Welcome to the first instalment of Rookie Watch for the upcoming 2023 seasons across junior representative rugby league and the three major senior grades. Today we start with the two U19 competitions in the SG Ball and the Tarsha Gale where I have picked out a handful of players to keep an eye on.
I would like to stress that this is clearly far from an exhaustive dive into both squads and there could very well be critical contributions next year from players not covered. On top of that there are so many new faces to get to know that I simply can’t do them justice right now. From interstate signings like Kyen Murphy and the towering Lebron Tuala to an influx of Parramatta district talent who have each earned a shot at the elite pathways.
In Part 2 I will explore the key players in the NSW Cup, NRLW Development Squad and the Jersey Flegg Cup to watch next year. Notably, I have elected to forgo scouting the Harold Matthews squad on account of the significant roster churn but I do look forward to uncovering the identity of the team next year.
As always, I remind fans to stop and consider before they comment when it comes to the young men and women of the junior representative pathways. You may find that I lavish praise too strongly or don’t criticise pointedly enough (and that may well be true) but it is not for me to tear down any young man or woman chasing their rugby league dream.
The Arthur surname is a heavy burden in the Parramatta pathways. Jake Arthur has been graded extremely harshly among fans for a 19-year-old half and unfortunately, I expect Matt Arthur to be treated the same. Thankfully he is a chip off the old block and is every bit as tough as his old man. That toughness is a vital part of his position of choice as well given the rigours asked of a dummy half in the modern game.
As you often see with sons of NRL coaches, Matt is a highly polished prospect respective to his age group. His service is crisp from the ground, he is plenty capable of stepping out of dummy half and driving the ball downfield while he often creates scoring opportunities in the red zone for his big men. Above all he is vocal. He is comfortable barking orders to his team mates and like any quality dummy half – revels in the verbal and mental battles on the field.
As with his elder brother, Matt is insanely fit having participated in the aerobic conditioning portions of multiple NRL preseasons. Obviously, this serves him extremely well on the field but means he is also forearmed with the knowledge of the physical standards professional footballers are held to. That is one of the burning questions facing every would be NRL rookie and plenty have flamed out when it is asked of them.
Whereas Jake is still growing into a rangier frame and is dealing with all the pros and cons that comes with that, Matt is much more compact. I think it will be easier for him to reach his peak physical profile and in turn he also projects comfortably into the physical architype of a modern dummy half.
Dom De Stradis
Dom De Stradis is the kind of player I can’t help but love as a fan and a former player. He brings the energy, the work rate and the hustle to every game. He sells out every set running tights lines and busts his backside off-the-ball. Typically these are your glue guys. The ones that hold the team together with their commitment to the team and the game plan. You love them, you need them but often they don’t grade out as ones to watch at higher levels of play.
With Dom though there are enough flashes of just a little something to warrant at least a bit of consideration. The odd explosive right foot step off a supporting line or a well-timed kick chase for a grubber. Individually moments that might be considered good but not great but moments nonetheless that add up when you look back.
At the very least I trust that he will a strong and reliable contributor to the SG Ball in 2023 but maybe…just maybe he can take the step further.
It isn’t easy playing in the shadow of an extremely talented elder sibling in rugby league. When your big brother is starring in deep playoff pushes and on the international stage for Tonga the shadow doesn’t get that much larger or longer. Yet, 2022 was a good year for Richard Penisini. The Eels struggled with cohesion and consistency in the Harold Matthews but his raw athleticism shone through both under the high ball and in his ability to win 1-on-1s and 2-on-2s out wide.
The duality of backline talent in the NRL is in an oddly polarising situation. On the one hand it has never been easier to plug and play new young outside backs into a first-grade backline. On the other, premium centres and wingers are becoming increasingly sparse as talented young outside backs increasingly gravitate to fullback in development pathways. Will Penisini is something of a positive outlier in this regard. It remains to be seen if Richard will be the same but there are certainly reasons to believe that he will make a long and legitimate push through Parramatta’s pathways.
Blaize Talagi might be the most interesting and most difficult prospect to project in Parramatta’s pathways. In 2021 he starred in the Harold Matthews in the #6 as the junior halves partner to Ethan Sanders. He was given the reins to the Matts team this year and couldn’t quite replicate the highs of the year prior. Concerns of regression were understandable but Talagi finished the year in a *cough* blaze as he lit up the Australian Secondary Schools Rugby League Championships ultimately earning selection in the 2022 Australian Schoolboys Team.
He is as rugged a defender in the halves as I have seen in the age group and is comparable to Dylan Brown in that regard. Like Dylan he shines as a ball runner more so than the two other facets of playmaking and the rawness of his ball playing and kicking game open up discussion as to where his best position lies in the long term. Lock is a popular suggestion here. The rise of smaller, dynamic ball playing middles certainly jives well with Talagi’s talents and he absolutely has the toughness for the role. With that said I am curious to see how much polish Blaize himself can apply to his skillset at five-eighth in the next year or two.
