Bumper class of retirees opens the door for breed of young NRL stars

The 2018 class of retiring players is unprecedented in its size and scope.

Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater, Sam Thaiday, Chris Heighington, Ryan Hoffman, Simon Mannering, Luke Lewis, Jason Nightingale and Peter Wallace are just the start of the thousands of games of NRL experience, multiple Clive Churchill and Dally M medals, a multitude of Test and World Cup wins, Origin series', epic finals encounters and premierships that will soon walk away.

They're some of the most recognisable names in the game.

While those players have left fans with memories of greatness and moments they'll regale future generations with for decades, there is a silver lining to their departures.

Their collective retirement might signal the end of one generation, but it also brings the next class of stars to the fore.

When Johnathan Thurston made his debut for the Bulldogs in 2002, Lachlan Lewis was just five years old.

While Lewis' career is still young, his birthday heroics against the high-flying Warriors showed class, confidence and ability. A sign of things to come.  

Lewis' team-mate Rhyse Martin is another to have impressed. His goal-kicking record is sensational. He's missed just one goal from 34 attempts since taking over kicking duties and his accuracy and technique have fans across the league guffawing in admiration.

Jamayne Isaako is another goal-kicking rookie making a name for himself. While his accuracy may not be as impressive as Martin's, Isaako has shown his calm under fire, scoring match-winners both with the boot and ball-in-hand.

It looks like the race to be the NRL's top point-scorer is between Isaako and Latrell Mitchell. The one point that separates them leading into this weekend should be a testament to the abilities of the young Bronco and the faith shown in him by coach Wayne Bennett.

Then there's AJ Brimson. His playmaking ability was showcased at five-eighth, but his recent move to fullback has further highlighted his versatility.

Not only can he scythe through the line with sheer pace, his fearless defensive attitude has proven a valuable asset to the Titans. Should the club retain the services of both Brimson and Ash Taylor, they'll put themselves a clear path to success in the not-too-distant future. 

Young Rabbitoh Adam Doueihi burst onto the scene for Lebanon at the 2017 World Cup. His ability to play a number of roles in the spine has helped him run.

He suffered a devastating injury that cut his campaign short this year, but he'll be back and raring to go alongside fellow impressive South Sydney rookie Junior Tatola next season.

Broncos utility back Jamayne Isaako.
Broncos utility back Jamayne Isaako. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

Even if some of this year's young stars don't qualify for Rookie of the Year eligibility, so many clubs have exciting prospects to keep an eye on.

Newcastle's development is tracking nicely, and the talents showcased this year by young guns like Cory Denniss provide further signs of their upward trajectory.

Sharks supporters have the development of tackle-breaking speed machines like Sione Katoa to look forward to – not to mention the eventual arrival of playmaker Kyle Flanagan, while the Dragons have Zac Lomax, Reece Robson and Jai Field waiting in the wings for regular first-team opportunities.

Another year of injury management reminded everyone of the depth of Penrith's junior talent pool, while Parramatta's Reed Mahoney and Jaemon Salmon have given their fans reason to be positive despite a tough year – and they haven't even given Greg Leleisuaio his NRL debut. Keep an eye out. 

Even in North Queensland, right next to the game's most prolific retiree, 2017 Holden Cup Player of the Year Jake Clifford has been afforded a chance to learn his trade in the absence of Michael Morgan.

Things might not have gone to plan for the Cowboys this year, but Clifford has already shown enough to suggest he'll be an apt replacement with more experience under his belt.

Yes, the loss of so much experience and so many big names from the past decades of rugby league is a sad sight. The procession of departing players on grand final day will be of a class never before seen, and they should be paid tribute and lauded as the champions they are.

But just remember – though the game is losing a lot at the end of this season, it's gaining just as much in the next generation.

In 15 years time, there's every chance these youngsters will have made just as big an impression on our great game as those who've come before them.