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We pick one NRL player from each club that needs a huge 2024

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nrl players in need of a big 2024, tyrell sloane, nathan cleary, jack wighton

Every NRL season is loaded with jeopardy; players, coaches, and executives put their necks, and jobs, on the line in the hope of securing success and relieving pressure. 2024 will be no different.

While many would argue rugby league is at its healthiest, with more stars, more fans, and more money spilling into the game, that’s not to say improvements can’t be made, both by individual players and the units they function in.

Whether to start their career, save their career, or cement themselves as one of the game’s greatest, every NRL side, without exception, has at least one – or in some cases more – stars, who need a big year in 2024.

We’ve run our eye over the playing field and had our say on the players who need a massive season 2024.

Nath Cleary Pen Panthers image
Can Dylan Edwards and Nathan Cleary guide Penrith to an unprecedented four-peat in 2024?

One player from each NRL team who needs a big 2024

Brisbane Broncos

Brendan Piakura

Brisbane shocked the NRL world when they announced the departure of star back-rower, Kurt Capewell, who joins the Warriors for 2024 and beyond. In Capewell, Kevin Walters had a leader, a Premiership winner, and a tough back-rower on both sides of the ball.

In his absence, his duties will fall on the inexperienced plate of Brendan Piakura. Always regarded as one of the nation’s brightest back-row prospects, Piakura enjoyed a breakout year in 2023, though his contributions were largely from the bench.

Piakura’s five starts in the back row in 2023 yielded three victories, one try, a try assist, four line breaks, 123 average running metres, and an 86.4% tackle efficiency. There is no doubt about his talents, only his capacity to fill Capewell’s shoes.

Canberra Raiders

Kaeo Weekes

Filling Jack Wighton’s shoes is no easy feat for a player of any calibre, let alone one still trying to cut his teeth in the NRL. Kaeo Weekes trades Manly for the national capital with hopes of not just filling the void opened by Wighton’s absence, but doing so convincingly.

Nominally a fullback, Weekes is capable of playing in the halves and did so once for Manly in 2023 during a 44-12 round six loss to Penrith, an encounter which highlighted his defensive shortcomings more than his offensive potency.

If he’s any hope of quieting the noise around being Wighton’s replacement, Weekes will need to shore his defensive game up and ensure his attacking play is up to scratch, especially with the extremely talented Ethan Strange waiting in the wings.

Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs

Matt Burton

Matt Burton is not a centre, but until he unequivocally proves he’s a five-eighth, a cloud of positional doubt will loom large over the Bulldogs’ star man.

In 2022, he was the Bulldogs’ main attacking threat, with his long kicking game proving particularly useful. In 2023, his output slowed as the side around him did.

And in 2024, with a halfback who knows how to play halfpack and a competent forward pack, Burton will have all the tools necessary to showcase his prodigious talent and prove, beyond reasonable doubt, he’s a five-eighth.

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In 2024 Matt Burton must prove to the masses that he’s undoubtedly a five eighth

Cronulla Sharks

Nicho Hynes

Cronulla’s poor form against top-eight sides is no secret, they won three such encounters in 2023 out of a possible 11. At their heart of their fortunes, both good and bad, is halfback Nicho Hynes, Craig Fitzgibbon’s most important player who’s talented enough to singlehandedly carry his side to victory.

Those game-breaking performances were less common against top-ranked sides in 2023, and while this issue encapsulates Cronulla as a whole as opposed to solely Hynes, every team’s star shoulders the burden of floundering form, and Hynes is no exception.

On their day, Cronulla are clear Premiership threat, especially with Addin Fonua-Blake’s arrival in 2025. But their days against top-class opponents are limited, rectifying this issue is paramount for the Sharks premiership hopes in 2024 and beyond, with Hynes a crucial element to it all.

The Dolphins

Herbie Farnworth

With a side of unproven youngsters or experienced players it was tough to select one Dolphins players who clearly needs a huge 2024 season. For a team so young, and with so little expectation, there is less jeopardy, and weight of expectation, hanging over their performances when compared with more established outfits.

Enter, Herbie Farnworth, who trades the Broncos for Wayne Bennett’s tutelage as perhaps the club’s first big name signing. Widely considered one of the NRL’s best centres, the Englishman will need to certify this position in 2024 and prove he doesn’t reap the rewards of the system surrounding him but is talented enough to be the system and break games on his own.

Gold Coast Titans

Tanah Boyd

It’s no secret that the Gold Coast Titans are a far more frightening proposition when both AJ Brimson and Jayden Campbell share the park. It was believed this partnership might come with Brimson at five-eighth and Campbell at fullback, forcing a halves reshuffle that would leave Kieran Foran at halfback and Tanah Boyd in the selection abyss.

