NRL news | Paul Gallen column, 10 young players who can be NRL greats

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Wide World of Sports has compiled a list of the top 50 players of the NRL era and it stretches back to guys like Glenn Lazarus, who retired in 1999 after winning a premiership with a third club.

It’s a lofty standard. To be a generational player, you have to be a very good player for a very long time. Ten years plus.

You see plenty of guys have breakout seasons, or a good two or three years. But to be considered a generational player, it’s consistent excellence over the long term.

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Below are 10 young guys who I believe can become generational players.

A few are speculative, like Bradman Best, Bronson Xerri and Thomas Flegler. Others, like Tom Trbojevic, already feel like sure things.

My cut-off is under 25 years of age. That just leaves out guys like Cameron Munster, who has already built himself into a star of the game.

Munster’s challenge will just be keeping his head screwed on right throughout his career, given he’s known as a bit of a wild child. The sky’s the limit for him. He’s already done plenty and he’s a great player.

Here are the under-25 players who may well warrant a spot on that overall top 50 list by the time their careers have ended.

CAMERON MURRAY

Cam is a great player. He’s already proven that, playing for NSW and also earning a Test debut last year.

He has a great work ethic, on top of being a polished sort of bloke for a young leaguey. Maybe it’s the union background!

Cam speaks and presents really well on top of being a terrific player. He’s the full package and I’m glad he’s a proper leaguey now.

He’s got plenty of skill, he’s tough and if he maintains the trajectory that he’s been on for the past couple of years, then he will certainly be a generational player.

Still just 22, he’s already achieved a lot and has got plenty left in front of him.

PAYNE HAAS

Payne Haas, 20, is as special a talent as I’ve seen. It’s not just the sheer size of him, it’s his motor and his agility.

The agility is the thing that really sets him apart. Everyone’s pretty fast these days, all your big guys are pretty strong and powerful, but his footwork is something that i just haven’t seen on a guy that big.

Hopefully he can maintain that throughout his career. Unfortunately, big young guys sometimes lose agility as their bodies fill out.

The next thing for Payne to add to his game is an offload and a pass. They will only make him more dangerous and give him more one-on-one opportunities.

He got a taste of Origin footy with NSW last year at just 19 and I actually don’t think it’s a bad thing that he was dropped after game one. Sometimes when you get that position early, you can take it for granted and not work quite as hard.

Payne seems like a level-headed guy, so hopefully he works his backside off to regain that spot and the early setback only helps his career.

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DAVID FIFITA

Dave, still just 20, is a unique player who reminds me a bit of Jason Taumalolo, who also started his career as an edge back-rower.

I reckon he’s actually better on the edge than Taumalolo was. He’s just got that speed and power about him where not much can be happening in a game and he can just break it open on his own.

It’s a special talent. We saw a great example with the try that he scored earlier this year; not much happening, thrown the ball 35m out from his own tryline, breaks through the line, steps around Valentine Holmes and scores.

That type of ability, the speed and agility, is rare in such a big man. Fifita must play at between 110kg and 120kg, I reckon.

The way Brisbane are playing him at the moment, sitting on the edge rather than making 20 hit-ups a game like Payne Hass, will be beneficial to his longevity. I can tell you, you’re better off on an edge scoring 60m tries rather than making 20 hit-ups!

But when you get older, grow bigger and naturally get thicker, especially with all the weights players do these days, perhaps it’s inevitable that he ends up playing in the middle like Taumalolo. He’ll just need to work on his motor to emulate the workload.

As for his contract future, the Broncos don’t lose players they really want to keep. They’ll find a way to keep him.

BRONSON XERRI

Bronson, 19, is touted as one of the best juniors coming through and he has speed to burn.

I’ve been talking to Kyle Flanagan, because he and Bronson do speed training with Roger Fabri. They reckon Bronson is faster than The Fox, Josh Addo-Carr, which is a fair rap.

We’ve already seen glimpses of his try-scoring ability at NRL level. His challenge, like with most young players, is just to maintain the strong work ethic that brings about those results.

Bronson’s been competing for a spot alongside names like Josh Morris and Josh Dugan, yet the Sharks still had to find a way to play him. When he got opportunities, he took them, whether it was on the right or left-hand side of the field.

He thoroughly deserves his spot in the NRL. It’s his to lose and I’ve got no doubt he’s good enough to keep it.

BRANDON SMITH

Brandon Smith is my favourite current-day player. He’s unbelievable.

Hooker, back-row … wherever you want to put him, he does the job. I reckon he’d make the starting back-row in 90 per cent of NRL teams and he’d be the starting hooker in a lot of teams as well.

He only doesn’t at Melbourne, of course, because he’s stuck behind probably the greatest player the game’s ever seen in Cameron Smith. He’s just biding his time.

I’ve actually never asked him what his favourite position is and I’d love to know. He’s just so tough. You watch him run the ball and it’s 100 miles an hour, head down, bum up. He just rips into everything he does.

He plays in that tight back-row spot really well, so it will be interesting to see what happens when Cameron retires. Is he the full-time No.9, or does he rotate between there and the back-row?

