David Middleton, NRL.com
Wayne Bennett sure knows how to pick 'em. For 25 years he has made a career out of honing the talents of young players and guiding them through their NRL initiations. Almost every player who has gone on to greatness at the Brisbane Broncos from Lockyer to Webcke and Renouf to Hodges owes it to Bennett for handing them their first opportunity.
But at St George Illawarra in 2011, Bennett may have outdone himself.
A handful of rookies who have progressed through to the NRL with the Dragons this season look set for long and productive careers. Jack Bosden, Mitch Rein and Alex McKinnon have shown signs of outstanding potential. Bosden, a cast-off from Cronulla, has impressed with his all-round game as a back-rower to the extent that he has been signed by the Roosters for 2012. McKinnon has been a stand-out at Toyota Cup level as a lock forward but made a huge impact as a centre on debut against the Titans last month, when he crossed for two tries. He gets another opportunity in the centres against Newcastle this Sunday.
And Rein, who comes from the same junior outfit as the Morris twins and Shaun Timmins at Kiama, has shown quality as a dummy-half in seven top grade appearances.
Another potential star in the making was introduced to a wider audience last Monday night when 20-year-old Cootamundra junior Jack De Belin debuted off the bench against Manly.
The blond-haired back-rower has been wowing them at Toyota Cup level and got the coach's nod for the final 18 minutes of Monday night's high-intensity clash at WIN Stadium.
Bennett would have had plenty of confidence in the youngster's ability given his impressive rugby league bloodlines. De Belin's grandfather, Fred De Belin, played eight Tests for Australia from 1948-50 and toured with the Kangaroos of 1948-49. A fellow tourist was Eddie Brosnan, who just happened to be Bennett's uncle and a hugely influential figure in the early life of the super coach.
De Belin Snr made his name in rugby league with Balmain and was renowned as one of their greatest forwards. He was a key figure in the Tigers' grand final victory over St George in 1946 and broke into representative football with New South Wales in the 1948 interstate series.
He later signed on with the Cootamundra club when the famous Maher Cup was at the peak of its popularity in the Riverina and settled in the district.
All four of the Dragons' rookies are likely to be on show against the Knights this Sunday, as league fans take a glance into the future with so many State of Origin stars unavailable. Bennett's sole focus will be on the Dragons but he could be forgiven for averting his attention across the halfway line occasionally to run a rule across many of the Knights players he will take charge of in 2012.
And there is little doubt that many of the Knights will be out to impress their future coach. Especially rookie halves Ryan Stig and Tyrone Roberts, who will be giving away vast amounts of age and experience to their international opposites Nathan Fien and Ben Hornby. Between them the Knights' pair have a grand total of seven games of NRL experience under their belts. Fien and Hornby have played 467; not to mention 20 Test matches and four State of Origins.
Newcastle fullback Wes Naiqama will be another keen to perform after he re-signed with the club earlier in the week. It wouldn't have happened without Bennett's imprimatur.
Bennett will have his gaze fixed on victory this Sunday but he'll also have a vital interest in the performances of his rookies. And don't be surprised if he has a sneaky eye on the opposition too!