As much as we may choose not to believe it as fans, often the fate of our clubs can boil down to the fortunes of just one man. These people can be superstars or workhorses, forwards or backs – but their fate is linked inextricably to that of their club.
So with the 2014 season a mere month away, who are the people holding the fortunes of their club in the hands? Which sixteen men will hold the most sway of the fortunes of NRL clubs in the season to come?
These are my Fortune Makers for 2014:
Brisbane Broncos – Ben Barba
The Broncos had a horror run (by their standards) in 2013, and much has been made of the improvement they will make this year. Ben Barba is the biggest part of the off-season changes. We all know what Barba is capable of and for many fans his feats of 2012 rank among the best performances in recent history. If he fires then the Broncos will be a changed side and his momentum should easily carry them into the finals. However, if he doesn’t perform this season it could trigger a flurry of negative reactions at this proud club. The man with the most to sweat over early will be Anthony Griffin – the Broncos won’t accept another season of failure.
Canberra Raiders – Ricky Stuart
The Canberra Raiders had the worst off-season in their history last year, derailing any attempt at serious premiership contention. While still sporting a big, mobile forward pack and exciting young outside backs, the Raiders have gone into each of the last few years with promising squads only to fail to deliver. This failure to deliver ultimately cost Dave Furner his job. Enter Ricky Stuart. A renowned hard-ass, he will likely make the Raiders a fitter and meaner outfit. However, there are still significant doubts about his coaching ability – his stint at the Sharks was average, and he utterly failed to turn around the fortunes of the Eels. This will be a year for him to prove his abilities, but he has to hit the ground running. Long-suffering Raiders fans will be expecting him to turn this club around.
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs – James Graham
In this writer’s opinion, James Graham is one of the best assets the 2014 Bulldogs have. His 2012 season was dominant, and at his best the barely-comprehensible Englishman is as dangerous as any forward in the competition. He also puts in huge numbers for a prop when it comes to tackles, hit ups and metres made. In 2013 the Bulldogs were hurt early by his absence, as well as the absence of some other forwards, and they never really recovered. While it is fair to say the loss of Ben Barba also hurt the Dogs, the loss of this giant powerhouse definitely hurt them more. Graham needs to re-establish himself as a weapon in the first months of this season. If he does, the Dogs will reap the rewards.
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks – Steve Noyce
Put simply, the Sharks need to get their off-field affairs in order. With a $1 million fine looming over them for the ASADA scandal, the loss for this season of the head coach, the ongoing negative press about the club and ongoing severe financial pressures, the Sharks are without the proverbial paddle at the moment. Noyce is the most important person at the club because it seems impossible to imagine the Sharks being a threat with all this going on off the paddock. He needs to galvanise the club, fight the necessary ongoing battles with the NRL over ASADA sanctions and keep the debtors at bay to keep paying the bills. He has one of the hardest jobs in the NRL this season, and anything less than perfection will result in at best distraction, at worst collapse.
Gold Coast Titans – Aiden Sezer
Keen watchers of Rugby League would have seen the skills put on by Aiden Sezer last season and thought to themselves – correctly – this kid has talent. The Titans have some other talented players on the park and a rugby league wise-man as the coach, but it is hard to escape the thought that a lot of their success or otherwise this year will flow from Sezer. Sure, it would help if Dave Taylor found consistency, or if Ryan James kept improving. But Sezer’s combination with Albert Kelly will be the key to this season for the Titans, and Sezer is the organiser in that combination. I expect big things from him this season.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles – Daly Cherry-Evans
If Aiden Sezer is a young up-and-comer, then DCE is the young man already there. He was at the top of his game last year and almost led Manly to another premiership. His combination with Keiran Foran is great, but it is the way he leads the play around the park that makes him one of the most dangerous halves in the competition. So much of what he does on the park creates opportunities for others – his positional play, his kicking game and his vision are all phenomenal. I don’t think there is a single club that wouldn’t want him in their roster if they got the opportunity. Funnily enough, Manly’s fortunes may well depend on Origin selectors – it wouldn’t surprise me if DCE usurps Cooper Cronk as the Queensland halfback this season. Manly fans will be hoping he stays fit through that period.
Melbourne Storm – Ryan Hinchcliffe
Ryan Hinchcliffe may seem like an odd-choice in a team brimming with The Big Three, but that is exactly why he is so important to the Storm. An extremely consistent performer, Hinchcliffe has made a name for himself at Melbourne as a bench utility. He is the understudy to Cameron Smith, and regularly runs in the backrow or at lock. What makes Hinchcliffe so valuable is that he will fill key roles for Melbourne without detracting from the Storm’s highly structured style. Lose Cameron Smith? No worries, put in Hinchcliffe. Lose Ryan Hoffman? Don’t worry, Hinchcliffe. Hinchcliffe is the Mr. Fix It of the Melbourne side, meaning that they can lose any one of their star players and he will be ready. Further, his experience and skills will be vital to Melbourne during the Origin period.
Newcastle Knights – Kurt Gidley
The Newcastle Knights have a decent squad and a supercoach in Wayne Bennett, but for mine Kurt Gidley is the key man for the Knights. He is obviously talented and has made a career out of playing wherever Newcastle or NSW ask him to. However, with the final departure of Danny Buderus, the ultimate utility has a chance to nail down the number 9 jersey for the rest of his career. If he succeeds in this role, he will provide fantastic service to Mullen and co and go a long way towards steering the Knights to the finals and securing his own legacy as a Novocastrian. Failure to do so will derail Newcastle.
