The kids are alright? Scratch that… the kids are absolutely brilliant!
This year’s rookie class is a group choc-full of talent that are exciting us at every turn. Those in charge of picking rookie of the year have the work cut out for them, especially after early standout William Hopoate hit the casualty ward. His Manly team-mate Daly Cherry-Evans is pushing hard for the honour, as is Storm pivot Gareth Widdop, a crucial cog in the table-topping Melbourne’s charge to potential glory. Then there are the likes of Cowboys Tariq Sims and Kalifa Faifai Loa, Bronco Jack Reed, Raider Sam Williams, Warrior Elijah Taylor, Rabbitoh James Roberts and Titan Matt Srama flying the rookies’ flag with much fanfare.
Considering this is their first season (they also qualify for rookie honours if they played three or fewer games last year), their form is staggeringly good. But how does it stack up against the best? How does it measure up statistically against established form players in their positions? We’re going to focus on our top five at this point of the year, in no particular order, to find out how they match up.
The Sea Eagles’ halfback came into the year under a fair bit of pressure. He had seen Trent Hodkinson have a boom rookie year with the Sea Eagles in 2010 and knew he’d be expected to measure up. He has done so, despite playing second fiddle to the Eagles’ attacking soloist Kieran Foran. Cherry-Evans has made five line-breaks, two line-break assists, eight try assists and three tries. He also has 58 tackle-breaks and is running an average 57 metres and making 23 tackles (missing 2.6). He averages 340 metres kicking.
While the Sea Eagles’ rookie has been great, if we put him up against the best – Queensland and Australian halfback Johnathan Thurston – we find he still has a fair bit of improvement left in him to reach the top echelon.
Thurston has 10 line-breaks, 26 line-break assists, 21 try assists and nine tries. He also has 46 tackle-breaks, runs an average 73 metres and adds 16 tackles (missing 3.8) and 252 metres kicking.
Bottom Line: These raw figures show how Thurston is a dominant force in his team’s attack, while Cherry-Evans is still somewhat a support player (except for kicking). It also shows Thurston knows how to limit his defensive involvement while Cherry-Evans is still being targeted, but holding his own.
Melbourne’s English five-eighth obviously gets overshadowed by the Storm trio of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk but his place in the current table-topping side shouldn’t be underestimated. Widdop held the side together when the rep stars were away and he plays a brilliant support role when they are playing.
He has tallied an eyebrow-raising 14 line-breaks, five line-break assists, 12 try assists, two tries, 15 errors and 59 tackle-breaks. He runs an average 78 metres, kicks an average 62 metres and adds 21 tackles (misses 2.9). He also leads the NRL for good chases with 49 – that’s 13 more than terrier-like team-mate Slater!
Up against the current Kiwi captain Benji Marshall, last year’s Golden Boot winner, Widdop stacks up pretty well.
Marshall has just eight line-breaks but 16 line-break assists and 16 try assists. He also has scored more tries (seven). They match each other at 59 tackle-breaks, while Benji runs a little more at 81 metres and kicks a lot more at 224 metres. Benji makes just nine tackles a game and misses 2.8 and he has 30 errors, the product of touching the ball a lot more often.
Bottom Line: Widdop is deceptively impressive at breaking the line and is manufacturing tries for plenty of team-mates. His kicking game is limited – but then again, it doesn’t need to be any better in his team’s dynamic. And his defence is strong and effective. Yep, Widdop is having a stormer of a year.
Last season’s Toyota Cup Player of the Year has graduated into the big time and looks likely to stay around for some time. Illawarra junior Sims was talked about in Country Origin circles earlier in the year and might well make that step next season. He has played the majority of his 13 games from the bench but has earned starting berths in five games, such has been the tenacity of his play in the second row.
He is averaging 54 minutes a game, 84 metres and 21 tackles. He has added seven line-breaks, four tries, a try assist, 41 tackle-breaks and 13 offloads. In his negative column he has eight errors and he misses 2.5 tackles a match.
We will match him up against another individual from the Illawarra/South Coast region in Blues’ second-rower Ben Creagh. Creagh has also played 13 games so far this season; he averages 74 minutes, 109 metres and 25 tackles. He has just two line-breaks, four line-break assists, two tries, a try assist, 32 tackle-breaks and 29 offloads. He has six errors and misses 2.3 tackles a game.
Bottom Line: Sims has certainly added some great oomph to the Cowboys’ pack and is posting numbers close to the top shelf. As his experience rises, so too will his minutes and metres. If he has any work to do it is defensively, but this will also improve with more game time.
Sometimes a special talent comes along that just defies age. Hopoate is one of those talents. His skills are sublime and what’s more he plays the game so well while making it look ridiculously simple. It’s as if every move he makes comes naturally – he’d no doubt say it was a gift from God.
One of his great qualities is humility, and another, his religious conviction – the latter will take him away from the sport at the end of the year. We’ll miss him. But in the short time we’ve had him we’ve seen him play for City and New South Wales Origin and look a totally snug fit. He’s made fullback, wing and centre play look like a walk in the park… incredible.
In 12 NRL games he has tallied nine line-breaks, seven line-break assists, eight tries, four try assists and 43 tackle-breaks. He is averaging a massive 153 metres a game. He’s played six games at fullback, four on the wing and just two at centre (also played centre in Origin II, scoring a crucial try) making it hard to find a player to compare him against. Let’s put him up against Billy Slater, the world’s leading fullback.
In 15 NRL games Slater has made 12 line-breaks, seven line-break assists, seven tries, seven try assists and 82 tackle-breaks. He averages 144 metres each week.
Bottom Line: Hopoate is a star. His hamstring injury suffered in Origin was a huge shame. And it’s disappointing that after this year we won’t see him back in league until the 2014 season, after he completes a two-year Mormon mission. We respect his conviction and wish him all the best. (But hurry back, Will!)
When Greg Inglis ditched the Broncos in the off-season in favour of the Rabbitohs, not many people expected former plasterer Jack Reed to feature prominently in 2011. The Broncos grabbed him to create depth yet he has played all 16 games and he looks the goods. Like Gareth Widdop, he is actually eligible for England – and he may even be part of their Test squad at year’s end. The 22-year-old has busted out six line-breaks, four line-break assists, seven tries, four try assists and 49 tackle-breaks. He is running 85 metres and making 11 tackles each match. Perhaps the numbers doesn’t represent some of his best work… Reed is tenacious and commands attention away from the ball. For example, he’s made 41 good chases, ranking second in the NRL (behind Widdop).
Let’s match him up against the man he ‘replaced’ at the Broncos, Greg Inglis.
The South Sydney, Maroons and Australia centre has played 12 NRL games this year and has six line-breaks, three line-break assists, three tries and seven try assists plus 38 tackle-breaks. He averages 90 metres and 12 tackles.
Bottom Line: Amazingly the Broncos haven’t lost much at all with Reed in their side instead of Inglis. The no-nonsense centre has strength on his side and he’s getting better and better in attack each week. His ability to run a crash line close to the try line is already excellent.
So there you have it. The next time there’s an outcry about a leading star threatening to leave the code or head to England to finish his career, just remember: the new breed of rookie is increasingly closing the gap on the stars at the very outset of their careers! Lucky us, eh?