Returning Wests Tigers winger Pat Richards has been in vintage form, and is one of several unheralded players to light up the competition so far in 2014. Copyright: Robb Cox/NRL Photos. Credit: Robb Cox/NRL Photos. Copyright: Robb Cox/NRL Photos.
10. Michael Morgan
When Lachlan Coote - the Cowboys' major off-season signing and the replacement for legendary club fullback Matt Bowen - went down in the pre-season with a season-ending ACL injury, speculation quickly turned to his likely replacement. Bowen's cousin, young Javid, appeared to be an option, as did fellow young gun Zac Santo, each of whom performed well in the pre-season Nines tournament. However, new coach Paul Green surprised us all by naming halfback Michael Morgan for a trial match and Morgan impressed all with his zippy pace and support play. After a breakout game including two quality tries in a home win over the Knights the former halfback looks to have nailed down the Cowboys' fullback gig for some time to come.
9. Josh Starling
When you take a grand final side, then take five front-rowers (George Rose, Richie Fa'aoso, Brent Kite, Joe Galuvao and David Gower) out of the roster, you expect to leave a bit of a gap. Attempting to fill said gap with a handful of up-and-comers, several of whom struggled to get a start at their previous clubs, sounds a dubious strategy at best. We're only six weeks in but the Sea Eagles are currently in fourth position and have recorded muscular wins over some big packs, including the giant Rabbitohs and hard-hitting Roosters, and a key component has been Josh Starling. The former Rabbitoh hasn't taken a backwards step, starting all six games in 2013, making 123 tackles and missing just six, running 95 metres per game. The future of Manly, as it usually seems to be, is in safe hands.
Watch the NRL LIVE with a 2-week free trial.8. Gerard Beale
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Beale burst onto the scene at Brisbane in 2009, and played 63 games primarily at fullback over the following four seasons, as well as five Tests for New Zealand mostly as a centre. However after joining the Dragons as a likely replacement for departing fullback Darius Boyd for 2013, Beale played just five underwhelming games before having his season cruelled by a ruptured ACL. With the 2014 Dragons boasting star fullback Josh Dugan, fit-again Kyle Stanley, two Test wingers in Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale and a host of other options in the outside backs including the promising Charly Runciman and Rabbitohs recruit Dylan Farrell, there were questions over Beale's future at the club. He has laid those to rest as one of the most consistent performers in a strong start to the Red V's season, including four tries, three try assists and 100 running metres per game.
7. Pat Richards
Remember that big winger who was quite good for Wests Tigers a decade ago when they won the comp? He's 31 now, has been playing over in the UK and his big thing is he can kick the ball really high from a kick-off and hoof a drop-out a long way. Are the Tigers having a laugh – surely he won't get a gig with the likes of David Nofoaluma and Marika Koroibete around? Well, yeah, he will – big Patty looks like he's lost nothing while he's been away and if anything he might be even better than when he was last here. His big boot has certainly proven a huge asset, especially in respect to his goal kicking (25 goals from 29 attempts so far) but Richards is one of the form wingers in the competition full stop, with five tries and almost 110 running metres per game. In fact he is comfortably the competition's leading point scorer after six rounds, with 70. Welcome back Patty, we've missed you.
6. James Gavet
Warriors junior James Gavet arrived at the Bulldogs in 2012 with some big raps on him after being named 2011's NSW Cup Prop of the Year, but played just a solitary game, stuck behind a host of big name and representative forwards. Heading to Wests Tigers in 2013 in hope of bigger things, Gavet's 2013 was an even bigger write-off, spending most of it sidelined with a foot injury and failing to play a first grade match. So even optimistic Tigers fans wouldn't have been getting too far ahead of themselves when Gavet was named for Round 1 but the feisty prop has been a revelation since, ensuring the Tigers' go-forward keeps going forward when Aaron Woods and Keith Galloway leave the field. He's played a key role in aggressive wins over bigger-name forward packs including the Rabbitohs in Round 3.
