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Mate v mate: The key positional battle at your club this pre-season

With the pre-season in full swing and coaches formulating plans for how they want their team to look come round one, examines the crucial positional battles set to play out at all 17 clubs.

New recruits have arrived at clubs to put pressure on incumbents, rising stars are out to make their mark in the top grade, and the Dolphins start with a clean slate with all spots up for grabs under the supercoach Wayne Bennett.

With the kick-off to the 2023 season just three months away, takes a deep dive into the intriguing showdowns for coveted starting spots at every club.


Fullback – Jake Averillo v Jacob Kiraz

A couple of exciting youngsters who will both play a big role in Cameron Ciraldo’s plans for 2023 but only one can be the No.1. Averillo enters his fourth year at the club with 54 games and 19 tries already to his name, seven of those coming in his 10 games at fullback in 2022. That included a golden fortnight against the Eels and Tigers in rounds 14 and 15 when the 22-year-old crossed four times to help the Dogs to two big wins. Kiraz was predominantly used as a winger at NRL level last season but his three outings at fullback for Lebanon at the World Cup had critics raving. The 21-year-old averaged 139 metres per game and had eight tackle breaks as he stretched the defences of New Zealand, Ireland and Australia with some dazzling footwork and evasion.

Most-watched tries of 2022: No. 38


Hooker – Mitch Kenny v Soni Luke

Api Koroisau’s move to Wests Tigers opens the door for Mitch Kenny to take over full-time as the starting hooker but late bloomer Soni Luke will be snapping at his heels. Kenny is entering his fifth season at the Panthers and brings plenty of experience to the table, having started at dummy half in the Grand Final against the Eels and absorbed the early pressure in a solid 24-minute stint before being interchanged. Luke racked up 20 try assists and 22 line break assists for the Panthers as they charged to the NSW Cup premiership and he capped a fine season with a brilliant display in the State Championship Final against Norths Devils (three try assists, one try, four tackle breaks). The 26-year-old had to overcome three shoulder reconstructions on his right arm and a torn pectoral muscle before finally getting his crack at the top level and he’ll be hungry for more in 2023.

Soni scoots and scores


Hooker – Billy Walters v Cory Paix v Tyson Smoothy

Billy Walters was starting hooker in 12 of his 23 appearances in 2022 and looking to next season, will have to contend with Cory Paix who is pushing to improve on his 12 appearances off the bench as he enters his fourth season with the club. Former Storm rake Tyson Smoothy, who was named in the 2022 Hostplus Cup Team of the Year after making a competition-high 788 tackles for the season with Sunshine Coast Falcons, is a new face at the club who has NRL experience and will be putting pressure on the two favourites. Additionally, there is plenty of interest in the development of young Queensland representative player Blake Mozer who will no doubt be working to force his way from the Hostplus Cup into the NRL as well.

Walters: Competition and combinations the focus early

Wests Tigers

Fullback – Daine Laurie v Charlie Staines

Amid a season of doom and gloom at Wests Tigers, livewire fullback Daine Laurie was one of the few bright spots, averaging 120 metres per game and chalking up 77 tackle breaks. His return of two tries in 19 games is a concern, however, and the arrival of noted finisher Charlie Staines from the Panthers could provide new coach Tim Sheens with a dilemma as to who wears the coveted No.1 jersey. Staines already has 23 tries to his name in just 39 games, including four in an outrageous NRL debut against the Sharks in 2020. He comes from a great system, he already has a premiership to his name and he knows how to win. Both men are in their early 20s and have bright careers ahead of them and it will be intriguing to see how the wily Sheens uses the two speedsters in 2023.

Laurie creating something from nothing


Lock – Ryan Matterson v Nathan Brown

A settled side with a majority of positions locked away on the back of their charge to the 2022 Grand Final but a contest looms for the starting role at lock. Ryan Matterson enjoyed a fine season, averaging 153 metres per game and making his Origin debut for NSW, but as the year wore on, the calls grew louder for Nathan Brown to be recalled to the side. After coming off the bench in round 17 against Wests Tigers, the hard-charging Brown wasn’t sighted again until the Grand Final. Much will depend on the style of footy the Eels want to play but Brown’s ability to unsettle opponents and get his team on the front foot can’t be underestimated and will provide good competition for Matterson for the No.13.

