Holden Cup Player Guide
It has been the launching pad for many NRL superstars and with the 2016 Holden Cup season set to kick-off, here are the best prospects at your club leading into Round 1.
Brisbane Broncos – Tevita Pangai Jr
The Broncos have swooped on the cusp of the new season by signing highly coveted Tevita Pangai Jr from the Raiders. The 20-year-old has been named in jersey 18 for this week's NYC season opener, but don't be surprised to see him named in the final 17 on Thursday night. Pangai is a destructive runner of the ball with a passion for second phase footy. His numbers in 2015 were the stuff of legend, scoring 10 tries in 17 appearances, averaging 150 metres a game, and throwing a whopping 75 offloads throughout the season. Look for him to terrorise opposition halves defending on the fringes.
Canterbury Bulldogs – Reimis Smith
Reimis Smith joins the Bulldogs after spending last year at local-rivals the Parramatta Eels. The winger crossed for 15 tries in the 2015 Holden Cup, and joins a Canterbury side desperate to play finals footy again. His combination with centre Jayden Okunbor could be fun to watch, with the dreadlocked big man capable of creating opportunities for his outside men.
Canberra Raiders - Lachlan Croker
The new Canberra skipper is coming off a tremendous 2015 NYC season that saw him earn a call-up to the Green Machine's Auckland Nines squad. The 19-year-old is the nephew of club great Jason Croker and the Raiders halfback will be hoping to make his NRL debut in the coming years. Croker scored seven tries and kicked 29 goals in just nine games last year, highlighted by a hat-trick and seven conversions in Canberra's 46-18 win over Gold Coast.
Cronulla Sharks – Jayden Brailey
Entering his third season in the NYC, Jayden Brailey has been rewarded by new coach John Morris, named the club's new skipper. The workaholic hooker is incredibly one of three Jaydens in the Round 1 squad to take on the Cowboys. After sharing the hooking roles for the first five rounds last year, Brailey developed into an 80-minute player for the Sharks, making 878 tackles for the season. The former Australian Schoolboy scored eight tries last season and will learn plenty from first-grade rake Michael Ennis.
Gold Coast Titans – Jed Cartwright
After an impressive season in the centres, Jed Cartwright is poised to move into the back row for the Titans in 2016. Having bulked up to 104kg, the son of former Gold Coast coach John Cartwright could be even more destructive as he moves closer to the action. The 19-year-old Warragamba Wombats junior scored eight tries last season, and averaged just shy of 132 metres per game. It'll be interesting to see how the increased workload affects his output in 2016.
Manly Sea Eagles – Darcy Cox
Last year's beaten grand finalists will head into 2016 without Tom Trbojevic, Addison Demetriou, Liam Knight and Hugh Pratt. Replacing the star quartet will be impossible, but new skipper Darcy Cox is excited about the challenge. After spending parts of 2015 at lock, the Ourimbah junior has been named at prop for the Round 1 clash with Canterbury. The Sea Eagle was a workhorse in defence last year, making 895 tackles from 25 appearances. His experience up front could provide plenty of space for the classy halves pairing of Nicholas Hynes and Hutana Coffin.
Melbourne Storm – Scott Drinkwater
There are high expectations for Scott Drinkwater, the man touted as Cooper Cronk's long term replacement. Having starred at Schoolboys level for Terrigal High, Drinkwater was one of the most sought halves at the end of 2015, eventually deciding to link up with the Storm. Drinkwater will play alongside fellow teen sensation Brodie Croft, with the pair seen as the future of the club along with Cameron Munster and exciting centre Curtis Scott.
Newcastle Knights – Jack Cogger
Newcastle fans should be excited about their club's future with players like Jack Cogger coming through the system. The 18-year-old penned a new three-year deal last year that will see him at the club until the end of 2018. After getting a taste of NYC in 2014, the Newcastle halfback excelled in 2015, leading his side around the park with aplomb. The 2014 Australian Schoolboys representative has been named the club's skipper for 2016, and will be one to watch as the season progresses.
