Regardless of what is happening at Mt Smart, there is a high quality #KiwiNRL presence at the top of the NRL ladder as well as a sneaky wave of young lads making waves around the NRL. The 2019 season has been kinda downbuzz from a #KiwiNRL perspective as the Rabbitohs and Dragons have had minimal #KiwiNRL involvement, however the Storm, Roosters and Raiders lead the NRL and each have a hearty #KiwiNRL presence.
As you'll read below, a lot of the teams either in the top-eight or trying to crack Finals footy have enticing #KiwiNRL players. The beauty at the moment though, sits in the top three teams and this offers #KiwiNRL fans an opportunity to suss out who they want to support as we near finals footy. Melbourne Storm have fullback Jahrome Hughes, forwards Jesse and Kenny Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Brandon Smith. Sydney Roosters have centre Joseph Manu along with forwards in Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Isaac Liu, Zane Tetevano, Sitili Tupouniua and Poasa Fa'amausili. Then Canberra Raiders have Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Jordan Rapana, Bailey Simonsson, Iosia Soliola, Joseph Tapine and Siliva Havili.
That's more than enough #KiwiNRL funk to enjoy and each team has a slightly different angle. Storm have many fantastic players, but the quality on offer from their #KiwiNRL crew is a stand out and there's a slight difference to the Roosters who have a more low key #KiwiNRL crew. The Roosters #KiwiNRL forwards for example are a wee bit more job-doing and because of the high number of #KiwiNRL forwards in the Roosters pack, it's as if they are laying the platform for the stars to take over; Storm have more #KiwiNRL x-factor.
Raiders on the other hand are the sneaky team to rally behind, especially with Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad at fullback. There is a possibility that we will see a Finals game between Storm and Raiders, meaning Jahrome Hughes vs Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad at fullback and that would be one of the best #KiwiNRL match ups of the year (similar to Storm forwards vs Roosters forwards). It's hard not to love Nicoll-Klokstad and the same can be said about Raiders spiritual leader Iosia Soliola, who is nothing but inspiration on and off the field. If you enjoy the underdog and lovely wholesome #KiwiNRL vibes, get behind the Raiders.
There are a few narratives to follow within that bubble as well. The fullback battle between Hughes and Nicoll-Klokstad is one, with possible Kiwis ramifications although there is a strong chance that Nicoll-Klokstad opts to keep reppin' Cook Islands on their journey of rugby league growth. Considering that Aotearoa has Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Hughes in the mix for fullback, all power to Nicoll-Klokstad.
Brandon Smith was fantastic for Aotearoa vs Tonga and has merely been at that level all season, only as a middle forward. Smith is probably the smallest bloke in the top-50 for post contact metres across the entire NRL, ranked 38th and that means that Smith (18 games) has more PCM than Sam Burgess (15 games), Paul Gallen (16 games), Tevita Pangai Junior (16 games), Reagan Campbell-Gillard (18 games) and Tom Burgess (15 games). Obviously playing a few more games helps Smith here, but such is the margin between Smith's 668pcm vs Sam Burgess' next best 649pcm, it's still bloody impressive.
Oh and Nicoll-Klokstad is 20th in PCM.
Likely to again transition from bench forward to Kiwis hooker, Smith is flexing all over the NRL. There's a strong case for the Kiwis hooker to be the best bench forward in the NRL, which is a tad bonkers and a clear example of how impressive Smith has been in averaging 41.1mins off the bench this season.
For the Roosters, I'm most interested in how Sitili Tupouniua and Poasa Fa'amausili contribute as the season hits a climax. Marist Saints junior Tupouniua is the likeliest of the two to keep getting game time as a bench forward, however both Tupouniua and Glenora Bears junior Fa'aumausili fall out of the 17 when the Chooks have all their best forwards on deck.
Fa'amausili has played 10 games, averaging 21mins and 5.3 runs for 51m. Tupouniua has played 13 games, averaging 31.5mins and 6 runs for 62m. That means both average 10m/run, they type of efficiency and impact that gives teams a lovely boost in the Finals; just like Smith coming in hot off the bench. With plenty of forwards depth, Roosters coach Trent Robinson has done a great job of keeping Tupouniua and Fa'amausili involved as well as forced rotation via injury an Origin. This will yield positive results should either Tupouniua or Fa'amausili play finals footy.
