10 players you've barely heard of… but will in 2011
1. Anthony Mitchell (Eels)
The Eels have struggled to find a regular dummy-half in recent years but with the emergence of 21-year-old Anthony Mitchell in late 2010 their search could soon be over. The highly-rated young hooker boasts all the skills – lightning service, a crisp passing game and speed off the mark. Likely to be part of a three-man rotation for the Eels this year, he will battle for the No.9 jersey with Matt Keating and new arrival Casey McGuire but the general consensus is that the hooking spot will become his alone in the long term. Mitchell played three games for the Eels at the back end of the 2010 season, scoring two tries, and was selected in the Indigenous All Stars side earlier this year.
2. Siuatonga Likiliki (Knights)
Boasting one of the greatest names in rugby league history – right up there with the likes of former Bronco Steele Retchless and South Sydney's Bronco Djura – Siuatonga Likiliki made a name for himself playing for the Warriors' premiership-winning Toyota Cup side last season when he scored 19 tries in 25 games. Now with Newcastle, the 20-year-old speedster already has tongues wagging in the Hunter where he will join Akuila Uate in a lightning-fast backline. A Junior Kiwis representative in 2010, Likiliki was named in both the 2009 and 2010 Toyota Cup Team of the Year.
3. Elijah Taylor (Warriors)
Had fortune smiled more favourably on Elijah Taylor he would already be a household name. The Warriors utility was originally bracketed to make his NRL debut in late 2009, only for a hamstring injury to rule him out, and then saw his 2010 season ended before it had even begun when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Now fully fit and ready to fire, the 20-year-old has reportedly worked harder than ever during the pre-season in a bid to finally earn that elusive NRL debut. Coach Ivan Cleary expects big things this year. “He's pretty ready,” Cleary told NRL.com. “He has certainly been on the cusp for a while but he did come back late last year and played in the winning Toyota Cup side. We've got a lot of depth in the back row but one thing Elijah can do is play different positions, so that works in his favour. He'll fill a utility role. I mean, we threw him into the Toyota Cup team last year and I don't think he had ever played hooker before but he took it on and did it well. That shows you what he is like – he takes on any challenge, is very versatile and very focused.”
4. Daly Cherry-Evans (Sea Eagles)
The departure of halfback Trent Hodkinson this season is a huge blow for Manly but already coach Des Hasler has singled out Redcliffe junior Daly Cherry-Evans as his ready-made replacement. Ironically, Cherry-Evans has followed an almost identical path to the NRL as his predecessor. Overlooked for the No.7 jersey for Hodkinson last season, he instead plied his trade for Sunshine Coast in the Queensland Cup, just like Hodkinson the year before, and was named Queensland Cup Player of the Year… just like Hodkinson the year before. At 21, he is already on the representative radar as part of Queensland's Emerging Origin squad.
5. Elijah Niko (Storm)
Two years after strike centre Israel Folau departed, Melbourne believe they have found their next big thing – literally – in hulking newcomer Elijah Niko. A member of the Warriors' Toyota Cup-winning side in 2010, Niko certainly looks the part. At 108kg and almost two metres tall he is a man mountain in the vein of Folau – plus team-mates have also observed a similar ability to leap high into the air. Expected to play a significant role in Melbourne as the club looks to recover from the salary cap saga that ruined their 2010, he scored 15 tries in 23 games last season and average a whopping 149 metres per game.
6. Ryan James (Titans)
The Titans have huge raps on 19-year-old forward Ryan James, with good judges already tipping him as a future Test star. James was a schoolboy star, being named Arrive Alive Cup Player of the Year and representing the Australian Schoolboys in 2008 before linking with the Gold Coast's Toyota Cup side. At 106kg and 192cm, he is a formidable presence on the field and has been so impressive at Under-20s level that he made his NRL debut last season at the tender age of 18, playing four games for the Titans. Although officially still a member of the club's Toyota Cup squad in 2011, watch for him to feature prominently in the top grade.
7. Tariq Sims (Cowboys)
The brother of former Dragons and Broncos prop Ashton follows his elder sibling to North Queensland this year and the Cowboys believe he could be the man to help lead them into a bright new era. The 2010 Toyota Cup Player of the Year is a versatile front-rower able to notch big minutes – an amazing feat for a man weighing in at 106kg. Certainly the Cowboys are excited about his prospects, with general manager of football Peter Parr telling NRL.com: “You don't fluke the Toyota Cup Team of the Year award. He has great attention to detail at training and I think he is ready to take the next step. He has some competition in the forwards here this year but I expect in the not too distant future he will be playing NRL and when he does get a start it will take a fair bit to move him. He will have a long NRL career.”
8. Dane Gagai (Broncos)
Karmichael Hunt's departure at the end of 2009 was proclaimed as a huge blow for the Broncos but already they have demonstrated a remarkable ability to produce dazzling young fullbacks. The latest is 20-year-old Dane Gagai – a diminutive but devastatingly elusive speedster in the mould of his cousin, current Broncos No.1 Josh Hoffman. Named Brisbane's Toyota Cup back of the year in 2010, he scored 13 tries and averaged 188 metres per game but it was his ability to slice through a gap that really caught the eye. Gagai represented Queensland Under-18s in 2009 and was actively pursued by a number of NRL clubs – as well as the Queensland Reds rugby union side – before settling on the Broncos. Watch for him to push for a wing spot in 2011.
9. Kalifa Faifai Loa (Cowboys)
A new arrival in North Queensland this season, Faifai Loa made a big impression during his limited opportunities in first grade for premiers St George Illawarra in 2010. His two appearances saw him score two tries and average 163 metres per game, but it was his consistent efforts at Toyota Cup level – where he scored 17 tries in 20 games and was named in the official Team of the Year – that had the Cowboys taking notice. “I think he averaged over 200 metres per game playing Toyota Cup on the wing,” Cowboys general manager of football Peter Parr said. “We wanted to increase our depth out wide and he has done that. He has come a considerable way in the last few months and he is a very exciting player as far as we're concerned.”
10. Andrew Clayton (Sharks)
Time will tell whether 20-year-old prop Andrew Clayton pushes for an NRL debut in 2011 but the word coming out of Cronulla is that he is one of the brightest prospects going around. Named in Toyota Cup Team of the Year last season, he joins the Sharks from Brisbane and has impressed in his first full pre-season. “He still has a bit of work to do but he has trained his butt off since he arrived and is always looking to improve,” coach Shane Flanagan said of the 105kg rookie. “The thing is that he is a front-rower and he is only young so he still has plenty of time before we see the best of him, but he has handled his first full off-season well which is a great sign.”
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