Stat Attack: The 17 most-improved players of 2018
From young players cashing in on opportunities or journeymen hitting new heights to veterans recapturing career-best form, NRL.com Stats has identified a best 17 of players who have improved their form dramatically in 2018.
1 Alex Johnston
A lightning-fast winger who never quite grabbed his chance at fullback in previous stints, "AJ" has been integral in South Sydney's 2018 resurgence. He started the year as a fill-in while skipper Greg Inglis eased back from a knee reconstruction at centre but he has been good enough to stay there. Seven tries and more importantly a team equal-high 11 try assists underscores his improvement. His previous best in a year was six, in 2015. Kalyn Ponga was not considered for "most improved" because he was given so few chances at the Cowboys last year.
2 David Fusitu’a
Energetic backfield charges from Fusitu'a and fellow flanker Ken Maumalo (who was also unlucky to miss this list) set the platform for the Warriors' early-season dominance. His 16 tries in 19 games is already easily a career-best season return, beating last year's 12 in 24 games.
3 Latrell Mitchell
You could argue Mitchell hasn't so much "improved" as he has matured and simply continued a very sharp trajectory of career improvement.
Still, there is no question the 21-year-old is clearly far more dominant this year, highlighted by his overpowering of the more established Will Chambers through the Holden State of Origin series. Assuming he plays out the year he is set to record career-highs in tries (12 in 19 games so far), try assists (five so far) and offloads (22).
4 Esan Marsters
In just his second season, Marsters is in a similar boat to Mitchell. He played 13 games in his debut season in 2017 but has been stellar in 2018, to the point he made his New Zealand Test debut and has claims on being one of the form centres right across the NRL. His average metres have jumped from 90 to 132, his try assists from three to seven, his offloads from 26 to 45 and his line breaks from five to nine.
5 Blake Ferguson
It hasn't helped him hold onto his NSW Origin jersey but Ferguson's form with ball in hand has been peerless in 2018. He has made easily the most metres of any player (4142, next best Jason Taumalolo 3724), averaging 197m per game and is equal-fifth for tries scored with 14. His previous best average metres was the 145 he racked up last year and his try tally already beats his season best of 13, in 2011 and 2012 at Canberra.
6 Tyrone Peachey
A back-rower turned centre who is playing fullback, Peachey played arguably his best footy this season with the No.6 on his back while Nathan Cleary was injured, and it is this period that earned the Gold Coast-bound utility his maiden NSW jersey. He only got limited minutes in Origin and with his role shifting constantly at Penrith it's tough to gauge his improvement in stats. He's played at centre, where metres and tries are currency, in the halves where assists are more important, plus the forward rotation from the bench where defence and busts are key. Still, 118 metres per game, 67 busts, nine tries, six assists and three Origin jerseys are a fair return.
7 Luke Brooks
The signing of Benji Marshall has been an inspired move by the Wests Tigers – more so given Josh Reynolds's injury woes – but it is the steadily improving form of Luke Brooks that should give fans most optimism. Much of what Brooks has done well can't be captured by statistics. He looks more confident and assured, is defending better, making better decisions and running the ball more. The Tigers aren't scoring a ton of points and Brooks isn't setting PBs when it comes to tries or assists. But his average run metres (85), number of times tackled (114), tackle busts (61), offloads (18) and support runs (429) are easily career highs and highlight his more confident running game.
8 George Burgess
The resurgence of the Burgess twins has mirrored that of their club. George was a powerhouse in 2014 and unlucky not to receive the Clive Churchill Medal. While not as eye-catching, he was also very good in 2015 as he moved to fill the breach left by brother Sam's departure to rugby. His 2016 and 2017 seasons were ruined by injury - he played 17 and 18 games respectively but arguably shouldn't have as his effectiveness was hampered by a series of groin, hamstring, abdominal and other injuries. Now back to something close to his best, Burgess has been a massive part of South Sydney's strong starts and finishes to games.
9 Damien Cook
Even allowing for the fact Cook has flourished in what is his first NRL season with an 80-minute role, there is no question he has improved out of sight. The former journeyman is now the most dangerous running rake in the Telstra Premiership, played all three Origins for NSW and was close to player of the series, and now looks the heir apparent to Cameron Smith's green and gold No.9 jersey. He has set personal career bests for season tries (four), try assists (six), line breaks (nine), line break assists (eight) and tackle busts (64). His 2112 run metres and 111 average metres are also easily career highs.
