We all know that it acts as a breeding ground to groom and mature young players into the players that they have to become in order to play first-grade, or, alternatively, it can act as a place where veteran players returning to the NRL bide their time until an opening at a club side forms.
Yes, it’s the NSW Cup. A relatively strong competition with a lot of closely contested games, the NSW Cup is full of players that have played first-grade but aren’t quite able to crack the team for whatever reason.
This week’s editorial (all of which, as usual, is based on my opinion) will be the best 17 players from the NSW Cup that have played first-grade, though are not currently in first-grade.
A lot of players will be left out but with just 17 positions to fill, it’s quite hard to narrow it down. Without further adieu, here is that team:
1. Nathan Gardner (Cronulla) – Injury has been cruel to him over the last year or so and at times, he can probably count himself unlucky that he hasn’t seen more first-grade, particularly this year. With fullback his primary position, playing first-grade is unlikely, especially when you have an elite fullback in Michael Gordon in front of you. Is the wing an option I hear you ask? Some say he’s too small for the wing but when judged on talent, he probably should be playing first-grade somewhere.
2. Glen Fisiiahi (Auckland Vulcans) – A naturally gifted player able to fill in numerous positions across the back-line, the man they call ‘The Fish’ is probably unlucky to not be playing first-grade. He’s had a sniff and at times, a prolonged one that, but as Kevin Locke and Manu Vatuvei make the fullback and wing spots their own & with the emergence of Warriors youngster Ngani Laumape, getting into the side isn’t easy. Personally, I think he might be closer to a first-grade recall if some things don’t improve.
3. Maurice Blair (Cronulla/Storm) – Blair is about as versatile as they come when it comes to rugby league, able to fill in at roughly 5/6 positions when required. His time usually comes when the Storm require players in first-grade due to the Origin period, but is he the sort of player that should be in first-grade more often? With the departure of Gareth Widdop from the Storm next season, there’s a very real possibility that Blair could be the long-term five-eighth, presuming of course he is re-signed by the club.
4. Konrad Hurrell (Auckland Vulcans) – They call him ‘The Hurrellicane’ and with good reason, given the ease at which he bulldozes over opposition defences almost at will. What perhaps does not go in his favour, however, hence the reason he was demoted to the Vulcans side, is that he isn’t clinical enough. With the power and strength he possesses, it is his finishing that leaves a lot to be desired, as well as a poor set of hands when it matters most. With that said, when at his best, Hurrell is another player that really, should be in first-grade.
5. Cheyse Blair (Wentworthville Magpies) – In and out of first-grade at the moment due to varying injuries or youngsters getting a crack, Blair is another player that when in form, can be a handy player to have in your back-line. Possessing solid upper body strength, he acts as a good player to take the load off of the forwards in tough situations. What goes against him, however, is often a bad attitude and approach to footy, as well as a rather poor defensive technique – one that sees him often criticised by fans, for not being able to make routine tackles. Making the side won’t get any easier next year, either, especially with Will Hopoate headed to the Eels.
6. Brett Finch (Cronulla/Storm) – Finch is a veteran of the game having been around for years and playing for no fewer than 4 NRL sides, yet with Widdop’s emergence as a young half, he’s been unable to make first-grade. He has the sort of experience that any team would love to have in their side and he isn’t getting any younger, so you have to wonder whether or not he’ll make a decision to stick around in the NRL for a few years, or play out his career in the NSW Cup.
7. Josh Drinkwater (Illawarra Cutters) – Ask any Dragons fan and they want this young kid in first-grade side, ASAP. He’s had a taste of the NRL, albeit a very, very small one, and with the talent that he exudes and possesses, really, he should be playing more footy in first-grade. One of the best players in the NYC competition last year for Manly, he made a move to the Cutters and has been playing well in the NSW Cup. With the likelihood that current Dragons halfback Nathan Fien won’t be re-signed, will it be Drinkwater’s time to shine next year?
8. Sam Mataora (Mounties)- At one stage, he was playing first-grade consistently. Fast forward to the present day and he finds himself in the NSW Cup consistently. With a few injuries here and there at Raiders HQ, one would be surprised that he perhaps hasn’t seen as much opportunity in first-grade as we’d have thought. Big but mobile, Mataora, when on song, can be a destructive prop forward, one that can change the game. He can, however, be inconsistent. More often than not, that costs him a game in first-grade.
