Heading in to every season there are many intriguing story lines and talking points. This season is no different.
Although we sometimes concentrate on what is happening off the field, we should remember that it’s is what the players are doing on the field that matters most.
Here are my top ten most intriguing players for 2014.
10. Remi Casty
You may think this is a strange pick but Casty has a very big role to play at the Roosters this season. He will be taking the place of Martin Kennedy and Luke O’Donnell in what was the best front-row rotation in the competition last year. Casty, a French international, is joining the Roosters from Catalans Dragons and is earmarked as a top flight front-rower. I am not 100% sure of Casty’s reputation. He went pretty well in the Super League but was fairly average in the World Cup, constantly losing his collisions over and over again. Maybe his World Cup performance was a true reflection of his quality, but perhaps playing with better players will help him raise his game. Either way he will be interesting to watch this season.
9. Chris Sandow
Since leaving South Sydney for Parramatta, Sandow has struggled on and off the field. It has been a real shame because when on form you will struggle to find a more exciting player to watch. Watching Sandow run out of the line to put a shot on a rampaging backrower is one of the most hilarious and exhilarating things you will see on a rugby league field. He is not just some kind of comedy character, he can really play. He has a great running game and an underrated kicking game. The signs from the Auckland Nines looked good, he looked switched on and ready to play. That can only be a good thing for Sandow, Parramatta and rugby league in general.
8. Will Hopoate
Hopoate left the game at the end of the 2011 season to fulfil some kind of religious mission that in all honesty doesn’t interest me. What does interest me is how he will play this season. When he left the game many people seemed to think that he was on the way to being the next great three-quarter. He played State Of Origin, scoring a try on debut, and was a part of Manly’s Grand Final winning side. It would be naïve to think that he will just slot back in to rugby league as if he has never been away. He is joining a Parramatta team that has won the wooden spoon for the last two seasons. There is some decent talent at the Eels but it’s certainly not the Manly team that he left.
7. Gareth Widdop
Widdop’s story as a rugby league player is interesting. He is unique to the other Englishmen that are currently plying their trade in the NRL because he never played for an English club. After emigrating to Australia as a teenager with his family, Widdop worked his way through the junior levels and is actually a product of the Victorian rugby league system. Since making his debut for the Melbourne Storm, Widdop has lived every young playmaker’s dream. Playing in the same side as Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater meant that the pressure was off him and he was just a supplementary piece. In 2014 everything changes. If the Dragons, who have paid him big money, are going to be successful then Widdop is going to have to be ’The Man’. It will be interesting to see if he has what it takes.
6. Jharal Yow Yeh
It was heartbreaking to watch a young player who was taking the game by storm suffer the injury that Yow Yeh suffered a couple of seasons ago. Yow Yeh was an Australian Kangaroo and Queensland Maroon winger when he suffered the horrific injury that took him out of the game for so long. Every player, coach, administrator and fan hopes that Yow Yeh can come back and be the same player that he was before the injury, but nobody can be sure until he does it.
5. Jamie Soward
Soward is a polarising figure amongst fans. Some love him, most hate him. Some of the criticism is justified but some of it is just vitriolic. It’s fair to say that he isn’t direct enough and that he should run the ball more, but he has still done pretty well in his career. His kicking game is very good and he has the speed to be a support option for any player that breaks the line. Whether he wants to admit or not, he has to prove that he deserves a starting spot at Penrith this season after a terrible drop off in form over the last couple of seasons. I think he will repay Penrith for their faith.
4. Ben Barba
Barba has probably been the most scrutinised player of the last couple of seasons, mainly due to his incredible 2012 season and his off-field problems in 2013. He has got his move to Brisbane to be closer to his children and we all hope he can return to his form of 2012. After watching him at the Auckland Nines he looked disinterested and a lot more like the Barba of 2013 than the Barba of 2012. Add in the uncertainty of what position he will play in 2014 and it could be another tumultuous year for Barba.
3. Ricky Stuart
Yes, I know that Ricky Stuart is a coach but this is without a doubt the most important year of his rugby league coaching career. He jumped ship on Parramatta after leading them to the wooden spoon and his record is less than impressive since he left the Roosters. He returns to the Raiders, where he is a legendary figure, looking to revive the green machine but the talent that was in Canberra at the start of last season is not there at the start of 2014. No Josh Dugan, No Blake Ferguson and a one-legged Terry Campese probably means more woes for the Raiders and more woes for Stuart.
2. Sam Tomkins
Tomkins has stepped out of his comfort zone at Wigan and is now officially in the big time. There will be no more five or six try afternoons against London Broncos, Wakefield or Widnes, from now on every game is a big game for Sam Tomkins. A lot is expected of Tomkins this season and it remains to be seen if he can live up to the hype. People need to realise that he is not Billy Slater and the clowns who have compared him to the Queensland fullback need to take a long hard look at themselves. I think signing for the Warriors was the best decision he could have made. The open style of play that they usually employ will make it easy for him to play off the likes of Shaun Johnson and Feleti Mateo. There will be questions about him under the high ball but I don’t think moving him to halves is the answer. He is way too fragile to be defending in the front line.
1. Luke Brooks
Since his great debut at the SCG against the Dragons in 2013 it seems that everybody is on the bandwagon. Everybody believes that Brooks is the next great halve. I think the talk is a little premature. I remember when people said similar things about Mitchell Pearce and Terry Campese. He has only played one NRL game and is replacing Benji Marshall as the Tigers’ chief playmaker. It’s not going to be easy for him and I hope the hype and pressure doesn’t get to him. Young Brooks certainly has a lot of talent and I have to admit he is the player that I am most looking forward to watching this season.