There are a baker’s dozen of Englishmen going around in the NRL this season which must be a record number which adds to the interest in our competition back in the UK. The English bring quality as well as quantity and big things are expected of them, not surprising as ten of them are English internationals and world class. Green is the colour to adopt if you want to support the majority of your lads in the NRL as there are four playing for the lime Green Machine of the Canberra Raiders, in the nation’s capital and three in the massive form of the Burgess boys wearing the famous cardinal and myrtle of South Sydney. Current England coach Wayne Bennett now has taken the reins at the Rabbitohs extending the English connection. How will they fare? Let’s cast an eye over the English elite.
John Bateman – Canberra Raiders
Bateman has made the move at the perfect time from Super League champions Wigan to join the growing horde of English Raiders in Canberra looking to give the finals a shake. In excellent form and in the prime of his powers Bateman is seeking a new challenge. Not huge in size but as tough as they come, he’ll add grit to a defensive unit that was flaky last season and versatile, meaning he can shift from the backrow to the centre position if required. His tackling is top drawer and he could be the answer to the Raiders leaky ruck if Ricky Stuart plays him in the middle. Throw in his offloading ability, high work rate and Bateman will thrive. I think he’ll be a huge hit with the parochial Canberrans.
George Burgess – South Sydney Rabbitohs
Back to somewhat near his best last season after a couple of mediocre years, expect a big year from the big bopper. With the wily Wayne Bennett, the master coach at the helm pushing the buttons, watch George respond with interest. He has knocked back a big offer from the Parramatta Eels to stay with his brothers under the tutelage of Bennett, who has told the Eels to back off meaning he wants George which will give Burgess plenty of confidence so he’ll be motivated and ready to rock. I’m seeing a return of the wrecking ball of 2014 that helped grab the Rabbitohs the Holy Grail but first he’s acting in a short play in Sydney during the preseason playing Prince Charming, George will be anything but charming to opposition players maybe he’ll add an Oscar to his NRL premiership ring one day… or maybe not.
Sam Burgess – South Sydney Rabbitohs
Sam’s all action 80-minute stints mirrored Souths season, he faded late in the piece and with it the Bunnies went off the boil just falling short. With Cameron Murray’s rise as a classy workaholic backrower, there is an option for Bennett to rest Sam for short spells, but it’d be easier to drag a deer bone off a brown bear than pull Sam off the pitch. Murray will help take the load off Burgess and make the Bunnies a great threat in 2019. With the interchange number staying at eight, players with Sam’s engine and quality are like gold dust. If Sam can add some tries to his incredible output, an area he’s struggled in along with offload selection, he will stay one of the NRL’s elite players and leaders. A true champion and club talisman, I’ll back Burgess to mount a classic Slammin’ Sam stat attack in 2019 leading the way as the Bunnies close in on the NRL summit.
Tom Burgess – South Sydney Rabbitohs
Tom had a breakout year in 2018. Out of his twin brother George’s shadow Tom thrived under the more open game plan Anthony Seibold implemented, starting in the side, making mountains of metres in quality stints and turned into a try scoring machine. Though Bennett is a more defensive minded coach than Seibold he won’t try to reinvent the wheel at the Bunnies, I don’t expect the Rabbitohs or Tom to do anything different from 2018 other than improve, he’s on an upward trajectory as a player expect a 2019 as huge as his thighs!
Herbie Farnworth – Brisbane Broncos
The teenager from Barrowford in Lancashire (thanks Dr Google!) has suddenly appeared on the NRL radar after playing in the Broncos first trial game of the season last week and with Jordan Kahu moving to the NQ Cowboys to replace disgraced Man of Steel Ben Barba, leaving a three-quarter spot open, the speedy goal kicking winger Farnworth is one of the Broncos richly talented young guns who is making a play to make a surprise NRL debut at some stage of the 2019 season. Farnworth impressed in the trial against local Brisbane side Souths Logan and has been selected to play again in the club’s next preseason game. Farnworth plies his trade in the QLD Intrust Super Cup for Broncos feeder club Norths Devils in Brisbane and if he can make the leap to the top grade Herbie will go bananas.
James Graham – St George Illawarra Dragons
The ageing raging bull is getting a bit long in the tooth and slowing down a tad, but his experience is worth its weight in gold especially to the youngsters coming through. Cooper Cronk-like, Graham is as good as having a coach on the field. Graham’s first stint is always his best setting the tone and the standard for the others to follow, as he goes at the opposition like a water buffalo with a thorn in its hoof from the opening whistle! Expect coach, Mary McGregor, to get as much out of him as he can from that opening salvo before Father Time reminds the pale lethal weapon he’s gettin’ too old for this shit! But you cannot straitjacket this proud Englishman. His crafty ball skills add an extra bow to a quality spine of Gareth Widdop at fullback, Corey Norman and Ben Hunt in the halves and Cam McInnes at hooker. Graham helps make the Dragons a dangerous side in 2019.
