Each year there’s a batch of reserve grade players that finally break through to the NRL — and 2024 should be no different.
Wests Tigers sensation Jahream Bula, Bulldogs cult hero Jacob Preston and Penrith’s Sunia Turuva are the proof of what heights can be hit when given an opportunity.
Bula and Preston won their respective clubs’ Player of the Year honours in their debut season, while Turuva won a premiership and was named the NRL’s Rookie of the Year.
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Like that trio, there’s a bunch of young guns that could be unleashed after blitzing their competition in reserve grade.
But there’s also some older heads that are more than ready for the next step too after long apprenticeships.
Just like 27-year-old Josh Rogers was when he made his debut for the Broncos after six years and 87 games in Queensland Cup. And 26-year-old Dean Matterson, who got a call-up for Manly after five years in New South Wales Cup.
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And we can’t forget the feel-good story of Dan Russell, who finally got an NRL debut at 27-years old after 90-plus reserve grade games and a move from Brisbane to Wollongong to take up a train-and-trial with the Dragons.
There’s another group of players knocking on the door of the NRL. Some have had a taste and are ready for a consistent run of games now, while others are chomping at the bit for a debut.
Here are 15 of those players that are ready to break through. Each player has less than 10 NRL appearances to their name and they are yet to get a solid run of games in first grade.
DEAN HAWKINS— South Sydney Rabbitohs Rabbitohs
(Six NRL games)
With 81 NSW Cup games under his belt and a reputation of being one of the best playmakers in the competition for the last couple of seasons, Dean Hawkins is more than ready for the next step. The 24-year-old got his first taste of first-grade footy in 2021, playing a total of three games in his debut year before adding another one to his tally in 2022 and another two last season. He was one of the Bunnies’ most important players in Cup and his efforts were acknowledged with the NSW Cup Player of the Year honour. Hawkins, a South Sydney junior, was also rewarded with a new deal for 2024. His biggest challenge now is convincing Jason Demetriou to give him an opportunity over Lachlan Ilias.
TOM JENKINS — Newcastle Knights
(Six NRL games)
Tom Jenkins made the move to the Hunter in search for a clearer path to the NRL and there’s a spot wide open that he’s very much in the mix for. Coach Adam O’Brien is looking for a new right winger following the departure of Dom Young and Jenkins is up against Enari Tuala and Krystian Mapapalangi to fill it. The Knights’ football director Peter Parr said the club sees Jenkins as “a long term NRL player” and he “has a skillset we believe complements our style of play.” That could get him first shot at the role. Jenkins was a rising star in the Panthers’ system and established himself as one of the top outside backs in NSW Cup. He has scored 40 tries in 49 games and averages over 100 running metres per game. The Young Cherrypickers junior made his NRL debut for the Panthers in the final round of 2022 and added five more games to his tally last season. He has five tries in six games in first grade.
DEINE MARINER — Brisbane Broncos
(Six NRL games)
It was first though that Deine Mariner would be considered as a replacement for the departed Herbie Farnworth in the centres, but Broncos coach Kevin Walters has revealed Selwyn Cobbo will make a positional switch to fill that hole. That now means 20-year-old Mariner will compete with veteran Corey Oates for Cobbo’s old right wing spot. Mariner is considered a special talent at the Broncos. He made his NRL debut in 2022 and then scored five tries in four appearances in 2023. When he wasn’t playing first grade last season, Mariner was carving up Queensland Cup with Wynnum Manly, scoring 10 tries and getting 13 linebreaks in 14 appearances at centre, while averaging five tackle busts and 133 running metres a game to land a spot in the team of the year.
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KEANO KINI — Gold Coast Titans
(Six NRL games)
Keano Kini burst onto the scene in last year’s pre-season trials and made an immediate impression with his elusive running game. He made his NRL debut a month after turning 19-years old and finished last season with a total of six games — two of them starting at fullback. Kini was a key member of the Burleigh Bears’ run to the Queensland Cup grand final, scoring five tries and setting up 13 in 14 games. He also averaged five tackle busts and 199 running metres per game. Kini, who is a graduate of rugby league powerhouse Palm Beach Currumbian State High School, had a blinder in the Queensland Cup grand final, finishing with a try assist, two linebreaks, nine tackle busts, three offloads and his season-best of 264 running metres. Despite Burleigh losing to Brisbane Tigers, Kini was named player of the match. He has the ability to take the next step and play regular first grade, but Kini’s biggest challenge is finding a clear path at the Titans given he’s stuck behind AJ Brimson and Jayden Campbell — two star fullbacks.
