Brisbane Broncos – Corey Oates
As perennial powerhouse Brisbane sunk to its lowest ebb in 2013, Corey Oates shone like a beacon in nine late-2013 appearances. The 18-year-old was a burgeoning backrow star in the Under-20s, but was promoted to first grade on the wing – and scored eight tries in his nine games, many of them sensational solo efforts. Rangy, quick and strong, Oates crossed six times in the final four rounds to earn wraps as one of the NRL season’s finest discoveries. But his future lies in the pack, and after overcoming off-season injuries, he has made a couple of interchange appearances for the rejuvenated Broncos in 2014. It seems a fait accompli the teenager will be one of the first forwards picked in the not too distant future.
Canberra Raiders – Paul Vaughan
Youngsters from the Raiders’ perpetually competitive Under-20s side have long garnered predictions of future greatness. Big forward Paul Vaughan has been generally overlooked for high praise after coming through the NYC ranks, but is gradually making the pundits take notice with a string of powerhouse performances to begin 2014. Vaughan, born-and-bred in the capital, made 18 rookie-season appearances in 2013 before representing Italy at the World Cup, and has established a permanent role in the vaunted Canberra pack this year. A massive backrow unit at 108kg, Vaughan’s surprising speed has seen him cross for two tries already in 2014.
Canterbury Bulldogs – David Klemmer
Thankfully, Canterbury behemoth David Klemmer graduated to the NRL ranks in 2013 – watching the 199cm prop terrorising opposing teenagers in the NYC was enough to make even the most sadistic of rugby league viewers wince. Klemmer was just 19 when he debuted in the opening round of last season, but injury wrecked his rookie campaign after just four first grade appearances. The intimidating bookend has taken his opportunity with both of his giant mitts in 2014, however, playing in every game so far this season and keeping Kiwi Test star Sam Kasiano in NSW Cup.
Cronulla Sharks – Sosaia Feki
Gritty Cronulla has long been plagued by an impotent backline and an inability to score points, with no Sharks player posting a double-figure try tally since 2008. But one player capable of rescuing the three-quarter line’s reputation is 22-year-old Kiwi Sosaia Feki. The elusive young flyer crossed for seven tries in 19 first-year appearances last season – including the match-winner in the Sharks’ dramatic qualifying final win over the Cowboys – before debuting for Tonga at the World Cup. Currently sidelined by a knee complaint, the Sharks will be eager to get Feki back onto the paddock as the beleaguered club attempts to alleviate its pointscoring woes.
Gold Coast Titans – James Roberts
Potentially the fastest player in the NRL, James Roberts has so far been punted by Souths and Penrith for disciplinary reasons, but remains one of the best outside-back prospects in the code. Blisteringly quick with an innate ability to find the try-line, Roberts has crossed 11 times in 16 first grade games – including six in as many outings for the Panthers last year. The troubled 21-year-old was snapped up by the Titans recently and hopes to emulate the renaissance his cousin Albert Kelly, another reformed bad boy, has enjoyed at the club. Roberts can provide scoring punch to a Gold Coast backline distinctly lacking in strike at wing, fullback or centre.
Manly Sea Eagles – Peta Hiku
Versatile back Peta Hiku has become one of the hottest properties in the game after a string of stellar displays deputising for Manly’s superstar fullback Brett Stewart. The former Warriors Under-20s star made 13 appearances for the Sea Eagles last year at fullback, wing and centre, memorably winning man-of-the-match honours in a losing side as Manly went down to the Roosters in an epic qualifying final. Courageous, composed and a fine attacking talent, Hiku is rumoured to be the target to fill Canterbury’s No.1 jumper after filling in at the back again for Manly so far in 2014 – but the Sea Eagles are understandably desperate to keep him, particularly if Stewart departs at the end of the year.
Melbourne Storm – Ben Hampton
In one of the most anticipated positional conundrums Melbourne has faced in its history, Ben Hampton has quickly made Dragons recruit Gareth Widdop’s five-eighth spot his own. The Temora product scored two tries on debut at fullback last year, before filling in at pivot in one other game. He has appeared comfortable and confident in starting every match in the No.6 so far in 2014, producing an outstanding opening-round display in the upset of Manly without the crutch of halfback Cooper Cronk to rely on, while he has proved an excellent playmaking foil for the Test No.7 since.
Newcastle Knights – Korbin Sims
The younger brother of North Queensland forward pack mainstays Ashton and Tariq, Korbin Sims could yet prove to be the pick of the trio. The imposing 189cm and 108kg tyro, capable of playing at prop or second-row, represents the youth in Newcastle’s experience-laden engine-room. The 2012 Junior Kangaroos rep made 12 interchange appearances for the Knights last season and has featured prominently throughout the club’s difficult start to 2014. The rugged 22-year-old has a strong work ethic, and will be a big part of the Knights’ future as the likes of Willie Mason and Jeremy Smith near the end of their careers. He played three matches for Fiji alongside his brothers at the 2013 World Cup.