New coach, Des Hasler, all but extinguished these murmurs when he confirmed Foran would be his number six. This leaves the relatively untested Boyd as the team’s halfback, with the burden of his side’s success resting squarely on his shoulders.

Hasler and blonde halfbacks is a match made in heaven, and Boyd will be hoping the former Manly coach can work his magic with him, much like he did with current Manly captain, Daly Cherry-Evans, a decade ago.

Campbell’s position as an exciting fan-favourite and son of a club legend will compound pressure on Boyd, who many may view as the primary barrier to Campbell’s inclusion in the Titans, especially if the young fullback opts to leave for more minutes in the near future.

On top of this, rumours of Ben Hunt’s arrival at the Gold Coast never seem go away, like flies at Christmas lunch. Could a breakout 2024 for Tanah Boyd be enough to end the Hunt hunt once and for all?

Manly Sea Eagles

Luke Brooks

Few players in rugby league history have been more maligned than Luke Brooks. During time at the Tigers, many posed the question; was he the cause of the rot or a symptom of it?

With bad memories and a barbeque to show for his decade at the Tigers, Brooks arrives at Manly with hopes of reviving his unfufilled career. At times in recent years, we’ve shown glimpses of the player he can become – a devastating running half with a deep footy IQ – even if the consistency of performances has evaded him.

Alongside Daly Cherry-Evans, who shoulders much of the organisational responsibilites Brooks had at the Tigers, it’s hoped his running game can take on a life of its own while his natural playmaking flourishes in a system where he isn’t the protagonist.

Melbourne Storm

Ryan Papenhuyzen

Ryan Papenhuyzen is undoubtedly one of rugby league’s best fullbacks who, on his day, strikes fear into opposing defences with his blistering pace and delightful ball-playing. Unfortunately, injuries have robbed us of a full-flight Papenhuyzen for the best part of two years.

At the end of the day, sport is about success. Melbourne can be successful with Papenhuyzen, their 2020 Premiership is evidence of this, but he needs a full year of good health to prove that he is Melbourne’s fullback for the future, not Nick Meaney or Sua Fa’alogo.

New Zealand Warriors

Shaun Johnson

Few footballers enjoyed their footy more in 2023 than Shaun Johnson. Under Andrew Webster’s coaching, we saw a new and improved version of Shaun Johnson, the perfect marriage of SJ slick ball playing and fancy footwork we’ve grown to love and the poise and control all great halfbacks possess.

He was aided by a rolling forward pack, who put him in excellent positions to influence games, and a backline that seamlessly clicked. In 2024, with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Kurt Capewell on board, the Warriors are primed to push for that ever elusive Premiership.

At the heart of it all is Shaun Johnson. New Zealand’s forwards can dominate sides, and Tuivasa-Sheck can return to his game-breaking best, but without Johnson carrying his 2023 form into the new season, it will all amount to nothing.

shaun johnson, nrl
Shaun Johnson had a career-year in 2023, can he improve on it in 2024?

Newcastle Knights

Kalyn Ponga

Kalyn Ponga finally did what we all expected Kalyn Ponga to do many years ago; win the Dally M and lead a side deep into the finals. While many on the other side of the Tasman cried robbery when Shaun Johnson wasn’t awarded the NRL’s top individual honour in 2023, few can argue Ponga’s accolade was undeserved.

In 2024, he’ll need to prove it was no fluke. Newcastle are in the best position they’ve been in since Andrew Johns was slinging cut-outs with Ponga at the heart of it all. In Adam O’Brien, he has a competent coach, a great forward pack, a destructive backline, with Premiership winner Jack Cogger and Jackson Hastings forming one of rugby league’s most underrated halves pairings.

In short, the systems for success are in place. The ball is, quite literally, in Ponga’s hands, and if he succeeds in replicating his form the contest for Queensland’s fullback jersey might be fiercer than ever.

North Queensland Cowboys

Tom Dearden

What do you do when your club offers you a massive five-year extension? Sign on the dotted line and repay their faith. That’s Tom Dearden’s 2024, proving to the Cowboys their long-term trust is repaid, and then some.

Should the Cowboys return to their Premiership hunting status in 2022, Dearden will be a crucial element. His explosive running game is second to none amongst NRL halves, while all other aspects of his game are steadily improving.

With a forward pack in front of him capable of matching it with any, and a backline equal parts dangerous and experienced, the conditions are primed for a big Tom Dearden season in 2024.

Parramatta Eels

Dylan Brown

After a 2023 marred by off-field indiscretions, Dylan Brown will need to remind the rugby league faithful why he is one of the game’s finest five-eighths. A physical, destructive ball-running number six, his talents perfectly complement those of halves partner Mitchell Moses.

Despite a disrupted season, Brown managed to score three times and lay on a further 16 for his teammates, whilst running for around 143 metres per game. Imagine how they’d look with a full season under his belt?

