Leila McKinnon, NRL.com
They’re 21 or younger and already they are playing at the top of their game. The NRL has an incredible crop of superstars in training. But let’s stir the pot and try to pick the five best young guns of the season, those who’ve come charging out of the blocks and torn up the early rounds with all the vigour that comes with keen new heads and fast young legs.
At number five, Kieran Foran, Manly’s sensational pivot. Yes he’s still just 21 years old, despite having an impressive 18 tries under his belt, and a premiership to boot.
Star five-eighths are as rare as media-loving coaches and refs who consistently enforce the 10-metre rule, even New South Wales can’t settle on a good one. That makes Foran worth his weight in gold, or to the hopeful Bulldogs a reported close-to $2 million for three years (some say more).
But I wonder though how distracting this battle for his future has been to his game. Have I missed something sensational or are we yet to see the best of this young man in 2012? The Sea Eagles have had four wins, and four losses, not bad but not brilliant. Foran’s played five clever games with a total of 30 hit ups, 251 metres, and 88 tackles (no tries). I’m not saying he isn’t the goods, but there’s a lot more to come from this young man in 2012.
Raiders fullback Josh Dugan charged into the year with three incredible games. Only a ruptured shoulder ligament could stop him, an injury that will require surgery at the end of the year. But if his return against Cronulla is any indication, even with a reported 90 percent strength in that damaged joint, this 21-year-old will wreak havoc on the field.
The prospect of 19 more regular season rounds with a significant injury doesn’t seem to faze this kid. In fact he’s still eyeing a blues jersey. He wants to show what he’s got against Manly’s Brett Stewart next weekend, telling the Sunday Telegraph, 'If I want to play in Origin I and show that I'm playing good footy, I need to [give] my best against the blokes going for the same spot…I've always said, if I don't make first Origin, I'm aiming for second…I just need to get back to playing good footy, and doing my best for Canberra. The rest will follow. If [my form] warrants a spot in Origin I, I'll grab it with both hands.'' Ten out of ten for true grit, if he can do it with one shoulder, imagine how deadly he will be with two in 2013.
Coming at number three is the Storm’s 192-centimetre winger Matt Duffie. It does hurt to play in a top of the ladder team, alongside Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, but this 21-year-old Kiwi is reflecting their brilliance and adding his own shine.
Take 98 hit-ups, 854 metres, 47 tackles, and six tries and you’ve got some early season stats worthy of Moneyball selection. This rugby union convert is an ornament to the NRL, a quiet achiever in a team of champions.
Darren Lockyer says Corey Norman is showing signs of becoming on the game’s great five-eighths, and having the backing of one of the greatest pivots of all-time isn’t the only thing the kid they call Postie has going for him. He’s only 20 years old, he’s one of the heaviest and tallest five-eighths in the game, and this season he’s already clocked up the second highest number of line breaks with seven from the seven games he’s played.
He may be 16 years younger than his legendary teammate Petero Civoniceva, but he’s also got a mature head. Locky told The Australian he likes “the patience he is showing. He is also very good at organising the players around him."
But my number one young gun of 2012 so far is Jarrod Croker. The stats don’t lie. This Raiders centre, who’s 21, shares the number one spot for line-breaks with Billy Slater and Dane Nielsen, two incredible Stormers. He’s the NRL’s top scorer with 60 points in seven games, and the third equal try-scorer alongside Cowboys Matthew Bowen and Ashley Graham.
At times he’s been unhappy with his goal-kicking accuracy but he’s determined to improve, and if improving means doing better than topping the point-scoring ladder, well we are in for a treat. If he can keep up this for another 19 rounds and we may be looking at a future immortal.
What do you think? Do you have a better top five who are 21 and under?
Yes I considered point-scoring machine Adam Reynolds, Aaron Woods and his huge tackle count, Jamal Idris with his three tries from four games, and quiet all-rounder Josh Papalii. Convince me otherwise.
Follow Leila on twitter