5. Martin Taupau
New Zealand-born Martin Taupau played just 21 games over four seasons at the Bulldogs as he found himself stuck behind a host of big name and representative forwards, before heading to Wests Tigers in 2014 in hope of bigger things. Hmm, this is sounding a little familiar... Like fellow Kiwi and Tigers bench prop Gavet (above), Taupau has been a revelation in 2014 after being handed more responsibility at his new club. Like Gavet, Taupau has been a key factor in the Tigers maintaining their relentless aggression once their starting props leave the field. Taupau has churned through almost 110 metres per game and notched a couple of tries that has him, like Gavet, being mentioned as possible call-ups for the Kiwis ahead of the upcoming Test against Australia.
4. Nathan Peats
There was no doubting Peats's potential as a hooker or back-rower based on a handful of games for South Sydney, which included a few 80-minute games when Luke was unavailable. He was too good to be stuck playing 20 minutes per game as a back-up, but was he good enough to cut it as a regular 80-minute hooker in the NRL? Peats has answered those questions in the most emphatic fashion possible, with 41 hard-hitting tackles per game and three tries. Eels fans hoping for a brighter future after two years in the doldrums, and who have been let down by new recruits before, are now singing Peats's praise from the mountain tops as his relentless aggression and control from dummy-half has helped the Eels to a share of equal second after six rounds.
3. Semi Radradra
The blockbusting Eels winger, the Semi-Trailer, the new Fijian powerhouse of the NRL, has been one of the feelgood stories of 2014 - much like his resurgent club. A rugby sevens junior, Radradra played a handful of games in 2013, showing his promise with five tries in seven outings, but as you'd expect from a then-20-year-old who was completely new to the sport, his positional play was highly suspect and "raw" would have been a generous description of his early games. We're not sure what form of wizardry new coach Brad Arthur conjured over the off-season or whether it's all the kava Radradra has reportedly been drinking but he backed up a fantastic campaign in the Auckland Nines (where he was equal-top try scorer, with five, and seemed to benefit from his sevens experience) with a blistering start to 2014. He sits atop the try scoring list with a stunning nine four-pointers in six games and his defence has been outstanding, bundling a flying David Simmons into touch in Round 3 and regularly playing in off his wing in attack and defence. More please.
2. Ben Hunt
Since he was deemed the best player in Brisbane's surge to the 2008 NYC Grand Final, the former Australian Schoolboy representative has, it's fair to say, failed to capitalise on his enormous potential. After being a regular feature of Broncos teams over five years from 2009, mostly as an interchange player, it seemed Hunt may never make it as a starting NRL halfback and Brisbane's starting playmaking pair of Hunt and makeshift pivot Josh Hoffman looked, on paper, just about the weakest combo at the start of 2014. It's still early days but Hunt has been one of the form playmakers over the opening six rounds. His running game has gone to new levels and his five tries, six line breaks, three try assists and four line break assists have been integral to Brisbane's strong start to the season.
1. Manu Ma'u
Manu WHO?! Seriously, who is this guy, where did the Eels find him and how have we not seen him in the NRL before his 26th birthday? Well it turns out Ma'u came to the NRL via a more troubled route than most
but he's here now and it is clearly his Parramatta teammates and fans who are reaping the rewards. The unknown New Zealander went pretty well at the Auckland Nines without raising too many eyebrows but when he was unleashed on the Warriors in Round 1, footy fans everywhere were staring at each other with jaws dropped in disbelief. Ma'u tore through the Warriors' right-edge defence on his way to 168 metres, with two line breaks and six tackle breaks, prompting the club to immediately re-sign him for two seasons. He didn't need to do much tackling that week but has averaged over 30 stinging hits per week since and barrelled over for a try against Penrith. He's even brought himself into Test calculations, having been sounded out by Kiwis coach Steve Kearney. Of everyone who's surprised us this year, the guy we'd never heard of who now has everyone talking surely takes the cake.