In pondering the Raiders, I have to extrapolate this out to Reimis Smith at the Bulldogs. Aotearoa had Ken Maumalo and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak on the wings vs Tonga, while the Raiders have Jordan Rapana and Bailey Simonsson as their wingers and Smith has also been undercover in his work with the Dogs. Rapana is obviously the closest to a Kiwis spot and Simonsson is Kiwis eligible considering he played Aotearoa Sevens rugby union despite being born and raised in Australia.
Simonsson's father played union for Waikato and Wellington, while Reimis Smith's father Tyran played league for Aotearoa and Reimis was also born and raised in Australia. Reimis has played for the Junior Kiwis though in 2016/17 and I reckon Smith should be in a Kiwis squad later this year, possibly along with Simonsson if that's his buzz.
There is an abundance of young Kiwis who are making moves, so here's a hard and fast wrap of who I'm paying attention to...
James Fisher-Harris (Northland) has been starting at prop for Penrith Panthers, averaging 76.9mins/game. Such a high workload means decent overall stats, but the fact that Fisher-Harris is basically playing entire games as a middle forward is testament to his effort and attitude.
Cronulla Sharks unleashed Briton Nikora earlier this season, now I'm more intrigued by Braden Hamlin-Uele (Glenora) who has been as impressive, if not more impressive than Nikora. Having played 15 games and averaging just 37mins, Hamlin-Uele averages 10 runs for 100m and that level of production combined with efficiency in limited minutes is nek level. Like Reimis Smith, it's hard to see Hamlin-Uele cracking a Kiwis top-17, but there is every chance he is selected in the squad and builds into his Kiwis career - also eligible for Samoa.
Another who could sneak into a Kiwis squad this year is Marata Niukore at Parramatta Eels. Niukore (Mangere East) has played edge forward when Shaun Lane or Manu Ma'u is out, which feels like his best role, although what he's doing for the Eels in the middle is notable. Niukore had 11 runs for 111m in 45mins vs Dragons, making him the most productive Eels bench forward in that game and Niukore averages 8.2runs for 76m; hovering around 10m/run.
I can't mention the Eels and not bring up Dylan Brown (Northland), who has had a season impacted by injury but in the eight games that Brown has played, the Eels have won six of those games. Brown simply looks classy, with a swift running game as well all the skills to handle anything that Mitchell Moses doesn't do. Moses is the dominant half at the Eels, with more touches and kicks than Brown, yet Brown seems to have the bigger impact and there is no reason why Brown shouldn't be given a crack at a Kiwis squad.
Given that Tigers coach Michael Maguire is also the Kiwis coach, the rise of Josh Aloiai from plugging holes in the Tigers forward pack to starting as a middle forward under Maguire intrigues me. Aloiai has played Tests for Samoa and is another Glenora Bears junior, who hasn't quite blown apart forward packs like Hamlin-Uele or had stand out moments like Tupouniua, but the Maguire connection is what has me pondering.
There ain't no shortage of young #KiwiNRL forwards around the NRL and this list is a strong example of Aotearoa's emerging rugby league depth; Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Joseph Tapine, James Fisher-Harris, Marata Niukore, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Briton Nikora, Josh Aloiai (Samoa), Sitili Tupouniua (Tonga), Poasa Fa'amausili.
Here is Aotearoa's halves depth: Shaun Johnson, Kieran Foran, Kodi Nikorima, Jarome Luai (Samoa), Chanel Harris-Tavita (Samoa), Dylan Brown, Te Maire Martin (out indefinitely), Jahrome Hughes, Mason Lino (Samoa).
Here is Aotearoa's outside backs depth who didn't play vs Tonga: Jordan Rapana, Dean Whare, Peta Hiku, Brad Takairangi, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Reimis Smith, Bailey Simonsson.
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Peace and love 27.