Big motors and big impact aren’t mutually exclusive in junior representative rugby league but they don’t always go hand-in-hand. Sam Tuivati is a young bull that possesses both in an equally big frame. Tuivati wowed in 2021 in his junior year of the Harold Matthews as a starting bookend and built on that effort in 2022 with selection in the 2022 Australian Schoolboys Team.
The young bookend has the internal accolades to match after scooping Players’ Player and Best & Fairest in the Harold Matthews as well as the Phil Carey Memorial Award for the best player in the Parramatta Junior District. Few young props are as well rounded as big Sam and even as a first-year member of the SG Ball in 2023 I expect him to feature prominently.
Roster mirroring is a practice you usually find between first and second-string rosters in order to minimise disruptions with like-for-like replacements. Be it coincidence, or a wry sense of humour from the footy gods, a curious case of roster mirroring between the NRL and Tarsha Gale in the front row occurred this year.
Ruby-Jean Kennard, Parramatta’s first ever Tarsha Gale-to-NRLW graduate, bears a strikingly similar athletic profile to Reagan Campbell-Gillard with the two bookends trending to the taller, leaner subset of prop forward. Her running mate and topic of discussion Petalina Atoa of course matches up closely with Junior Paulo with the stockier, explosive build. Just as ‘Reg’ and ‘Junez’ ran amok in the NRL this year, so too did Ruby-Jean and Petalina in the Tarsha Gale.
Ruby-Jean the relentless go-forward machine and Atoa the tackle-busting wrecking ball with an offload. It will fall upon Atoa’s shoulders to be the leading figure among the middle forwards next year but her mission statement on the field you would not change one iota. Be physical, brutal and uncompromising.
Another player to surprise with their youth in 2022 was Tallara Bamblett. The rangy five-eighth formed a formidable playmaking battery with Rosemarie Beckett (NRLW Development Squad) which in turn helped guide the Blue & Gold to the Grand Final Qualifier. Bamblett is at her best getting downhill and attacking the defensive line with the ball in hand but she also showed she could be counted on to distribute the ball effectively and kick with acumen.
Given that Beckett handled the primary playmaking responsibilities this year and is now moving on to the NRLW Development Squad, Bamblett will be called upon to lead a new halves partner in 2023. There could be slip-ups and stumbles in the upcoming journey but hopefully the greater share of responsibility can be the making of Tallara. She has the size, skills and frame to take the Tarsha Gale by storm and she should have the team mates around to help facilitate that next year.
Anyone following Parramatta’s journey in the 2022 Tarsha Gale premiership would have heard or read Alysha Bell’s name called dozens and dozens of times through the season. The sharpshooting winger sensationally drilled 26 of her 34 try and penalty conversion attempts (76.50%) and is without a doubt the cleanest striker of the ball that I have seen in 5 years of covering the Tarsha Gale. A background in soccer gives her the supreme edge here but she also is an experienced touch football player. She has shown herself to be accomplished winger thus far but given her multi-discipline sporting background combined with a lean, athletic frame makes me think we haven’t the best of her talents yet.
The value of scoring in 6s as opposed to 4s is, well frankly worth 50% more for each try, but should never be slept on in general and there is a very good chance that Alysha could forge a long NRLW career on that aspect alone.
Tahleisha Maeva (NRLW Development Squad) and Kyanna Lokeni weren’t exactly unheralded in the breakthrough 2022 Tarsha Gale season but with plenty of other deserved stars across the park they slipped a smidgen under the radar. Maeva earned a NRLW Development contract for her efforts while Lokeni returns for her senior year of Tarsha Gale as a crucial piece in the backrow.
Kyanna showed the kind of ruggedness you love to see from an edge forward in 2022. Violent and physical runs with the ball in hand were balanced against violent and physical tackles without possession. The term I often hark back for these kinds of players is a tone-setter and Lokeni will be one of the catalysts in the forwards for the Eels in 2023.
If I were to simply and concisely break down Ashlee Pottinger’s game it would be in a single word – powerful. Parramatta’s dummy half terrorised the middle of the field with her power running game and posed a constant threat for markers on the goal line. Ashlee profiles closer to a Brandon Smith style rake than a conventional #9 but we have all certainly seen just how effective that can be at the highest levels of play.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t nuance or subtlety to her play but her calling card is smashmouth rugby league. As with Sam Tuivati last year in the Harold Matthews, I was shocked to learn that Ashlee was in her junior year of Tarsha Gale given how physically dominant she was. She will be a core piece of the 2023 squad and in the long term could feature in the NRLW as a dummy-half or the increasingly popular hybrid lock/rake utility.