North Queensland Cowboys – Gideon Gela-Mosby
You know you're going to be a player to watch when you score 39 tries in a single season. The North Queensland winger achieved the incredible feat in only 22 games last year, scoring four tries on four occasions, including the semi final win over Brisbane. The winger capped off a terrific season by earning a spot in the Auckland Nines squad, where he unsurprisingly scored six tries across the two day tournament. The Cowboys will be disappointed with the way they finished 2015, and after retaining the services of Gela-Mosby, as well as flashy fullback Kalyn Ponga and back-rower Coen Hess, should be one of the teams to beat this year.
Junior Warriors – Ofahiki Ogden
The perennial NYC premiership favourites will start 2016 with nine debutants for their clash with the Wests Tigers on Saturday. Ofahiki Ogden will lead the side in 2016, with only two other players from last year's preliminary final named for the Round 1 fixture. Ogden had a solid start to 2015, with his numbers significantly increasing as the season wore on. Having averaged over 150 metres and nearly 30 tackles in his final five matches, the back-rower will need to lift his game to even greater heights in 2016.
Parramatta Eels– Atini Gafa
With four of their top five leading try scorers moving on after the 2015 season, the pressure is on winger Atini Gafa to lead a youthful Parramatta backline. Gafa led the Eels with 16 tries last season, headlined by a four try haul in Round 6, and another hat-trick in the Round 25 win over Cronulla. Having played the bulk of 2015 in the NYC, Gafa could be in line to make his debut in the revamped Intrust Super Premiership later in the year.
Penrith Panthers – Nathan Cleary
The defending premiers will head into the new season with the clear ambition of going back-to-back. Blessed with the strike power of Robert Jennings out wide, as well as a brutish forward pack playing in front of him, Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary is a lucky man. The son of former coach Ivan Cleary missed out on last year's NYC grand final while on Australian Schoolboys duty. While he didn't make his debut until Round 16 last year, Cleary made an immediate impact in the NYC, kicking 10 goals and scoring a try in just his third match. He looked a cut above in 2015, controlling the game with ease, and should be a standout this season.
South Sydney Rabbitohs – Brock Gray
Brock Gray is hungry to play in the NRL, especially after seeing his older brother Aaron make his first-grade debut last year. The 19-year-old will start at lock on Sunday afternoon and knows several impressive performances could be enough to help him achieve his goal of one day lining up alongside his brother. Gray featured in the Charity Shield as part of an extended bench, and was close to an NRL debut last season as cover for the injured Glenn Stewart. Entering his third season in the under-20s competition, 2016 could be a huge year for the Mascot Jets junior.
St George-Illawarra Dragons – Matt Dufty
Matt Dufty enters his third season in the NYC as one of the senior heads in a relatively inexperienced Holden Cup squad. Dufty has impressed at fullback for the Dragons, scoring 11 tries from 19 appearances last year. The 20-year-old played for NSW in the 2014 Under-18 State of Origin series, and wore the Red V at this year's Auckland Nines. Dufty is a busy player who supports his forwards well, but expect him to increase his ball playing in 2016.
Sydney Roosters – Nat Butcher
The Roosters will head into 2016 as one of the favourites to take out the Holden Cup. Coach Anthony Barnes is blessed with several big names from last year's campaign, including Shaq Mitchell, Johnny Tuivasa-Sheck and Joseph Manu. But if there's one player to keep an eye out for, it's Nat Butcher. The 18-year-old is a natural born leader, and has a CV the envy of most established first-graders. The former Australia Schoolboy has played six Tests for Australia, five games for NSW in Junior State of Origin, and played at this year's Auckland Nines. The lock forward averaged nearly 40 tackles in the NYC last year and ran for nearly 150 metres per game. Capable of churning out big minutes, Butcher looks destined to be an NRL star of the future.
Wests Tigers – Obed Karwhin
Obed Karwhin was one of the best stories in last year's Holden Cup. Born in the Ivory Coast, Karwhin had no problems making it in rugby league, scoring a hat-trick in his NYC debut against the Bulldogs. The towering left winger finished 2015 with 22 tries from just 16 appearances, and according to club officials, has matured both physically and mentally ahead of the new under-20s season.