Most improved player of 2018: NRL.com experts have their say
From young guns on the rise to NRL regulars who made their mark on the representative stage, these are the most improved players of the 2018 Telstra Premiership season according to NRL.com's writers and contributors.
Alicia Newton (NRL.com reporter)
Viliame Kikau. He could barely crack Penrith's top 17 last year because of his high error rate especially in key moments. He's now turned into one of the game's biggest edge weapons, doubling and tripling some of last year's averages. There have been suggestions he is in the Sonny Bill Williams mould but I don't think that's the case, but he's still one of the more improved performers in 2018.
Neil Cadigan (NRL.com reporter)
Damien Cook. I can't go past someone who has progressed from yet to be proven as a starring hooker at age 27, who had played 49 first grade games in four seasons (most off the bench) for three clubs, to be among the three best performers for NSW in Origin and the second best hooker in the NRL (behind Cameron Smith). He will walk into the Australian team after never playing rep football before this season.
Paul Suttor (NRL.com editor)
Latrell Mitchell. It's easy to forget that last year the Roosters centre was dropped during the season and finished the campaign on the wing as questions were raised about his defensive capabilities but in 2018 he has announced himself as a genuine representative star with the potential in both attack and defence to become the best player in the game.
Margie McDonald (NRL.com senior reporter)
Cameron Munster. When you cut off the limb of a big tree, it can look lop-sided. But Cooper Cronk left and Cameron Munster stepped in and the 'foliage' at the Storm looks unchanged. Munster has doubled his kicking metres, and the number of forced drop outs this year, while keeping his attacking play humming (15 try assists so far). Munster's influence means no-one is missing Cronk all that much.
Dan Walsh (NRL.com reporter)
Issac Luke. More than any other man, his stark turnaround this year has been the biggest in a Warriors side finally cashing in their potential for a first finals appearance since 2011. This time last year he was dumped to the bench, overweight, unmotivated and a shadow of the player who once challenged Cameron Smith as the best hooker in the game. Now he's fit, fresh and causing havoc around the ruck once more – a sight for sore eyes considering he's always been one of the game's most entertaining customers when on song.
Hayley Byrnes (NRL.com reporter)
David Fusitu'a. He's always been good but this year he's been a star on the flank for the Warriors, churning out the metres, scoring tries and coming up with some crucial plays at the defensive end. He and Ken Maumalo have arguably been the best pair of wingers in the Telstra Premiership.
Michael Chammas (NRL.com chief reporter)
Damien Cook. He's gone from a solid first-grader to the best player in the competition in 12 months. He was instrumental in NSW's State of Origin series triumph and will be rewarded with Cameron Smith's Kangaroos No.9 jersey in less than two months. He's changed the trend, with explosive, running dummy halfs now a must when compiling a roster.
Andrew Marmont (NRL.com reporter)
Latrell Mitchell. And what a sharp rise it has been for the Roosters centre, from a defence-leaking rookie to the boom centre of the competition in 12 months. Perhaps you could credit time spent in first-grade – or the confidence of youth – but Mitchell is playing in 2018 like he is The Man. Brutal defence. Bulldozer-like attack. It's wonderful to see. A Kangaroos call-up beckons.
Tanisha Stanton (NRL.com reporter)
Damien Cook has proved himself to be the secret weapon for South Sydney while cementing the hooker spot this season. He has been destructive when given any room to run as we've seen on plenty occasions in first grade and across the Origin series. The Australian No.9 jersey looks to be his after Cameron Smith hung up boots for representative honours.
Joel Gould (NRL.com reporter)
Tevita Pangai jnr started this season as a rare talent with a big future and is now regarded as one of the most damaging forwards in the game today. The Brisbane Broncos behemoth is having the same kind of impact on games as Jason Taumalolo and in the big moments when the game is on the line it is the 22-year-old Tongan international who is stepping up to make the difference.
David Piepers (Big League editor)
It's been a hectic few years for Tariq Sims. Pack rotations and injuries made it difficult for the big man to find momentum, but that all changed in 2018. Russell Packer's departure from the Dragons gave Sims his chance to secure a starting spot and he grabbed it with both hands. He hits hard, he runs harder, he leaves everything on the field and he's been vital to the Red V's success this year. A NSW jersey (at last) was a just reward for his efforts, but his hard-man mentality and his brutal approach to silencing the game's best have been fantastic to watch.
Mary Konstantopoulos (Ladies Who League)
The most improved player this year has definitely been Damien Cook. He has not only revolutionised the South Sydney Rabbitohs attack and that of the New South Wales Blue, he has pretty much played himself into an Australian jersey and demonstrated that there is still a role for the little man in rugby league. I'm wondering how Des Hasler and Michael Maguire feel about having had that talent sitting under their nose all along and instead choosing to play other hookers.
Brad Walter (NRL.com senior reporter)
Damien Cook. The South Sydney hooker is now at his third NRL club and until this season he had always been a back up or second choice but Cook is now the No.1 dummy half in the game and set to take over from Cameron Smith as the Kangaroos No.9.
Scott Hazlewood (NRL.com reporter)
There are a few special players who have stood up this season but it's hard to go past South Sydney hooker Damien Cook. After struggling to get his foot in the door elsewhere around the NRL, he has kicked it down this season with the Rabbitohs on his way to being the most damaging attacking hooker in the game and instrumental to New South Wales' series win in State of Origin.
Dylan Morris (NRL.com reporter)
Damien Cook. His dummy half work has brought the Burgess brothers and the other Souths forwards back to their best.
Jamie Soward (Former Blues five-eighth)
This year we saw another mature step in the growth of Luke Brooks. His game management and understanding of when to inject himself into the game has been a real positive sign for brooks who is much maligned.
Chris Kennedy (NRL.com reporter)
Shaun Lane. As eye-catching as names like Damien Cook and Latrell Mitchell have been, Lane is coming off a far lower base. From the reserve grade bench at the Warriors in 2016 to injury fill-in at Manly last year, Lane has been given a shot this season and excelled both in the middle and on the edge to lead the team in tries for most of the year (until being overtaken by Tom Trbojevic last weekend) and qualify for a contract upgrade big enough that his club can no longer afford to keep him.
Katie Brown (NRL.com reporter)
Tevita Pangai Jnr. His arrogance throws his opposition. An absolute weapon for Brisbane. The Broncos' injuries in 2018 have been bittersweet for Tevita who has been given his chance to play week in, week out. His average metres have gone from 84 to 111 and he has more tries (five) and busts (53) this year than in the previous two years combined.
Zac Bailey (NRL.com reporter)
Damien Cook. A couple of years ago, Cook was headed for the exit at Redfern. It looked like his NRL career would be over and he'd be lost to the Super League. It would've been a great shame given his rise from a fringe hooker to New South Wales' No.9 and the natural successor to Cameron Smith. His running game is his strength and it's unrivalled in the game.
Peter Jolly (NRL.com reporter)
Damien Cook. The South Sydney hooker is setting the game on fire and he knows it. It won't be too long down the track before he takes over from Cameron Smith and plays in the No.9 jersey for the Kangaroos. He's one to watch for many years to come.