Shining Stars

Robbie Hunter-Paul
Robbie Hunter-Paul

First published in Rugby League World, Issue 389 (Sept 2013)

If you are like me , you’ll be salivating at the mouth thinking about the amount of world class Rugby League talent that will be side stepping, smashing, crashing and bashing their way towards world cup glory come the end of October.

This month I’m going to discuss my favourite player for each of the competing nations, and spell out what I feel makes them special and why we should look forward to their ‘extraordinary’ talent.

AUSTRALIA: Greg Inglis
So let’s start with the tournament favourites.  My pick for them has to be the man mountain Greg Inglis.  He is currently rated as the number one player in the world (by the Aussies I should add), but I think they will lose a trick if they play him in the centres.
He has played all season long for Souths at fullback and getting the ball in to this lad’s hand as much as possible should be the Kangaroos first port of call in their game plan.

FRANCE: Morgan Escaré
Next we’ll go across the channel to our friends in the land of good wine and good food.
Morgan Escaré is the one player for me that has consistently excited supporters for the Dragons this year.  Outside of Sam Tomkins I don’t think there is another player in the world of Rugby League that has similar running abilities.  He has a mixture of gravity defying balance and explosive runs.

Paul Aiton in action for Papua New Guinea
Paul Aiton in action for Papua New Guinea

I just love the little fellas in the big fellas’ sport – probably because I was one myself.  Paul Aiton has all of the hallmarks of your typical Papua New Guinean Rugby League super star; a never-say-die attitude mixed with explosive muscle density and a refusal to take a backwards step.
The thing that makes him stand out though is his ability to fuse this with an intelligent acting half game.  If he can be supported by a decent forward pack don’t be surprised if the Kumuls take a few scalps.

WALES: Craig Kopczak
The Welsh will have a lot of expectations riding on their shoulders as in the last World Cup held on British soil they nearly delivered the biggest upset in the competition’s history, narrowly being knocked out of the semi-finals by Australia.  My player for you to watch out for will be Huddersfield front rower Craig Kopczak.  The former Bulls star has been integral to the Giants’ early success and the Dragons will need his experience if they are to move forward in the competition.

IRELAND: Liam Finn
The Irish captain Liam Finn has been a part of the international scene since the 2008 World Cup and has been an instrumental figure for all the Championship clubs he has played for.
His real strength comes from his ability as an organiser.  The current Championship Player of the Year will look to strategically position his players around the park and be the steady head of experience to turn in times of pressure.

New Zealand's Shaun Johnson could be on the verge of greatness
New Zealand’s Shaun Johnson could be on the verge of greatness

NEW ZEALAND: Shaun Johnson
Shaun Johnson is the New Zealand Warriors’ answer to the mercurial Benji Marshall.  Like his fellow Kiwi Marshall, Shaun Johnson has an amazing range of ball handling skill with flicks, show and goes and ‘no look’ passes.  His footwork is a fusion of Rangi Chase and Sam Tomkins with stop starts and gravity defying turns on a dime.  He has yet to prove himself consistently on the international stage but this year’s World Cup may be his opportunity to claim his position as a great.

SCOTLAND: Danny Brough
England’s loss is Scotland’s gain – and what a gain it is.  Huddersfield’s excellent form this year could arguably be boiled down to this one man.  This season we have seen him mature into a world class player, accepting the role of captain and leader for the Giants.  For Scotland to prove themselves, he will need to play his ‘A’ game for the entire tournament.

TONGA: Konrad Hurrell
Centre Konrad Hurrell will not be a household name on these shores at the moment but he has excited the NRL competition over the past couple of seasons.  His form over the recent past has led many to believing he has played an influential role in turning the New Zealand Warriors’ form around and back to winning ways as they make a late charge towards the playoffs.  The powerful three-quarter turned down the chance to play for the Kiwis and is set on success with Tonga.

SAMOA: Tony Puletua
Tony Puletua has been a stalwart for St Helens since moving here from the Penrith Panthers.  The giant Samoan’s go forward will be extremely important for the South Sea islanders and for a mature player he also has the ability to play long minutes.  Puletua has a world class off loading game and is too big to be “bent backwards” – watch for acting halves to run every time he plays the ball.

USA: Ryan McGoldrick
Ryan McGoldrick is Rugby League’s answer to a rock star.  He is covered in tattoos and speaks with a husky tone that sounds like he spent many a late night in dark dingy night clubs, sipping a short glass of bourbon.  Putting that aside he is also a game winner with the full bag of Rugby League tricks.  He looks for the play no one else thinks of and that is what makes him entertaining to watch.

FIJI: Petero Civoniceva
When you think Rugby League legend you do not have to go any further than Petero Civoniceva.  I played against this guy for a number of years – I mean I was a speed bump against him – on the international scene and let me say he was a handful.  Another giant of our sport, he will be integral to the Fijians’ prospects.

Keith Lulia has played brilliantly for the Bradford Bulls over the past couple of years and is a real Mr Consistent.  Many of the competition’s best attacking players have found themselves suffocated by his outstanding defence and he also knows how to get the ball over the try line.  It will be a tough battle for the Cooks and they will need leaders like Keith to show them way.

ITALY: Anthony Minichiello
Anthony Minichiello has a host of experience to call upon as a former Australian international and New South Wales representative.  He cut his teeth as a winger but then transferred to fullback and has made this his prime position.  Everything he does is at a million miles an hour.  An exciting player and one to watch.

ENGLAND: Sam Tomkins
Finally let’s assess last season’s Man of Steel Sam Tomkins.  For me he will be integral to England’s success.  He has a freakish attacking style that very few athletes in the world have been gifted – Brian Noble once described his running style as being “like a spider on crack”.  The advantage he has is that players Down Under do not get to see him week-in, week-out so are a little in the dark as to what he can deliver.  As we all know, all Sam needs is a single lapse in concentration and it’s try time for the Wigan star.