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JACOB ALICK – Gold Coast Titans
(Five NRL games)
Jacob Alick returned from representing Papua New Guinea in the Rugby League World Cup beaming with confidence, which ultimately helped him have a breakout season in 2023. The 24-year-old made his NRL debut in Round 19 and played four more games before the end of the season. The 192cm, 105kg second-rower was enormous for the Burleigh Bears in Queensland Cup with 12 tries in 19 games and was rewarded with a spot in the Team of the Year as well as new Titans deal for 2024. Alick has made a good impression on new Titans coach Des Hasler and will push for more games this year.
KY RODWELL — Parramatta Eels
(Five NRL games)
Ky Rodwell is coming off his best season to date and is knocking on the door of a regular NRL spot. The 24-year-old prop had an enormous 2023, averaging 147 running metres and 34 tackles a game for the Eels’ NSW Cup side, while also working on developing his ball-playing skills. Rodwell made his NRL debut in 2021 and got four more games in 2022 but didn’t get any opportunities in first grade last season. He was rewarded for his efforts in Cup though with the Coaches Award. With now 74 reserve grade games under his belt, Rodwell is primed for the next step.
ZAC CINI — Parramatta Eels
(Four NRL games)
Remember the Wests Tigers player with the blonde mullet that shone on debut and became an overnight cult hero in 2021? Well Zac Cini has been busying plying his trade in NSW Cup ever since his rookie year and is ready to be unleashed again. Cini finished the 2021 season with four NRL games but the Tigers opted not to re-sign him. He joined the Eels on a train-and-trial in 2022 and became a key member of the club’s NSW Cup side. His efforts in reserve grade were rewarded with a two-year deal which moved him into the Top 30 for 2024 and will no heat up competition among the outside backs. Cini was a raw fullback that based his game on effort back when first started playing Cup in 2021, now he is one of the most consistent centres at that level. The 23-year-old scored 11 tries in 20 games last season and averaged 5 tackle busts and 131 running metres per game.
LIAM HENRY — Penrith Panthers
(Three NRL games)
Spencer Leniu’s departure has opened up a spot on Penrith’s bench for a prop and Liam Henry is in the box seat to claim it. The 22-year-old got his first taste of first grade in 2022 and in a sign of how much faith the club has in Henry, he was locked in on a new deal until the end of 2026 with just the one NRL game under his belt. He went on to play two NRL games last season and is now set to get many more opportunities in 2024. Henry was crowned the Panthers’ NSW Cup player of the Year and was named in the competition’s Team of the Year after an enormous 2023. The Blayney Bears junior, who joined the Panthers in 2019, scored six tries in his 21 appearances and averaged 156 running metres and an astounding 42 tackles a game.
KAYAL IRO — Cronulla Sharks
(One NRL game)
If there’s one player that’s been patiently waiting for more opportunities in first grade it’s Kayal Iro. The powerful centre was crowned the 2022 NSW Cup Player of the Year and made his NRL debut that same season. But he is yet to get a second taste of the top grade. The 21-year-old Cook Islands international was promoted to the Sharks’ Top 30 in mid-2022 and locked in until the end of 2024. However there have been reports suggesting he is open to an early exit. English Super League club Castleford Tigers made an offer to Iro but ultimately couldn’t lure him over. Iro is a tackle-busting, metre-eating outside back and may get more opportunities with the Sharks now that Connor Tracey has left the club.
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KALANI GOING — New Zealand Warriors
(One NRL game)
Kalani Going has a fascinating story. He played under 20s for the Raiders and then spent some time in Queensland Cup before returning home to New Zealand to play rugby union. When he heard the Warriors were re-entering NSW Cup he decided to give his NRL dream one more crack. The 26-year-old’s efforts in Cup impressed head coach Andrew Webster so much that he was offer a train-and-trial for the rest of the 2023 season. Prior to that he was juggling part-time Cup training with milking cows while working on his uncle’s farm. Going — a second-rower or lock — was one of the Cup team’s best and most consistent players, scoring 11 tries in 24 appearances. He also averaged 115 running metres and 30 tackles a game to be named in the competition’s Team of the Year and crowned the Warriors’ NSW Cup Player of the Year. Going made his NRL debut in the final round of last season and topped off a stellar year which not only selection in the New Zealand Kiwis ‘A side’ but also appointed captain of the team. Interestingly, Going was unable to secure a Top 30 or supplementary contract for 2024, but will be a part of the NSW Cup squad again.