Parramatta’s gun-slinging attack flows through their halves, and when they’re paired together, and on song, few prospects are more frightening in rugby league. The Eels will want to go one better than they did in 2022 and end their Premiership drought. To do so, they’ll need, amongst other things, their five-eighth on the field and firing.

Penrith Panthers

Nathan Cleary

What can you say about Nathan Cleary and the Penrith Panthers that hasn’t already been said? Not much, so we won’t bother. What does a big year for Nathan Cleary look like?

Hasn’t his last four seasons just been one big mass of excellence, propelling Penrith to unprecedented places and practically winning the 2023 Grand Final on his own?

Well, yes. There isn’t much he’s done wrong in recent memory, or much more he can do right for that matter. All Cleary’s trophy cabinet lacks is a Dally M medal, which has proved as elusive to him as a wet soap bar.

Should he take out the NRL’s top individual honour in 2024, it might be enough to cement him as an all-time great so early into his career.

South Sydney Rabbitohs

Jack Wighton

South Sydney have a few who could feature here; Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell namely. But no Souths player needs as big a year as Jack Wighton, who the club moved heaven and earth to acquire.

One of the game’s best five-eighths, it’s expected Wighton will likely shift to left centre in 2024, assuming the position of the respectably solid Isaiah Tass. Wighton’s talent is undoubted, neither is his ability to transform Souths from perennial underwhelmers to Premiership contenders.

Why then does Jack Wighton need a big year? Because his success will showcase how effective the team surrounding him functions, and how expertly his coach, Jason Demetriou, is able to construct a system capable of extracting the maximum from his collection of the game’s finest players.

jack wighton, south sydney rabbitohs
Jack Wighton in Bunnies colours

St George Illawarra Dragons

Tyrell Sloan

Originally slated to be Kyle Flanagan but with Ronald Volkman’s arrival likely resigning Flanagan to a bench utility role at best, the heat transfers to Tyrell Sloan, who just hasn’t quite clicked at NRL level, yet.

A promising fullback with speed to burn, there is a lot to like about Sloan’s game, but also a lot to dislike. With every try, blistering burst into space, or slinking run, comes a substandard defensive effort or poor decision.

At 21, it would be ridiculous to write Sloan off. But with years of Dragons decay eroding fans trust and love for the team, he will need a huge 2024 to prove he’s more than an inconsistent footballer and alleviate the pressure not just clouding himself, but the team as a whole.

With a flurry of young fullbacks popping up around the NRL, including the potentially off-contract Jayden Campbell, hunting first grade minutes in the future, Sloan needs to cement himself as a first grader now more than ever.

After all, would any Dragons fan say no to Campbell if Sloan fails to fire?

Sydney Roosters

James Tedesco

Undoubtedly one of rugby league’s greatest ever fullbacks, 2023 was a year forget for James Tedesco. Often times, he found himself in the headlines for the wrong reasons, with his patchy performances picked apart and compared to the lofty standards he’s forged for himself in the last six years.

While competition for the Roosters’ fullback jersey has thinned since Joseph Sua’ali’i’s departure to rugby union was confirmed, but Joey Manu’s presence remains. The Kiwi internationals is one of rugby league’s best fullbacks, resigned to playing centre while Tedesco is still knocking around. Until Manu permanently secures Tedesco’s jersey he will be breathing down his neck, placing immense pressure on his skipper.

At 30 years old, Tedesco remains in the prime of his career, and has showcased his brilliance consistently across his career. To prolong the party longer, however, he will need to replace the Teddy of 2023 away with the Teddy of old.

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Will James Tedesco return to his best during the 2024 NRL season?

West Tigers

Jayden Sullivan

Like Tyrell Sloan, Jayden Sullivan was once viewed as a shining light in the otherwise bleak future of the Dragons. However, struggling for minutes in his favoured position of five-eighth and often forced to come off the bench and play hooker, he departed for the Tigers, where minutes in the halves are more likely.

While it feels unfair to single out one lone Tigers player in need of a big year when the reality is every single member of an organisation needs a career year to elevate from the pit of disappoint they wallow in, Sullivan needs to make 2024 his own for his sake, as much as the team’s.

Promising young half, Latu Fainu, will be watching him intently, waiting for a mistake, and his time to shine and establish him as the player to partner Aidan Sezer, and potentially Jarome Luai, in the halves moving forward.

Fail to consolidate his position as a first grader in 2024 and Bud Sullivan runs the risk of again falling down the pecking order at a struggling club and find himself bouncing around elsewhere, searching for a place he can call home.

Picture of Kyle Robbins
Kyle Robbins
Kyle is a senior sports writer and producer at Only Sports who lives and breathes sport, with a particular burning passion for everything soccer, rugby league, and cricket. You’ll most commonly find him getting overly hopeful about the Bulldogs and Chelsea’s prospects. Find Kyle on LinkedIn.

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