NRL: Best Five Buys of 2014

Will Hopoate

NRL – Best Five Buys of 2014

 

Maurice Blair (Melbourne Storm to Gold Coast Titans)

As the Titans embarked on their rebuilding year in 2013 the signs were good, a very promising young spine, fast men out wide, a mix of workhorses and impact men in the middle. However there was one gaping hole. Despite the best efforts of Brad Takairangi, the Titans looked delicate in defense and lacked fluidity in attack when venturing out on the left side. Maurice Blair has been purchased to plug that hole. Blair had something of a breakout season for Melbourne, scoring 10 tries in 18 games and fending off competition to cement a spot in the Melbourne backline. He also slotted seamlessly into the Melbourne line up at five eighth when called upon. During his stints in the halves Blair has also displayed a deceptively effective passing game and a competent kicking game.

The passing in particular will help Titans left winger Kevin Gordon who thrives off space. While he’ll be far from the Titans most important player, he could be the missing piece in the puzzle. The Titans have been knocking on the door of the eight for a few seasons now and a bit more firepower in the backline might give them the extra edge they crave. With the purchase of Blair, the Titans find themselves with what could be their best ever backline in the clubs short history. Can Blair make a real difference to the Titans team? Yes. Will it be through individual brilliance? Maybe, maybe not. However he will make the Titans a more balanced side and gives them more options in attack and solidity in defense.

 

Will Hopoate (Unassigned to Parramatta Eels)

Will Hopoate doesn’t arrive at Parramatta under normal circumstances. It’s not very often that a club with two consecutive wooden spoons signs a 21 year old premiership winning, state of origin superstar so perhaps it’s not surprising that it isn’t your average transfer. Having played for …. In 20….Hopoate has spent the past two years on a Mormon mission and there are doubts that he can slip back into the NRL as if nothings happened. In contrast to a lot of young stars he possesses great versatility. He can play fullback, wing or centre all to a more than satisfactory level. Incoming eels coach Brad Arthur has already made it clear that Hopoate will be used in the centres. No longer having the luxury of running off Kieran Foran, Daly Cherry Evans and the Stewart brothers will certainly test his game and the supporting cast at the Eels will be a huge drop in class.

While it’s unjust to heap pressure on a player who’s been out of the game for two years, Hopoate’s hefty pay packet is rumored to be as high as $800 000 a year. This eats up a fair portion of Parramatta’s salary cap, which in turn puts heavy expectation on Hopoate to justify that price tag by reaffirming himself as one of Rugby Leagues brightest young talents. 2014 for Will Hopoate is about helping lift the Eels off the bottom of the table and showing the rugby league world that he’s still got it.

 

Gareth Widdop (Melbourne Storm to St George Illawarra Dragons)

A move to the Dragons gives Gareth Widdop the chance to step out of the shadow of Melbourne’s ‘big three’ and attempt to assert himself as one of the NRL’s best playmakers. The England international picked up 3 tries and 9 assists in 15 regular season matches for Melbourne last year and will be expected to build on those numbers in 2014. In contrast to his time at Melbourne where he could sit back a little and pick his moments to impact the game, at the Dragon’s he’ll need to orchestrate the attack and take the game by its throat. He’ll also do the majority of ball playing and general play kicking with recent revelations that Kyle Stanley is set to play halfback for the Dragons and he isn’t exactly a noted playmaker.

Widdop isn’t primarily known for his kicking game or his passing game but will need to use both heavily if Stanley occupies the no7 jersey. Whereas if they went for a more traditional option and played new recruit Sam Williams it would allow coach Steve Price to further utilize Widdop’s best asset, his running game. Playing as a dominant half may prevent Widdop from predominantly using his running game to break down defenses but it also gives him the chance to take his game to another level. Revitalizing the Dragons attack is challenge for any player and if Widdop can accomplish that, the Dragons have found someone special.

 

Sam Tomkins (Wigan Warriors to New Zealand Warriors)

When speculation began that the ‘English Billy Slater’ could be on his way to the NRL, Sam Tomkins divided opinions like few others. He then had a superb world cup that turned out to present more questions than it answered. 7 try assists silenced any doubts of his creativity but failing to score a try himself raised some fresh uncertainties. Questions have been raised over the defensive aspects of his game and whether he has the physical attributes to mix it with the best in the NRL. His super league stats from last season are absolutely phenomenal, 23 tries, 21 assists, 112 tackle breaks and 24 line breaks. While it’s close to impossible for him to mirror those in the NRL it does go some way to demonstrating the sheer attacking talent he possesses.

Despite the presence of New Zealand fullback Kevin Locke it’s assumed Tomkins will go straight in as first choice fullback leaving Kevin resigned to the wing or finding another club. There has been recent speculation suggesting Sam Tomkins could shift to five eighth to accommodate Locke, however at this point speculation is all it is. The Warriors quick and unpredictable style will give Tomkins the perfect environment to display his ability in broken play situations. Kevin Locke also had a lot of success running the sweeping role in a second man play as most fullbacks do. Throughout the world cup Tomkins showed he’s no stranger to the second man play as he made putting his outside backs into space look easy. Tomkins wasn’t only bought for excitement though, when you buy a player of the caliber of Tomkins you expect results. Since the 2011 Grand Final the Warriors have looked threatening but never exhibited the consistency needed to mix it with the NRLs top teams, let alone make the eight. First and foremost he needs to help the Warriors win games and perform with the week in week out consistency that the Warriors so badly need.

 

Ben Barba (Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs to Brisbane Broncos)

When reports first surfaced of Barba possibly moving to the Broncos, they were laughed off. Why would the 2012 Dally M medalist Ben Barba possibly move away from the club where he’s made a name for himself to the besieged Broncos? Well it turned out that he’s meteoric rise to fame was a two way street. He crashed back down in a catastrophic manner and shocked the NRL as he went from poster boy to yet another young star making bad decisions and struggling off the field. His off field incidents seemed to be linked to his divorce from his wife, with whom he had two children. As the rest of his family expressed their desire to move up north to Brisbane it became more and more apparent that Ben Barba would follow suite. It’s impossible to know what really went on with Ben Barba but what’s most important is that he came out the other side. Enough about off the field, what can he bring to the Broncos on the field? Everything they need. Everything Brisbane is severely lacking at the moment, Barba has. Genuine pace, X factor, unpredictability in attack, star quality (in the backs at least) and most of all being able to score tries at will. Barba’s just what the Broncos have been crying out for and will be welcomed with open arms.

That’s not to say he’ll have it easy though, the NRL didn’t exactly do Barba any favours by giving him the toughest initiation he could ask for. A round 1 match at ANZ, against you guessed it, his former club the Bulldogs. It’s a clear promotion stunt but you could argue over double standards after Ricky Stuart somehow wriggled his way out of a visit to Parramatta. At the Bulldogs Barba often looked at his most dangerous when running off the shoulder of one of his offloading forwards and using that blinding acceleration of his to go flying through the line. With forwards like Thaiday, Glenn and in particular Corey Parker at the Broncos it won’t be a facet of his game he’ll have to readjust. Parkers been offloading for fun in 2013 and will be lethal with Barba running off him. Barba is the perfect fit for the Broncos and even if he doesn’t arrive in the context they might have hoped for, it’s a huge acquisition for the club. If Brisbane want success, Barba’s the man to bring it.