10 Tom Burgess
Tom's NRL career form arguably hasn't swung quite as far between lows and highs as George's, but like his twin, Tom's form slumped somewhat after the highs of 2014-15 before rebounding again this year. Like his twin, Tom has been a key plank of the Bunnies' powerful starts and finishes to games. Unlike his twin, who moved to Australia earlier and became a force in the NRL sooner and was simply unstoppable in South Sydney's 2014 premiership season, Tom can genuinely claim to be in career-best form this year. Certainly, his four tries are a career high (it's actually one more than he scored in the previous five seasons combined). His 46 busts are also a career high. With seven errors in 21 games, his handling has improved out of sight from the 18 in 22 last year.
11 Tariq Sims
A long-awaited Origin debut was the reward for hard-hitting Dragons back-rower Tariq Sims and his most dominant and consistent season to date. Sims has struggled to live up to the potential he displayed early in his career from the time two successive broken legs set him back in his Cowboys days but has been at the peak of his powers this year. Seven tries (and counting) is his best season return to date and his 53 busts are his most since his debut season in 2011.
12 Viliame Kikau
Kikau is another, like Marsters, who showed promise in a debut 2017 season but has really exploded in form in 2018. Boosted by a sensational World Cup campaign with Fiji, Kikau has evolved into an 80-minute sensation on the Penrith left edge. From nine busts in nine games last year to 86 busts in 20 starts this year, Kikau has also boosted his offloads from two to 36, his average metres from 60 to 131, tries from one to five and lie breaks from one to eight.
13 Jai Arrow
Arguably the biggest improvement in Arrow's game in 2018 has been in the opportunity he has had to show what he can do. After 24 games in two years at Brisbane – and all but three of those off the bench – Arrow's promotion to starting lock at the Titans culminated in a well-deserved Origin debut. After Queensland's two losses, Arrow was rightly promoted to the run-on side and helped the Maroons to a face-saving game-three win. At club level his run metres have jumped from 69 per game to 146, his busts from seven to 41, offloads from 10 to 30 and tackles from 15 to 31 per game.
14 Issac Luke
Kiwi veteran Luke was just a shandy behind the great Cameron Smith in terms of the code's best No.9s when he helped the Bunnies to their grand final win in 2014, and was hugely dominant for several seasons before that. A shift to the Warriors in 2015 was nigh on disastrous though, as Luke struggled with form and fitness and looked to be mostly out of condition in unimpressive 2016 and 2017 seasons. Statistically, Luke hasn't done a whole lot different this year – his 75 average run metres are identical to 2016 and only slightly up on 2017. His five tries are one more than he managed in 2016-17 combined while his busts are fractionally up (from 40 in 2016 to 43 and now 44 so far this year). But it's the intent around what he's doing, his energy both on and off the ball, his clutch plays in big moments and leadership that all look to have dramatically spiked in 2018 as he has helped the perennially struggling Warriors to an all-but-certain finals berth.
15 Addin Fonua-Blake
Tongan powerhouse Fonua-Blake has evolved from troubled teen at the Dragons, at risk of wasting his doubtless potential, to genuine NRL force at Manly, to forward pack leader in 2018. Fonua-Blake credits his early days learning under the likes of Nate Myles and Brenton Lawrence to his stints in Tonga camp under the likes of Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo for his newfound commitment to hard work and training which has translated to easily his most dominant year to date. Fonua-Blake had been used almost exclusively off the bench before 2018 but has started every game this year. His average metres have exploded from 94 to 126, with career highs in tackle breaks (56) and offloads (11) with three rounds to go.
16 Tevita Pangai jnr
Much like Fonua-Blake, Pangai is turning his third NRL season into his first as a genuine starting weapon. Pangai had never started once in his 36 games prior to this season but has come off the bench just four times in 21 matches this season and been an absolute weapon for Wayne Bennett's side. With a boost in his minutes, in part aided by injuries to the likes of Matt Gillett, Alex Glenn and Jaydn Su'A, Pangai's numbers have jumped considerably. His average metres have gone from 84 to 11 and he has more tries (five) and busts (53) this year than in the previous two years combined. Multiple times in 2018 he has produced enormous charges with matches on the line that have been key to Brisbane wins.
17 Shaun Lane
One of the quieter achievers on this list is also one of the most dramatic improvers in 2018. The towering 23-year-old came through the Cronulla juniors before making his mark in the Bulldogs' NYC system. He burst onto the scene with a monster game against the Storm at Belmore in 2015 in just his third NRL appearance and featured in the Bulldogs' finals campaign that year. A shift to the Warriors in 2016 produced a dire season, in part impacted by injury, in which he struggled to even make the starting 13 in reserve grade. Lane managed nine games for Manly in his return to Australia in 2017 as a stop-gap player when injuries hit. An early-season ACL injury to Curtis Sironen handed him a chance to make his mark and he has improved out of sight, producing easily his most consistent year in a largely struggling Manly outfit. He tops the club's try-scoring list with eight – a career best – to go with career-highs in average metres (90), busts (38) and offloads (24).