By STEVE MASCORD
IT’S the ultimate “Where Are They Now?”.
Since 1986, Rugby League Week has been asking 100 players a year who they rated the best new face in the game. That’s right, ‘Best New Face’ – not rookie, a word which carries plenty of rules and regulations on its back.
If you were perceived by your peers to be a “new face”, you were eligible.
The honour roll contains some of the biggest names in our game – Laurie Daley (1988), Steve Menzies (1994) and Greg Inglis (2006).
There’s also a preponderance of men who chose to take the road less travelled later in their careers and railed against the establishment – perhaps an indication that these sort of rebellious characters inspire instinctive admiration in their fellow players.
Craig Gower (1997) Mark McLinden (1998), Karmichael Hunt (2004), Sonny Bill Williams (2005) and Israel Folau (2007) were all spotted by the players at an early age as being destined for greatness. They were eventually spotted – and poached – by rival codes, as well.
Others in our list became steady, reliable first graders without becoming regular internationals – men like Darrell Trindall (1991), Matt Seers (1995), Colin Best (1999), Brett Firman (2003) and, so far, Chris Sandow (2008).
Our first two winners were Ian Roberts and Peter Jackson. Roberts became the first openly gay Australian rugby league player while Jackson played nine Tests for Australia before – tragically – dying of a drug overdose in 1997.
Jason Martin (1990) released a pop single under the tutelage of Molly Meldrum. After decrying the cold of Canberra for most of his career, Fijian Noa Nadruku (1993) ended up retiring in the national capital.
Braith Anasta (2001) probably loved the Players Poll that year but grew to loathe it when colleagues voted him “most over-rated” in subsequent seasons.
And then there are those who, to use the vernacular, didn’t kicked on so much. This group is led by 1992 winner David Seidenkamp.
The message from the list on this page is clear: just because you were voted by your peers as most likely to succeed, doesn’t mean you will. Scanning the honour board should give this year’s winner cause for excitement and caution in equal measure.
“There’s a reason they call it Second Year Syndrome,” says Daley, who will coach NSW in this year’s Origin series.
“When you pop up out of the ground, you can catch opponents by surprise. But then they analyse you and learn what you’re about.
“It’s easy when you’re a nobody. It’s much harder when you’ve started to become a somebody.”
Perhaps the five most recent winners should be the ones who inspire the most caution.
CHRIS SANDOW (2008) looked like he had the world at his feet. At the end of 2011, he moved from South Sydney to Parramatta on a contract Rabbitohs owner Russell Crowe claimed on Twitter to be valued at $550,000 per season. The Eels finished last in his debut season there and he hasn’t been sighted in rep football.
JAMAL IDRIS (2009) was spotted well before his representative debut. He played for Australia in 2010 and looked unstoppable. At the end of the season, he was struck in the neck by a sword wielded by a cousin at Christmas. Four months later, he announced he would be joining Gold Coast in 2012. As was the case with Sandow, his debut season with a new club was a poor one for the whole team. He has not added to his solitary Australian and NSW appearances.
JOSH DUGAN (2010) was another ‘New Face’ that seemed to be pointed towards the heavens. He represented Country that year and the following season, the NRL All Stars and NSW. At the time of writing, his fall from grace has been the most spectacular of anyone to have won this category. He does not even have a club after he posted a picture of himself on Instagram drinking a pineapple cruiser when he should have been at training. His career remains in limbo.
TARIQ SIMS (2011) has suffered setbacks of another kind, breaking a leg twice since he burst onto the scene with North Queensland and gained selection in preliminary NSW squads. Sims’ has made another comeback this year, with the help of the plated ‘Terminator leg’, but his field time has been restricted so far this season.
So far in 2013, last year’s BNF
ADAM REYNOLDS (2012) hasn’t put a foot wrong and is pressing Daley for Origin inclusion. Reynolds seems mature beyond his years, isn’t contemplating any ill-advised changes of clubs and has not been seen with any pineapple cruisers. But injury is always hovering nearby, waiting to interrupt an otherwise promising career.
“If you ask me what I look for in a young player,” says Gower, now with London Broncos after a stint in French rugby union, “I would say consistency.
“Adam Reynolds, he’s doing his role for the team well. The way he is running the ship for Souths, he is organising attack, his defence is good, he seems to have a good kicking game.
“You keep doing that and eventually you start making breaks and suddenly you’ve had a GREAT game and then the media and the fans and everyone starts noticing you.”
Gower, now 34, doesn’t remember being voted the best new player across both competitions, the ARL and Super League, in 2013.
“But I know it was a good year,” he says. “I started the year at hooker, changed positions, played for New South Wales, went away on tour at the end of the year and played halfback in a great Australian side.
“There was Bradley Clyde and Laurie Daley and Ryan Girdler. I played halfback and kicked on from there.
“If you look at that list, most of them went on to play a reasonable about of footIball. Some of those guys like Idris and Sandow changed club and maybe that slowed them down and Sims got injured.
“But they’re pretty good footballers. I reckon they’ve got some good footy ahead of them, all of them.”
Daley is one of the few men on our list whose trajectory continued – with only injury enforced interruptions – for his entire career after being earmarked at an early age as a future great. His form did not suffer significant lulls, he did not go to another sport or fall victim to a major off-field controversy.
Steve Menzies, Ben Kennedy and Greg Inglis would be the others in this category.
“I was lucky,” he reflects. “I had Mal Meninga and these fellas in the team and Tim Sheens coaching and if you got too big for your boots, they’d knock you down a peg or two.
“I was surrounded by good players but also players who would pull you into line.”
Twenty-five years – is it really that long – since Daley was voted by his peers at the best new player in rugby league, he has advice for this years’ hot-right-now superstar.
“It’s great to get accolades but all it shows is that you’re doing something good right now, that people are starting to notice you,” he says.
“It doesn’t mean you should stop preparing exactly the way you did last year.
“It does mean you are starting to win people’s respect. It takes a long time to win respect.
“But it doesn’t take long to lose it.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK