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The most improved player at your club in 2018

Some players improve early in their careers, some are late bloomers.

In 2018, there have been many players throughout the Telstra Premiership who have taken their game to the proverbial next level.

Some players, like Euan Aitken, Damien Cook and Luke Brooks have now entered selection conversations for the Holden State of Origin series while others, like veteran Warriors hooker Issac Luke, have revived their career after a down year in 2017.

Here's the view on the most improved players in the competition after six weeks of the Telstra Premiership. 

Canberra Raiders: Joe Tapine

Canberra didn't have too many stars in their 0-4 start to the season but former Knights forward Joe Tapine (who missed two of those losses with a thumb injury) has been absolutely immense in their two wins since. His stats in the win over Canterbury (35 tackles, three busts, 89 metres) do no justice at all to the quality of his contribution. He was the best forward on the field by a country mile and only pipped to the man of the match award by Aidan Sezer's match-winning display. He backed it up against the Eels last week where he was again arguably the best forward on the park again.

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs: Raymond Faitala-Mariner

Former Warrior Faitala-Mariner is enjoying a huge confidence boost under new coach Dean Pay, who has entrusted him with a big-minute starting role. His numbers have skyrocketed as a result: his average metres have nearly doubled from 63 to 113 and his 24 tackle busts through six games are just two short of the 26 he tallied through all of 2017. His two tries is already double last year's solo four-pointer and his 11 offloads is closing in on the 16 he managed in 16 games last year.

North Queensland Cowboys: Coen Hess

We'll be honest – it's slim pickings trying to find a Cowboys player whose output is actually up compared to last season after their 1-5 start. Ben Hampton has done a fair job deputising at fullback and centre. Hulking Origin back-rower Coen Hess has made a strong start too, especially since being shifted to the starting side from round three. In the four games he's started he averages 115 metres (2017: 108 metres) and 35 tackles (2017: 24 tackles) per game.

St George Illawarra Dragons: Euan Aitken

The struggle here was to settle on one player because Tariq Sims, Nene Macdonald and halves Ben Hunt and Gareth Widdop have all upped their games this year (in some cases from a pretty high base). But we can't go past Aitken, who battled through a series of shoulder and hamstring issues last year but is absolutely flying six weeks into 2018 – so much so that he is firming by the week for a possible Origin debut. Aitken's five tries in six matches is already just one short of his entire 2017 haul of six in 12 games and he is halfway to his 2017 tackle break count (41) with 20 busts in six games. The overhauled right-side attack under Ben Hunt's guidance has added a decoy play to Aitken's game – last year he had just four decoy runs all year but he has 21 decoy plays already this year.

Parramatta Eels: Daniel Alvaro

Similar story to the Cowboys here – when you take a team that finished fourth then fails to win even one of its opening six games, you probably don't have many big improvers. We have to give a bit of a rap to prop Dan Alvaro though. He was probably the only man in blue and gold able to walk off the field with his head held high following the Lottoland horror-show in round two and has consistently been in their two or best (or least bad?) players every week so far. All up his average tackles have gone from 28 to 40 and, despite his club's defensive woes, has actually increased his effective tackle percentage from an already-decent 92.2 to 93.5. His metres have climbed from 90 per game to 102 as well.

Newcastle Knights: Lachlan Fitzgibbon

Fitzgibbon was a bit of a late bloomer in NRL terms, playing just six games across 2015-16 before his breakout 2017 season as a 23-year-old. As impressive as he was last year, the early signs are that he has more improvement in him. Despite fears he may be the odd man out following the recruitments of a number of experienced forwards, Fitzgibbon has held a starting spot and flourished, upping his average metres from 70 to 95 and scoring four tries in just six games (after an already-impressive eight in 14 last year).

Penrith Panthers: Viliame Kikau

It's not hard to find NRL players at various clubs suffering a bit of a post-World Cup hangover but the opposite appears true for Penrith wrecking ball Viliame Kikau, who has found a spot on the Panthers' left edge and taken a huge lift from his impressive post-season with Fiji last year. Kikau had some strong moments last year but has been far more consistent so far in 2018, almost doubling his average metres from 60 to 112 while his tackle busts (from nine in nine games to 24 in six games) and offloads (two in nine games last year and 11 already this year) have skyrocketed.

South Sydney Rabbitohs: Damien Cook

Electric Bunnies hooker Damien Cook is in the conversation for most improved players right across the NRL. A huge part of his form is down to the chance to own the cardinal and myrtle No.9 for 80 minutes per week and he has repaid coach Anthony Seibold with a string of devastating performances. His average metres have jumped from 58 to 115 (a frankly absurd number for a dummy-half), his tackle breaks per game from 3.3 to 5.5, all while his average tackle count has jumped from 24 to 44.

Gold Coast Titans: Jai Arrow

Hard-working lock Jai Arrow has flourished since being given the chance to show exactly what he's capable of. Asked to fill in at prop in the opening weeks with Jarrod Wallace suspended, Arrow's form exploded since moving to his preferred lock position in place of Bryce Cartwright. A monumental effort at Gladstone against the Sea Eagles announced his arrival with two tries, nine tackle busts and 190 metres. Overall his average metres have jumped from 69 at Brisbane last year to 149 so far in 2018 while his defence has also surged from 16 tackle per game to 31.

Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles: Addin Fonua-Blake

When starting prop Darcy Lussick did his ankle in a trial it meant impact man Addin Fonua-Blake would be required to step up to a bigger role and he has lifted accordingly. Though his injury-ravaged team has slumped to a 2-4 start to the year, the hard-running Kiwi international has been a standout, lifting his run metres from 94 per game to 130 while maintaining his impact, averaging over four post-contact metres per carry. He has also produced 15 busts and four offloads in his six games so far this year.

Wests Tigers: Luke Brooks

The Tigers are one team who have almost an entire squad we could put in here. A blossoming (and newly re-signed) Esan Marsters, a rejuvenated Benji Marshall, Robbie Rochow and Ben Matulino plus a returning Corey Thompson have all been eye-catching. But we can't go past halfback Luke Brooks. The 23-year-old looks a completely different player this year – stronger, faster and fitter, exploding with confidence, running the ball more than ever before. His average run metres have shot from 75 to 106 so far and his eight drop outs forced in six games has already equalled his entire 2017 tally of eight in 17 games. His 20 tackle busts is just two short of his 22 busts in 2017 as well.

Cronulla Sharks: Chad Townsend

Another club where improved players are hard to come by in a sluggish start to 2018 but we have to give a bit of credit to halfback Chad Townsend. James Maloney was always going to be a massive loss for the club and Townsend has stepped up in his absence. He's had to deal with a constantly rotating spine as well; this week is Cronulla's third change of fullback (from Valentine Holmes to Josh Dugan to Matt Moylan and now back to Dugan) while his halves partner has gone from Moylan to Hodkinson and now back to Moylan. He has also had to assume goal kicking duties which he does done brilliantly, booting 20 from 24 at an 83% success rate.

Melbourne Storm: Sam Kasiano

When you go from near unbeatable premiers to an underwhelming 3-3 start it's no surprise when you don't have a lot of hugely improved players. We'll give the nod at the Storm to a fit-looking former Bulldog Sam Kasiano, who has shrugged off an injury-hampered start to the season to hit his groove over the past few weeks. After some very short stints in the opening rounds he has upped his minutes to 28 and then 36 minutes over the past fortnight, which has brought successive season-highs in run metres (74 then 107 metres), the latter performance bringing his first try for the club.

New Zealand Warriors: Issac Luke

As with the Tigers, the Warriors have a stack of big improvers underpinning their surge to a 5-1 start. Tohu Harris, Peta Hiku, Bunty Afoa and David Fusitu'a are all in career-best form. But for a chalk and cheese comparison on last year we can't go past resurgent No.9 Issac Luke. Luke has struggled to recapture his South Sydney form since moving across the ditch in 2016 and by the end of last year it looked like his NRL career may be almost over. Fast forward six games and the Luke of old is back – the dummy-half scoots, the rugged defence, the spark, the offloads have all returned. Credit must go to coach Stephen Kearney and strength and conditioning coach Alex Corvo, plus Luke himself, for the huge turnaround. Stats-wise, his average metres have jumped from 64 last year to exactly 100 per game so far this year and he has already beaten his entire 2017 offload tally of 10 in 23 games with 13 already in six games this year.

Brisbane Broncos: Tevita Pangai jnr

Pangai may have missed a bit of footy lately with a hamstring strain but he was a shining light through Brisbane's sluggish opening to 2018. His greatest strength lies in his rugged carries and unpredictable offloading ability given he has silky hands for a big man. His average tackle busts per game have climbed from 1.3 to 2.4 and his post-contact metres per carry from 2.7 to 3.1 metres so far in 2018. 

Sydney Roosters: Ryan Matterson

In an up-and-down start to 2018 for the Tricolours, back-rower Ryan Matterson has been a shining light. Playing 80 minutes four times (and 60-odd minutes in his other two games), Matterson's four tries in six games has already easily eclipsed his one try in 23 games last season. His defensive workload has leapt from 25 tackles per game to 37 per game while his effective rate has also climbed from 88.4% to 92.9%.

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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