8 players to watch in NRL Round 1
In less than a week, the 2019 NRL Season begins. We highlight the player to watch in each of the upcoming eight games.
Hughes will replace the greatest fullback of all time, Billy Slater, in 2019. Interesting for Hughes is that Scott Drinkwater was initially tipped to be fullback until he tore his pec in a trial match.
Hughes probably would have played halfback if Drinkwater was healthy, but he’ll still be out to prove that the number one jersey was his all along.
A great performance and a win in this match could be season-defining for him and the team. Pundits have gone cold on Melbourne’s top four chances since Drinkwater’s injury, a turn that could be unfair to a club that has been consistently dominant over the last decade. Hughes is the key to unlocking the Storm’s potential this year, and silencing those critics.
The Knights’ superstar was a sensation in his first season as a starting fullback. One season later, coach Nathan Brown has elected to switch Ponga from his preferred position to five-eighth, where he will partner Mitchell Pearce.
This change is partly because Ponga seems to handle every curve ball with poise: see Origin Game 3 last year where he played most of the game defending in the middle of the field. Connor Watson’s comfortability at fullback is also a factor. He looked out of place in the No. 6 last year, and a shift could improve his game.
Nonetheless, Brown’s decision is risky. If Ponga fails to find form, it could derail the Knights season, and many expect them to make the top eight. Round one will be our first real opportunity to see if Ponga’s superstardom transcends positional preference.
The Roosters second-rower is under the least pressure of all the players on this list. He is an established Origin star playing in his natural position for the most well-rounded team in the NRL.
The reason to watch Angus Crichton is for the opponent he faces: his former team, the Rabbitohs. Crichton is the latest in a long line of players who has made the swap from the Rabbitohs to the Roosters, joining legends such as Michael Cleary and Ron Coote. These player exchanges fuel the most important rivalry in NRL history.
Crichton’s swap is great timing too: the animosity between the Roosters and Rabbitohs was reborn in a close preliminary finals match last season. The Rabbitohs lost that game, and the Roosters went on to win the premiership. The sting of that, and Crichton’s departure, will make for great viewing this weekend.
The Warriors’ favourite son, Shaun Johnson, is gone, with a rookie (Adam Keighran or Chanel Harris-Tavita) left to replace him. That means veteran half, Blake Green, must take command of the team.
As captain and the best player on the team, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck could easily be in Green’s place on this list. But for the most part, RTS’s game will not change with Johnson gone, aside from a heavier workload.
For Green, his role change will be far more significant. He will be required to kick more than usual, and direct the team at all times. Not only will he have to compensate Johnson’s output, but also nurture a rookie halves partner with zero first grade experience.
In 2018, the Tigers acquired Moses Mbye and Robbie Farah mid-season to inspire a push for the finals. Their presence wasn’t enough to get the team there, and the players will be looking for redemption.
Mbye and Farah were solid with the Tigers last year, but Mbye couldn’t recapture his form with the Bulldogs during the first half of the year. He’s more comfortable now in the team structure with an off-season under his belt.
He has also been appointed captain of the team – a fact that sealed his inclusion on this list over Farah.
Look for a big season from Mbye. If the Tigers make the top eight, he could be a dark horse to win the Dally M. This game is his chance to begin that campaign with a bang.
Two seasons ago, Michael Morgan (and Jason Taumalolo) carried the Cowboys to the Grand Final. The team had no business making it that far, and Morgan was lauded for his remarkable play.
Last year, Morgan spent most of his time on the sidelines. When he was on the field, he looked nowhere close to 100% healthy, and so, a team expected to win the premiership finished thirteenth.
Johnathan Thurston is now retired, re-simulating Morgan’s circumstances in 2017 when Thurston was injured. Morgan is healthy, and the team is his to command. All signs point to another breakout year.
All eyes are on the young half touted to be the next star of the game. Dylan Brown is at the centre of Parramatta’s rebuild. He could expedite the process with a Kalyn Ponga-like breakout season in 2019.
The Eels showed their potential in 2017 when their halves combination works. Brown is sure to make mistakes as a rookie, but if he balances the mistakes with some magic, the Eels could surprise a lot of people.
Parramatta’s season rests on an eighteen year-old’s shoulders. If he is ready for the challenge, we could be in for an exciting show.
In a similar camp to Michael Morgan, Hodgson was revelatory in 2017, but hampered by injuries in 2018. Raiders fans are anxious to know how close the hooker can get to his 2017 form.
Of course, he needs help, and the Raiders’ offseason decisions could have mixed results. On the one hand, opting for a leaner forward pack will fit more naturally with Hodgson’s talents and the contemporary game more generally.
On the other hand, the Raiders have a serious halves problem. Rather than going out and purchasing better options, Ricky Stuart has opted to move Jack Wighton from fullback to five eighth, while keeping Aidan Sezer as halfback. Unknown commodity Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad will take Wighton’s place at the back.
Those decisions seem bizarre considering Wighton has never been a tremendous playmaker, and in all likelihood, Nick Cotric presents more certainty at fullback than Nicoll-Klokstad. Hodgson will carry a heavy load this year, but he could re-emerge as a top-3 hooker in the process.