9. Masada Iosefa (Balmain Tigers) – Iosefa finds himself in the unfortunate predicament whereby at first-grade level, you have an elite hooker in Robbie Farah standing in your way. Realistically, given Farah is an 80 minute player, the only first-grade he’ll see is during the Origin period. With that said, he does have his critics, with some of the belief that he isn’t quite up to scratch at NRL level, despite some solid performances over the years for his respective NRL sides.
10. Lama Tasi (Newtown Jets) – A talented prop forward with a burning desire to run hard, hit hard and play hard, Tasi has found himself in the NSW Cup for some time, especially under new Roosters coach Trent Robinson. Of course, usurping talented forwards like Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sam Moa is never easy, but Tasi has the talent to be playing first-grade consistently. With that said, he’s a key forward in the Newtown cog, one of the most experience in the entire side.
11. Sebastine Ikahihifo (Auckland Vulcans) – With a lot of talented back-rowers, the competition for first-grade spots at the Warriors is intense. With a player like Ikahihifo waiting in the wings, however, who not only impressed in trials but for most of his career so far, it’s a surprise in my view, that he isn’t playing first-grade. Perhaps with Elijah Taylor’s departure next season, a spot opens up to allow the talented back-rower the chance to prove his worth in the NRL as an upcoming forward.
12. Atelea Vea (Illawarra Cutters) – By no means is Vea a world-beater nor a superstar at NRL level, but what he offers to a club, any club, is a player that will give it his all for as long as he’s on the field. Noted for wearing headgear during games, Vea gets stuck in and does what is required of him on a regular basis. He’s the sort of forward that is handy to have in your depth stocks, knowing full well that you can expect 100% from him every game.
13. Pat O’Hanlon (Wentworthville Magpies) – In my view, and this is putting any Eels bias aside, Paddy O is perhaps the player that is the most unlucky to not be playing first-grade. Given an opportunity under Kearney’s reign, he’s yet to see NRL action under Ricky Stuart, despite being one of the best forwards so far this season in the NSW Cup not only for Wentworthville, but across the board. With many fans calling for some Eels back-rowers to be shifted away from the first-grade side, will that be Paddy’s turn to shine and perform?
14. Shane Shackleton (Mounties) – He may have been unable to find an NRL club, but the Shack Attack has found a home at the Mounties football club, as he awaits a potential NRL offer. Things looked promising for Shackleton when he joined the Parramatta Eels a few years back, but a horror hamstring injury that ruled him out long-term, stopped his current development and thus ruled out any chance of being signed. Shackleton is a player that is too good for the NSW Cup, so it should only be a matter of time before he’s recruited by an NRL club.
15. Mark Nicholls (Mounties) – Recently re-signing with the Canberra Raiders, Nicholls still finds himself playing in the NSW Cup for Mounties, but does fill in at times in first-grade when required. Not a superstar player by any means, Nicholls is a toiler and the sort of player that all clubs need in their organisation. He’s committed, works hard, plays hard and loves his footy. Offers good forward versatility also, with the ability to play both front-row and back-row.
16. Blake Austin (Windsor Wolves) – Another player in and out of first-grade, though his latest setback has come as a result of injury. Out for a while due to said injury, when he’s fit and raring to go, many Panthers fans would be expecting to see Austin return to the side. He’s another player that offers tremendous versatility, able to cover a couple of spots in the halves as well as the back-row and at lock. Still only young and with a bright future ahead of him, Austin is a player to keep an eye on for the future.
17. Matt Hilder (Newcastle) – At one stage, he was a mainstay in the Newcastle first-grade side – but that was before Danny Buderus made his return to the NRL. Since then, Hilder’s first-grade games have been limited and with captain Kurt Gidley fulfilling the hooker role in Buderus’ absence, and with Wayne Bennett putting more faith in youngster Travis Waddell, Hilder finds himself in the NSW Cup, currently filling in at lock due to his solid defence. Perhaps in time, once Buderus retires, Hilder can once again make that spot his own.
So, that’s the end of this editorial – the best 17 players playing in the NSW Cup that have played first-grade at some stage.
Again, to re-iterate, it’s all my view and the players that I view as the best 17. If you agree or disagree, let me know.