TRAI FULLER — Dolphins
(One NRL game)
After carving up Queensland Cup last season, livewire fullback Trai Fuller is waiting for his next opportunity in the NRL. The 26-year-old caught the attention of Wayne Bennett while playing for the Dolphins’ reserve grade side and rewarded with an NRL debut in August and a train-and-trial for the rest of the season. He is again on a train-and-trial with the Dolphins for 2024. Fuller was crowned the Queensland Cup Player of the Year after scoring 14 tries, setting up 11 and recording 20 linebreaks in 17 games. He also topped the tackle bust count for the competition with an average of eight a game to go with his average of 167 running metres per game. With 82 Queensland Cup games now under his belt, Fuller is more than ready for more game time in the NRL.
JAYDEN BERRELL — Cronulla Sharks
(Yet to debut)
It would be incredibly unfortunate if Jayden Berrell hangs up the boots without an NRL debut. The 28-year-old has been plying his trade in reserve grade for the last eight years waiting for his opportunity. Berrell, who played under 20s for the Broncos, racked up 98 Queensland Cup games over six seasons with his last being his best. He was crowned Queensland Cup Player of the Year in 2021 — a year he treated as make-or-break for his career — and was rewarded with his first Top 30 contract via the Sharks. He has since become a key member of the Sharks’ feeder side, Newtown Jets,overthe last two years but is stuck behind Blayke Brailey and Cameron McInnes. He is a crafty hooker that scored four tries and set up 14 last season while also averaging 73 running metres per game. His ability and commitment have never been questioned — especially when he was squeezing in 3am gym sessions before working on a construction site and then going to training in Queensland — but it’s just a matter of getting a clearer path to the NRL than what’s in front of him at the moment.
TONY FRANCIS — Gold Coast Titans
(Yet to debut)
It’s only a matter of time before Tony Francis gets his first taste of the NRL. The 20-year-old was a standout with Burleigh in Queensland Cup last year, scoring 21 tries in 22 games to finish on top of the competition. Three of those tries were scored in Burleigh’s four-point loss to Brisbane Tigers in the grand final. Francis was on a development contract last year but has been upgraded to the Top 30 for 2024. Besides being a strike weapon, he’s developed a reputation for his tough carries out of the backfield.
SAM COSTER — Burleigh Bears
(Yet to debut)
Not many NRL fans would be familiar with Sam Coster, but he’s a player the avid Queensland Cup follower will know well. Coster, a Queensland Cup veteran of 131 games, has been named Lock of the Year for the last two seasons and has earnt the nickname of ‘Mr. Reliable’ from his Burleigh teammates because of his tireless efforts in the middle. He may be 30-years old but Coster showed no signs of slowing down last season averaging 119 running metres and 37 tackles a game at an impressive 97.4 per cent efficiency. In fact, Burleigh coach Luke Burt believes Coster is the most underrated player in Queensland Cup. Sadly his age might hold him back from a debut, but make no mistake if Titans coach Des Hasler is looking for a ready-made replacement in his pack Coster wouldn’t let him down.
GUY HAMILTON — Burleigh Bears
(Yet to debut)
Guy Hamilton has been making a case for an NRL debut for quite some time. The 28-year-old has 136 Queensland Cup games under his belt and has been one of the competition’s best playmakers over the last four years. He has finished first for try assists in 2022 and 2023, while he also had the most linebreak assists and equal most 40/20s last season. Hamilton was named Halfback of the Year in 2022 and his form caught the attention of the Roosters, who offered him a train-and-trial ahead of last season. He returned home to Burleigh though for family reasons and steered the Bears to a minor premiership and grand final appearance. His vision and skill is undeniably ready for the NRL but it is worth noting he did miss the most tackles in Queensland Cup last season so perhaps defence is what’s been holding him back.
Source website: www.foxsports.com.au