He blew open the All Stars game earlier this year, winning it for the Maori team. He’s a great little player, the type I’d have loved to play with. He’s everything you want in a teammate and still just 23.

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THOMAS FLEGLER

I saw him play last year and thought, ‘Wow, who’s this bloke?’ He’s a big guy with a great motor and also some skill about him.

He’s in some pretty good company up there at Brisbane, in a pack with Haas, Fifita, Pangai Jr, Ofahengaue and Lodge, yet he still stood out to me.

I was hoping that he might be a New South Welshman, but unfortunately he’s a Queenslander. You could play him in any of those middle forward positions and I reckon he’s got a big future in front of him.

The story came out when the NRL shutdown began that Thomas went back to work on the family banana farm. You love to see stories like that, they just show the work ethic a player has and this guy is still just 20 years of age.

BRADMAN BEST

This might be a speculative one, with Bradman having just a handful of NRL games under his belt and currently being injured.

But he’s got great acceleration and a big, strong, muscular body. He’s been touted as one of the best juniors coming through and has already played NRL at age 18.

If he can get some consistency about his footy and play first grade week-in, week-out, he’s a big chance to become a generational player.

I think he’ll play his early career in the centres; those guys are almost as big as back-rowers now anyway. He could easily convert into an edge back-rower.

But he’s got a bit of speed about him and he’s played on the wing as well. If I was him, I’d be staying in the centres for as long as possible and perhaps he’ll end up as a back-rower late in his career as he adds to his abilities.

A Luke Lewis-type player, which isn’t a bad model to follow.

TOM TRBOJEVIC

Tommy is already a star and he’s still only 23. You forget how young he is, because he’s already been around for a while and achieved plenty.

He’s already played a lot of rep footy and his biggest challenge may be avoiding seasons like he had last year, hampered by that hamstring injury. Hopefully his body holds up for him, as we’ve seen some greats whose bodies just let them down early in their career.

Sonny Bill Williams struggled with injuries a bit when he first started. I think it was just his body getting used to the week-in, week-out contact of the game.

Turbo’s lucky in that he won’t have as much contact, playing fullback, but he’s played a lot of footy with the combined NRL and rep commitments at a young age.

Hopefully he can get the most out of his career, but he’s already a superstar of our game. And like his brother Jake, just a great young guy.

When I was finishing my Origin career, they were part of the camps and you’ve never met two nicer blokes. They were that nice to you, it’s like you’re looking behind you waiting for them to stab you in the back!

They were unbelievable, how nice they were and what good people they were. It’s great to see them both kicking on.

NATHAN CLEARY

Nathan’s already done plenty in his career and he’s still only 22.

It hasn’t been easy for NSW halves over the last 15 years or so. We saw that with Mitchell Pearce and so many other halves that were used during that period where Queensland dominated.

When you’re a young NSW halfback and you get an early go at Origin, it can be tough. When Nathan debuted in 2018, there was that extra pressure of the Blues still trying to crack that Maroons dynasty, with Queensland having won another three-peat.

But like we’ve seen with Nathan, he takes everything in his stride and he’s already been a part of two series wins.

I remember a moment playing with him in the City-Country game in 2017, after Brad Fittler asked me to come back to add some experience to the team.

When you’re taking a run, you can kind of feel it when a teammate is pushing up behind you in support. I was taking a run right near the tryline and felt someone on my shoulder, figuring it was another back-rower pushing up with me.

They were running to hit the hole as hard as they could. I just popped the ball for him … and it was Nathan Cleary, a 19-year-old halfback running off a 36-year-old forward.

He was tackled, but we scored the next play and the moment stood out for me. He’s a team player, a guy who works incredibly hard off the ball.

Plenty of times I wouldn’t have made that pass, because there would have been no one there to take it. Nathan was.

I’ve seen him do that plenty of times when I’ve watched him play for Penrith. Gus Gould talks about the huge distance he covers on his GPS and it’s no surprise that he does so much more than everyone else, because he’s doing so much work off the ball for others. That’s the sign of a really good player.

VICTOR RADLEY

I love Victor Radley. Love watching him play. I didn’t like playing against him, he could hit bloody hard!

He’s one of those guys that’s stuck in between positions a bit. He’s tough as nails, but not an overly big guy, so he’s not an out-and-out back-rower.

He’s not super-quick, so you play him in the middle rather than an edge, and you wonder if a 90kg bloke bashing his body against 110kg opponents will start to wear thin eventually. And he doesn’t quite have the crispness out of No.9 that the top dummy-halves have.

But having said all that, he makes any starting 13 in the NRL. Perhaps he’s the perfect No.14 for the Roosters; you could even throw him in the halves if you wanted to.

He’s just a footballer, and still only 22. I’d love to see him play State of Origin, though I’m not quite sure yet where he fits into the NSW side when guys like Wade Graham, Cam Murray and Dale Finucane are on the bench.

He’s an all-round team player, the type of guy you love to have in your side. The Roosters are lucky to have him and I doubt they’ll ever be letting him go.

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