North Queensland Cowboys – Paul Green
The NQ Cowboys have for too long had an extremely talented roster without delivering any results. With the best half in the game in Jonathon Thurston, and a cornucopia of talented outside backs and bustling forwards, it’s hard to believe they haven’t at least made a grand final in the last five years. The fact they haven’t is ultimately what cost Neil Henry his job as head coach, and now the relatively untested Paul Green steps into the position. Is he the new Trent Robinson, inheriting a side packed with talent and expertly leading them to win a premiership? Or is a new Stephen Kearney, dragging the Cowboys down? Only time will tell here – but the fate of this season rests on his coaching.
Parramatta Eels – Chris Sandow
It would be easy to say Brad Arthur, Jarryd Hayne, Will Hopoate or any other number of people when it comes to being the fortune maker at the Eels, and to an extent they all have things to prove. But no one at the Eels has more to prove – or more left to give – than Chris Sandow. A 2008 Rookie of the Year and super-expensive signing for the Eels, if Sandow can get his act together he has the talent to lead the Eels out of the wilderness while saving his own career. The problem with Sandow, of course, is he has been dreadfully inconsistent. If he can lock down a halves spot and perform to his abilities, he will lead an Eels resurgence. But that’s a very big if. Without the best of him, the Eels will likely struggle again.
Penrith Panthers – Jamie Soward
In some ways, Jamie Soward is in a similar position to Chris Sandow – he has a lot left to prove. His career at the Dragons delivered a premiership and a NSW jersey, but also led to him essentially being booted from the club after fans turned on him and his poor performances. He may say he has nothing to prove – but to many fans of the game Soward is over-rated as a half and a poor signing for the Panthers. The 2014 season is a chance for him to prove his numerous doubters – including me – wrong. Do I think he can deliver results for the Mountain Men? No. But if he does the Panthers could well surprise.
South Sydney Rabbitohs – Adam Reynolds
Adam Reynolds is a very, very good halfback. He is playing at a very, very good club in the Rabbitohs. They have a very, very good coach in Michael Maguire. It is time those things deliver actual, tangible results. Reynolds is the key to this – he is their structure. The Bunnies clearly lose the plot a bit when he isn’t there. This season he needs to go to the next level and take the Bunnies to the Grand Final. Anything less than a Grand Final appearance for the myrtle-and-red will be a failure. Along the way, he can build his skills and confidence by gaining a NSW number 7 jersey. This could be the best year of Reynold’s life and he may bring his team along for the ride.
St. George-Illawarra Dragons – Kyle Stanley
For a few years, Kyle Stanley has been threatening to become the next big thing. Coaches, other players, commentators all rave about him. Then something happens to block his progress – usually an injury. Stanley has the potential to be anything, but he needs to start delivering on that potential. The Dragons have recruited and developed some classy halves and outside backs (Morris, Dugan, Williams, Quinlan, among others) and Stanley has to lock down a spot by performing. This selection pressure could see Stanley go supernova – and if he does, look out opposition. The Dragons will be hoping their patience with his injury-dramas pays off big-time this year.
Sydney Roosters – Mitchell Aubusson
The defending premiers have talent all over the park, and it is hard to identify one person to whom the fortunes may fall in this team. Someone like SBW is the obvious choice. But for all the obvious talent in players like SBW, Moloney and Jennings, there is a bloke like Mitchell Aubusson, grinding away doing the hard yards. One of the strengths of the Roosters last year was a dominant forward pack. The heart of that forward pack – and for mine their true motivation engine – is Mitchell Aubusson. This bloke never stops trying and will do anything asked of him as hard as he can. In a team full of stars this guy flies under the radar, but he is just as vital to their hopes as anyone.
New Zealand Warriors – Sam Tomkins
Talk about pressure – this guy comes into the NRL on an alleged $1 million a year, painted as the saviour of a team that has struggled for numerous seasons. He dislodges one of the local favourites from his fullback position. He has all of the UK thinking he is the best fullback in the world and waiting for him to prove it in the NRL. And this is all before he has even pulled a Warriors jersey on! Sam Tomkins may well be a great buy for the Warriors, but it is way too early to tell that. However, it’s quite clear that the Tomkins purchase will define the Warriors in 2014. I hope for their sake he delivers.
West Tigers – Luke Brooks
This young half played one game last year and caught the imagination of the league. The anointed replacement to the departed Benji Marshall, Brooks has big boots to fill. The rookie halfback has some good support in Robbie Farah, but beyond that still has what is very much a rebuilding squad. If Brooks fires his talent and youthful enthusiasm could restore the spark to the Tigers. So much of the Tigers season depends on how he goes… do you believe in fairy tales?
What do you think? Who are the 2014 Fortune Makers for your club?
Brenton Sloane is a freelance writer, in so much as he writes whenever he feels like it about whatever he wants and doesn’t get paid. When he’s not writing about Rugby League he has a blog on his many and varied musings at sloanethoughts.com You can also follow him on Twitter.