New Zealand Warriors – Sebastine Ikahihifo
After featuring in the Warriors’ NYC Grand Final victories in 2010-11, backrower Sebastine Ikahihifo has been blooded slowly in first grade by the club, making four NRL appearances in 2012 and a further eight last year. This season shapes as the 23-year-old’s breakout campaign, handed the No.13 jumper for the key clash with Canterbury at the expense of underperforming big name Feleti Mateo. While most of the plaudits went to Shaun Johnson and Sam Tomkins, Ikahihifo was one of stars of the Auckland Nines, dazzling with his rare mix of size, mobility, footwork and wonderful ball skills that bare more than a passing resemblance to former Warriors great Ali Lauiti’iti.
North Queensland Cowboys – Kyle Feldt
Winger Kyle Feldt scored three tries in his first three NRL games last year as a replacement for retired veteran Ashley Graham, before injury kept him out of North Queensland’s finals campaign. But he was subsequently one of the absolute stars of the inaugural Auckland Nines tournament in February, helping the Cowboys to a memorable triumph with several gravity- and sideline-defying tries. Tall and robust as well as agile and fast, Feldt shapes as a future Queensland Origin prospect, with the flanks a rare area of worrying depth for the all-conquering Maroons.
Parramatta Eels – Peni Terepo
Auckland-born backrower Peni Terepo served a trying rookie-season apprenticeship in 2013, playing 17 games for woeful wooden spooners Parramatta – but made a sizeable impact. Terepo and the Eels are now reaping the fruits of those hardships, with the 22-year-old producing a succession of rollicking displays as the club makes a surge up the ladder. A powerful and reliable defender, Terepo – who represented Tonga at last year’s World Cup – has upped his involvement with the ball in recent weeks, and is a key figure in Parramatta’s outstanding contingent of rangy, mobile young backrow forwards.
Penrith Panthers – Adam Docker
Backrower Adam Docker is fast becoming regarded as one of the NRL’s hardest hitters, a fearless tyro who plays well above his weight. Incredibly, Docker recovered from being put in a coma by a vicious street assault at the beginning of 2012 to make his NRL debut later that season. His full-throttle efforts in attack and defence in 17 top flight appearances in 2013 made good judges sit up and take notice, while the 23-year-old’s performances so this year – featuring defence-skittling charges and bone-crunching tackles by the truckload – have him squarely in the frame for a City Origin debut, and quite possibly a NSW call-up. Unwaveringly wholehearted, the only area Docker falls short is self-preservation.
St George Illawarra Dragons – Adam Quinlan
Although seemingly destined to occupy a ‘Mr Fix-it’ role for the Saints for the time being, Adam Quinlan is one of the most promising utility backs in the NRL. Quinlan debuted at fullback midway through last year, while he was one of the struggling Dragons’ shining lights in playing the last eight rounds of the season at five-eighth, scoring five tries. The 21-year-old started 2014 in the No.1 with Josh Dugan sidelined, before slotting in at halfback against Souths. Quick, skilful and a brilliant support player, Quinlan may struggle to occupy a permanent spot when the Dragons are at full strength, but rival clubs are sure to come knocking for the diminutive playmaker.
South Sydney Rabbitohs – Dylan Walker
While coach Michael Maguire’s experiment with Dylan Walker at five-eighth was not a success, the 19-year-old remains a key figure in the Rabbitohs’ premiership tilt as a devastating centre. The local junior was outstanding last year, scoring eight tries in 16 rookie-year games and impressing with his blistering speed, lethal fend and strength belying his tender years. Souths have appeared far more dangerous out wide since Walker relinquished the No.6 jumper and returned to his favoured centre spot, where he will challenge for a Blues jumper in coming years.
Sydney Roosters – Dylan Napa
The unluckiest omission from the Roosters’ Grand Final squad, Dylan Napa’s absence on the big day did not detract from a sterling rookie season. The big, aggressive redheaded prop’s notable efforts in seven 2013 appearances included rattling Cronulla enforcer Paul Gallen, and producing standout interchange performances in finals wins over Manly and Newcastle with Luke O’Donnell on the injured list, before representing the Cook Islands at the World Cup. Following O’Donnell’s retirement, Napa has become a first grade regular and the 21-year-old is being touted as a future Queensland Origin forward.
Wests Tigers – Tim Simona
Luke Brooks and James Tedesco have a mortgage on the headlines at present, but the Tigers possess another burgeoning superstar in Kiwi three-quarter Tim Simona. The quicksilver 22-year-old made his first grade debut as a teenager way back in 2011, but enjoyed a breakthrough campaign last year by netting 12 tries in 17 games – including some of the NRL’s finest individual long-range efforts. Shoulder surgery delayed his start to 2014 but he made a two-try return in the boilover win against Souths. Simona is a graceful mover and sublimely skilled; don’t be surprised to see him come into New Zealand Test reckoning this year.