Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent, NRL.com
They're the blokes who we just can't seem to find a bad word said about, mainly because they might've said all of them under their breath already. It's the kind of story that shows being in the NRL spotlight isn't always as glamorous as us media-folk portray it to be. In fact, when you're sitting in the shadows it can often turn into a very lonely place. So, for at least a couple of minutes, we turn your attention to 10 current players in the NRL that are cursing their luck.
Trust us when we say that form isn't the reason this Roosters prodigy hasn't played an NRL game in over 620 days. Not only has Tautau Moga had the unfortunate schoolboy tag that read 'The Next Sonny Bill Williams', but like most of the lads on this list, his young career has been beset by injuries. A torn ACL late in his rookie season in 2012 agonisingly went bust again just one game into his return the following year. On the plus side, the Ipswich junior – who was signed by the Tricolours when he was 14 – is still only 20 years of age and, having strung a few games together for Newtown in the NSW Cup this year, should make it back to the NRL at some stage. At least he'll hope so, because the former Australian Schoolboy is off contract at the end of the year.
Jacob Loko somehow managed 13 NRL games last year – and we're surprised he still remembered how to catch a football given the 20 months he spent tossing up whether all this recovery time was worth it. The giant kid from the same club that brought us Jarryd Hayne took the NRL world by storm in his rookie season of 2011, drawing comparisons with Polynesian sensation Israel Folau. But 10 games into his first grade career he tore his ACL. Five months later he did it again. In a boxing session. And missed the entire 2012 season. He returned to play about a dozen games for Ricky Stuart last year until he dislocated his kneecap in July, only to find an infection in there by October that's kept him on the sidelines until this day. With another month to go of recovery, it's all fingers crossed for this 21-year-old powerhouse to return 100 per cent fit.
It's an indictment on your injury history when an eight-week recovery is treated as a good sign from the rugby league gods. That's exactly how the news was taken for Jordan Kahu, who looked like he had blown his knee for the third time in four years in a trial for the Broncos back in February. Considering he had suffered the exact same injury at exactly the same time of the year in 2011, and then 2012, a torn MCL during pre-season of 2013 meant there was at least one footballing angel who had a bit of sympathy in them. Although that judgement will be reserved for when the 23-year-old eventually does make a return, which he's been unable to do for three months and counting.
We abandon our luckless promising talents and head straight up the ladder to former Kiwi international Matt Duffie. You see, before this golden generation of young Storm up-and-comers like Young Tonumaipea, Sisa Waqa, Mahe Fonua and Kurt Mann, there was once this Melbournian kid who had the ability to fly. Fly high all the way to a preliminary final, even further to a New Zealand jumper, only to then crash into the earth with a thud so hard it resulted in him having twin surgeries on his shoulder and knee that ended his season last year. The high-flyer returned with greater hopes over the summer, only to suffer another ACL during a training session back in February that has written off another entire season. And, as luck would have it, the 23-year-old's off contract too.
If you finish your career having represented your country 10 times, most people would call it a damn good career. Especially if you averaged 18 games a year during the first seven years of it. But unfortunately for 29-year-old Jerome Ropati, all those Kiwi jumpers came before he was 24 years old and it's been all downhill ever since. The 11-year vet has accumulated just 15 games since the start of 2011, mainly due to a string of injuries including two knee reconstructions. The club saw value in handing him a one-year extension last October, only to then have their longest-serving player cop a broken jaw that sidelines him until Round 16.
Season 2013 was supposed to be a breakthrough season for Lachlan Coote. Having frustratingly battled both a positional battle with Panthers teammate Michael Gordon and an osteo pubis injury that plagued his 2011-12 campaigns, a move to five-eighth last year was meant to be the move that would allow him to fulfil his potential. But a pec injury sidelined him for 20 weeks and by the time he returned, the boy wonder signed on for a fresh new start in North Queensland. But the season hadn't even begun when the Matt Bowen replacement tore his ACL in the inaugural Auckland Nines, leaving the expensive recruit still without a proper game in Cowboys colours.
Kyle Stanley will take one look at all these ACL injuries and laugh. Try four of them, he'll say. The 22-year-old has drawn comparisons to Raiders great Mal Meninga, who came back from four broken arms, but the only problem is that now he can't get a run. With big names Josh Dugan, Gareth Widdop – and now Benji Marshall – filling up his playmaking spots at the Dragons, the off-contract Stanley will have to play another position or find a new club completely to fulfil his NRL ambitions. Some might say that being on the field is an achievement enough, but we're guessing Stanley had more planned for his career than simply overcoming injuries.
Justin Hunt is the first player on this list that hasn't had a major injury since graduating into the NRL. He's also got a rap sheet cleaner than Tim Mannah's, and we can't remember him having a bad game since debuting midway through 2012, either. So why is this fella unlucky? Well, it might have something to do with playing behind two blokes named Greg Inglis and Jarryd Hayne. It's bad enough that he's had to follow in the footsteps of a dad Neil, a premiership-winner with the Eels, and grandfather Jim, a popular Rabbitoh, but he's also had to play back-up to two of the best players in the game. In 13 appearances for South Sydney, Hunt showed enough class to show he belongs in this league. The only flaw he might have is his choice of clubs.
Not since Nathan Hindmarsh have we witnessed a fella spend more time on top of an opposition player – and we're not talking about wrestling. Shaun Fensom makes 60 tackles in his sleep, and then somehow wakes up to run a lazy 100 metres every game. They're accountant-like numbers from a bloke who looks nothing like one and every bit a representative player. So it astounds us that in his sixth year in first grade, this battler from Camden hasn't even touched a Country jersey yet. If the selectors don't wake up any time soon, Fensom may well end up on another infamous list: Top 10 players not to play rep footy. Ouch.
For a bloke who's accomplished almost everything there is to do in the game – including win a grand final – being plumped on this list is plain offensive. Unlike most of the players on this list, Thurston joins this group not because his body's broken down too many times, but because the refereeing system has. Twice in the past two years the men with the whistle have admitted to mistakes when the Cowboys were on the cusp of semi-final glory. It doesn't matter if you're the best player on the planet, reaching the business end of the season is a bloody difficult thing to do, and Thurston's emotional outbursts following each unlucky defeat illustrates it.