Ryan Hall – Sydney Roosters
Returning from an ACL injury NRL fans cross your fingers Hall makes a full recovery because at his best the Rhino is a beast and truly world class. Strong in the air, powerful runner and a brilliant finisher almost unstoppable close to the line Hall could be the ace in the pack in the second half of the season. Gaining fitness and confidence from an ACL takes time, throw in squeezing into the premiership winning Sydney Roosters side and it won’t be easy but look for Hall to be used when injuries occur, a given in our tough uncompromising sport, Origin hits and the Chooks lose at least Latrell Mitchell and James Tedesco but watch the Rhino charge as the Chooks make their run into the finals. Selected in the 23-man squad for the World Club Challenge it shows Hall isn’t too far away from a return.
Josh Hodgson – Canberra Raiders
A key plank in the Raiders side, Hodgson’s high standing in the club and coach Ricky Stuart’s thoughts was confirmed when Stuart made Hodgson co-captain sharing the duties with long time skipper Jarrod Croker. After a strong Test series against the Kiwis and preseason, Hodgson will be primed to be back to his best after an injury hit 2018. Offloading behemoths Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo, the new look mobile Raiders outfit Stuart has shaped will suit Hodgson’s skillful playmaking, as quicker play the balls which give the rake opportunities to burst out of dummy half and use his pace, ball skills and cagey kicking to rip through the ruck, put the opposition on the back foot and rocket the Raiders up the ladder. 2016 saw Hodgson and the Raiders thrill the NRL and nearly make the Big Show, via a fully fit Hodgson back to his best I think there are good times ahead for Canberra.
Chris McQueen – Wests Tigers
Nearing the end of his career and battling a couple of injury plagued seasons the experienced campaigner McQueen won’t be expecting to walk into the Tigers 17. With Wests bolstering their forward pack with new signings like Ryan Matterson from the Roosters and Zane Musgrove from the Bunnies, McQueen will be looking to do the hard yards via the reggie reserves in the NSW Intrust Super Premiership and hope he stays fit, finds form and when the inevitable injuries to the top-grade squad hit he’ll be waiting to take his opportunity. A strong preseason and with a new coach in Michael Maguire at the helm McQueen could make a surprise start in round 1, you never know but one thing is for sure if the chance beckons McQueen will take it.
Andre Savelio – Brisbane Broncos
Another Englishmen coming back from an ACL injury, Savelio came across from the UK at the end of the 2017 season hoping to make an impact last year but is now starting behind the 8-ball as the Broncos have a very strong squad containing some of the best young talent in the game who will be pushing for a Top Four spot and the title. Though Savelio was brought to the Broncos by outgoing coach Wayne Bennett, his replacement Anthony Seibold favours attacking rugby league and rewards form in lower grades, all good news for Savelio who showed in his time in the Super League what a talent he is. He may need to bide his time but a couple of big games in the preseason, he played second row in the Broncos opening trial last week, will have Savelio pressing his claims to make the round one starter. Payne Haas’ four game suspension, punishment for failing to cooperate fully with the NRL Integrity Unit over a family issue helps Savelio’s chances of making a long awaited Broncos debut.
Ryan Sutton – Canberra Raiders
They say timing is everything and with the Raiders ditching the big men for mobility a marvelous opportunity awaits Ryan Sutton. Unlike fellow new Brit John Bateman, Sutton is no walk up start to the Green Machine’s round one line up but an impressive preseason will go a long way to securing the former Wigan Warrior a place in the opening 17 match against the Titans. Now a bit light on in the front row stakes, Sutton with his size and raw power has a chance to snatch a regular spot, in what should be a much-improved Raiders unit from last season’s inconsistent team. With England coach, Wayne Bennett in close proximity in Sydney, Sutton can also push his claims to make an international debut in the near future but his first port of call is to impress Ricky Stuart and his teammates.
Elliott Whitehead – Canberra Raiders
Unlucky not to have capped off an exceptional international year with the Golden Boot, Whitehead is in the form of his life and primed for a super season in the nation’s capital. A fixture on the Raiders right edge, Whitehead along with fellow Englishman Josh Hodgson has become, not only one of the Raiders best but the NRL’s finest players. Relentless defence and effort, combined with fast hands, his catch and pass to unleash Joey Leilua is a thing of beauty, Whitehead’s consistent excellence sets the standard for his fellow Raiders to follow. A coach’s dream always doing a quality job with no fuss, he has the starting backrow spot sewn up for the season. If Whitehead plays to the best of his ability the Raiders can return to the finals, if they don’t it won’t be through Whitehead’s lack of grit.
Gareth Widdop – St George Illawarra Dragons
Leaving the best ‘til last, enjoy Widdop while you can, as the Dragons star is playing his final season after agreeing to return home in 2020 with the Warrington Wolves winning the race to sign the English ace. No doubt determined to go out on as strong a note as possible, Widdop will lead the Dragons dash for the finals and of course, hopefully a premiership title. Red V (and Wire) fans will hope Widdop stays fit as his dislocated shoulder shattered the Saints finals chances last year. With Corey Norman joining St George, Widdop is moving back to the custodian position where he has excelled for club and country. Injecting himself when he sees opportunity, Widdop’s shift to fullback could be a masterstroke by coach, Paul McGregor. Widdop’s all-round brilliance, he can do everything at highest degree of difficulty, will decide whether the Dragons can go deep into September or farewell Australia earlier than expected.
There are plenty of quality Englishmen on show this NRL season, get behind them as the majority of them have the ability to not only effect game turning, match winning performances but change the course of their club’s fortunes to achieve the ultimate – hold aloft the NRL premiership trophy!