainly doesn’t look as though he lacks confidence in attack.
5. James Roberts (Titans)
Although James Roberts had played almost 30 first grade games in his career before this year, it was his 2015 season that saw him announce himself as a genuine star. He won the Dally M centre of the year award and scored 16 tries in a pretty ordinary Gold Coast Titans side. A contract bungle has since seen him head North to the Broncos where he will replace the retiring Justin Hodges. Arguably the fastest man in the game, Roberts has all the tricks in attack. Unfortunately prior to 2015, off-field issues seemed to define his career. Thanks to a brilliant season on the field, and a quite season off it, saw Roberts finally deliver on the talent we all knew he had.
4. Valentine Holmes (Sharks)
Although Valentine Holmes showed some encouraging signs in his short, late season stint in 2014, his 2015 established him as one of the top wingers in the competition. He scored 16 tries for the Sharks, which is the most a Shark outside back has scored in years. His speed and footwork were dazzling and his partnership with Gerrard Beale became something to enjoy for Sharks fans. One of the few wingers who got the best of Semi Radradra this season. Although his long-term future probably looks like it will be in the number one jersey, his efforts in 2015 were nothing short of mesmerising.
3. Tuimoala Lolohea (Warriors)
If not for Bird’s amazing rookie season, Warriors youngster Lolohea would have collected the award. He played almost everywhere across the backline this season but will likely replace Chad Townsend in the halves in 2016. A brilliant nines campaign saw him earn a spot in the Warriors side for round one. He would go on to feature in 23 of the Warriors games, which is an amazing achievement for a 20 year-old utility. His efforts were such that he earned a Kiwi jersey in the post season tour of England.
2. Blake Austin (Raiders)
This will raise some controversy as it could be argued that Blake Austin was already a star. Tiger’s officials certainly didn’t think so, releasing their utility a year early. The Tigers loss was Canberra’s gain, and in my view, Austin had a true breakout year in 2015. Until this season he was always known as a handy fill in for injured players, or someone who could come off the bench, but was not regarded as a genuine first grader. After a brilliant season that saw him capture the Dally M five-eighth of the year award, not only is he a genuine first grader, but a genuine star.
1. Jack Bird (Sharks)
Dally M rookie of the year Jack Bird announced himself to NRL fans in a huge way this season. After playing well off the bench in his debut against the Titans, Bird was catapulted into the starting line-up against the Roosters. Although he was seen as a centre or back rower, his selection at five-eighth provided the spark to see the Sharks not only win their first game of the season, but also went a long way to helping the Sharks finish firmly in the eight. Bird’s rookie season had multiple clubs scrambling for his signature but it looks like the Sharks have won out, for now. If Bird is able to provide similar results in 2016, there will be an even bigger war for his services this time next year.