The British invasion with the most welcome innovation of a Super League match at Wollongong and the subsequent World Club Challenge has thrown the English game into the spotlight Down Under. As the Australian pre-season builds up to the March 8 NRL kick off let’s turn the focus onto the English players gracing our rugby league stage. There’s a mix of battle hardened troops, a new comer with disastrous luck, a couple at the cross roads and some out and out champions looking to inspire their teams as they mount an assault on the NRL summit. We begin with the bad news about a debutant who was hoping to charm Wayne Bennett, not an easy task.
Andre Savelio – Brisbane Broncos
Had a great opportunity to make a mark at the Broncos as the classy backrower was seeking to cash in on a Broncos pack in transition. Upheaval in the forwards with Herman Ese’ese and Jai Arrow moving on gave Savelio the chance to impress in the pre-season and force his way at the very least onto the bench. Unfortunately a torn ACL in his first trial for the Broncos has abruptly ended his season before it even began. Savelio is a real talent that could thrive in the NRL under the tutelage of the master coach Bennett who wouldn’t have brought him over if he didn’t think he was worth a shot. The new Bronco has to mentally realign, get stuck into rehab and when he gets another crack, go for it hoping luck is on his side.
Josh Hodgson – Canberra Raiders
Rehabilitation is obviously the focus after Hodgson’s ACL injury against Tonga in the World Cup and a comeback the month before the finals the target. The Raiders just have to stay in the hunt for the finals and a fit and firing Hodgson could be the wildcard up the Raiders sleeve that aces the chasing pack. The Green Machine will have worked out a way to play without Hodgson so he’ll be looking to return fitting into that system without upsetting it. Hodgson’s dummy half scoots, excellent kicking both short and long, and canny ball playing can unlock any NRL defence, the key for him is to not over play his hand.
Elliott Whitehead – Canberra Raiders
Finished the season at lock forward and we’re yet to gauge whether Ricky Stuart will play him in the middle or on the right edge where he formed such a lethal threat as his sweet hands unleashed Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana. Joseph Tapine’s rise could keep Whitehead in the middle third. Whitehead is a coach’s dream as his ability to play 80 minutes and produce quality combined with quantity is excellent. His workload and durability make him dependable and indispensable. Whitehead is class and his offloading in the centre could get the second phase play going that was lacking last year as the Green Machine spluttered.
Joe Greenwood – Gold Coast Titans
After an encouraging debut season this is Greenwood’s year to stake a claim on the Glitter Strip or his NRL dreams may turn to dust. The newly arrived backrower Bryce Cartwright instead of undermining Greenwood could strengthen his position as Cartwright is so off the cuff, Titans coach Garth Brennan will need players like Greenwood to do their assigned task keeping the structure of the side. Greenwood is a big body who can physically match it with the big boys of the NRL he just needs to improve his speed and flexibility and he could do some damage. Training hard, impressing in the trials while winning over the new coach will be Greenwood’s first port of call.
Chris Heighington – Newcastle Knights
The Peter Pan of the NRL is going around again and will be assigned very simple job by Nathan Brown: come off the bench and just rip in for 20 minutes a game. Failure to match it with the youngsters (anyone under 34 to Chris) and he’ll get hooked. Heighington is fit, experienced, tough and a great team player to have around a club, a major reason Brown brought him to the Hunter. The beauty of a player who’s survived over 300 games in the NRL furnace is he’s been in every situation imaginable and in the heat of the moment will know what to do and that memory bank is invaluable.
Gareth Widdop – St George Illawarra Dragons
The NRL five-eighth of the year now has back up in Ben Hunt but Widdop is still the gun who’ll pull the trigger in the big plays. The benefit of Hunt is it frees Widdop up, so he isn’t trying to produce the big play on every set allowing him to inject his speed or special play at his whim. Hopefully he’ll stay fit as if he delivers the magic of last season consistently and finds harmony with Hunt it’s onwards and upwards for the Dragons which means playoff footy! There is pressure but Widdop won’t wilt he is a genuine genius.
James Graham – St George Illawarra Dragons
A Saint again! Graham joins the Red V and will revel in leading the pack on and off the field. Tyson Frizzell has already commented on the boost he’s given them as he trains as hard as he plays and not only drives himself but those around to give their best and then some! Graham’s leadership combined with his toughness and skill all wrapped up in the most competitive body in the competition completes the package. Graham’s silky ball skills add another playmaking dimension to complement Gareth Widdop and Ben Hunt. Graham, the world largest halfback in disguise, is not getting any younger but this old warhorse is too proud to let the young show ponies of the NRL get the better of him.
George Burgess – South Sydney Rabbitohs
A massive year for George after a woeful 2016 he improved marginally last season but still unable to recapture that 2014 premiership winning form. If he can hang onto the pill, a big ask I know, Burgess has the frame and the footwork to get the Rabbitohs rolling most likely from the interchange bench. New coach Anthony Seibold will need to see a big opening month or Big George could be saying sayonara to Souths and Reg the Rabbit to become a Reggie Reserve with the North Sydney Bears, Souths feeder club. A solid pre-season could bring bigger minutes and see this battering Burgess bowling opponents over like ten pins or he may continue his downward spiral leaving himself a 7-10 split. Choose your own adventure George. I’m backing a strike.
Tom Burgess – South Sydney Rabbitohs
A very good 2017 ending in a World Cup Final appearance, Tom now needs to not only back it up but go up a level. He ran with purpose all season long from round one through to the RLWC Final and if he can cut out the handling errors that seem to curse the twins, he will be extremely hard to stop. Tom was always in the shadow of twin brother George until he raised his game as George’s dipped. Tom’s consistency of performance improved as his confidence grew. Keeping the ruck tight with improved mobility, while adding a few more offloads are needed to complete his game and get the Rabbitohs backline smoking.
Sam Burgess – South Sydney Rabbitohs
One of the NRL’s elite, Slammin’ Sam gives absolute quality every minute of every game. His last hit up is as strong as his first, ditto with his defence. Sam Burgess must be a beast in the gym as he has to be the fittest bloke in the game (Jarryd Hayne, take note). Burgess is the talisman inspiring the Bunnies around him to match his effort and output. Finding his way over the stripe is one area Sam needs to improve on, previously a regular try scorer he struggled to nab four pointers last year. Having the three Burgess bro’s in the side mean Souths require big season’s from all to bounce back into the finals but most of that pressure falls on Sam as the leader of the pack but that’s the NRL. He’s done it before, can Sam do it again?
Chris McQueen – Wests Tigers
After an injury ravaged year on the Gold Coast, McQueen has scored a fresh start at the revamped Tigers. McQueen is a good hole runner with decent pace and his experience and representative honour class will make him an automatic choice in Ivan Cleary’s first XIII. His speed and durability will come under scrutiny after a long layoff but if fit he should flourish. Having McQueen on one edge and Chris Lawrence on the other, both ex-centres, the Tigers may throw the ball around a bit. Confidence may be an issue as his best football may be past him though he and Wests Tigers fans hope he can go some way to regaining the form that won him a spot in the Origin and Test arena.