Matterson strolls over


Prop – Tom Burgess v Davvy Moale

The departure of the ultra-reliable Mark Nicholls to the Dolphins leaves a gap for a starting front-rower alongside Tevita Tatola, who powered through 136 metres per game in 2022. Tom Burgess has plenty of credits in the bank with 209 games of loyal service and a premiership player to his name while new kid on the block Davvy Moale made his Test debut for Cook Islands at the World Cup and looks ready to graduate to a starting role at Redfern. The 19-year-old will need to increase his game time in 2023 but he has the motor and the potential to be a star for the Bunnies across the next three seasons. Burgess turns 31 in April but he is showing no signs of taking the foot off the gas, running for 140 metres a game in 2022 as he alternated between the starting side (nine games) and the bench (12 games).

Season shapers: Rabbitohs


Second row – Sitili Tupouniua v Nat Butcher

The Roosters boost a powerful forward pack with several options available to coach Trent Robinson across a number of positions. Sitili Tupouniua was having a fine season on the left edge with seven tries in 16 games before suffering an ACL injury against the Dragons in round 18 but his rehab is progressing well and he expects to be back on the track in January. Butcher made a starting spot in his own at the back end of the season in Tupouniua's absence, scoring tries for fun with eight in the last seven matches. The 25-year-old ticked over the 100-game mark in round 24 and his work ethic in defence (35 tackles per game) and ability to find the try-line continues to impress. 


Fullback – Tyrell Sloan v Cody Ramsey

The Red V averaged 19 points per game in 2022 and will need to crank up that output considerably if they are to climb the ladder next season. In Tyrell Sloan and Cody Ramsey they boast two dangerous weapons capable of moments of brilliance on their day. Young gun Sloan played the first three games of 2022 at fullback and then had a blinder at the back in round 10 before falling out of favour with coach Anthony Griffin and playing only four more games (two on the wing, two on the bench) for the season. Ramsey slid into the No.1 jersey in round 11 and made the spot his own with six tries and 128 metres per game but the 22-year-old is reportedly battling a serious illness which will undoubtedly have an effect on his pre-season. Dragons fans will be sending their best wishes to the elusive fullback and hoping he can make it onto the paddock in 2023 as the search for redemption begins.

Super Sloan flies high


Fullback – Will Kennedy v Lachlan Miller

Craig Fitzgibbon has two sensational options to wear the No.1 jersey, with Lachie Miller’s emergence in 2022 putting him right in the frame alongside Will Kennedy. When former rugby sevens star Miller got his chance in round 11, he proved a revelation, running for 294 metres and breaking nine tackles in a 25-18 win over the Titans. He also chalked up 197 run metres and 10 tackle breaks against Manly in round 23. Miller proved a handy fill-in on the wing a couple of matches as well but Ronaldo Mulitalo and Sione Katoa have the wing spots sewn up so Miller will need to unseat Kennedy if he’s to be a regular starter. That will be no easy task as the elusive Kennedy had 38 tackle breaks and scored seven tries in 2022 while averaging 115 metres per game.

Magic Miller shines on debut

Sea Eagles

Centre – Tolu Koula v Morgan Harper

Brad Parker enters his eighth season at Manly needing just two games to bring up 100 in the NRL and he looks a certain starter in the centres but the other spot is up for grabs. Young gun Tolu Koula showed flashes of brilliance in his debut season and offers a real X-factor for new coach Anthony Seibold while Morgan Harper averaged 110 metres per game and had 42 tackle breaks across 18 matches in 2022. He had a tough night out against Siosifa Talakai at Shark Park in round seven but put that behind him to produce a solid season. Also in the mix is Ben Trbojevic, who brings size and speed to the table and will be keen to play plenty more footy alongside brothers Tom and Jake, after the trio shared the field twice in 2022 (round 9 and 10).


Halfback – Sean O’Sullivan v Isaiya Katoa

All of the main contenders for the vacant halves roles can play either five-eighth or halfback; and while conventional wisdom has World Cup finalist Anthony Milford, who played five-eighth for Samoa, in the six jersey with Sean O’Sullivan in the seven, young talent Isaiya Katoa showed he could more than mix it with the best of them despite his age while playing halfback for Tonga. Depending on which direction Wayne Bennett wants to lean, pairing the exciting youngster with Milford may be a sure-fire way to progress his development at the top level, while O’Sullivan is a ‘safer’ choice and would be seen as a steady hand who could free Milford up to chance his arm and rediscover the kind of form that saw him guide the Broncos into the 2015 grand final. Outside of these main three contenders, Kodi Nikorima is one of the most experienced players in the squad and will be pressing his claims for a starting spot.

Why it's the right time for O'Sullivan's Dolphins move


Halves – Tyson Gamble v Jackson Hastings v Kurt Mann

Adam Clune and Phoenix Crossland were the halfback and five-eighth combination in Newcastle’s final match of 2022, but both will have some new faces pressing them for a spot in the halves. Former Broncos firebrand Tyson Gamble has made the move down to the Hunter and will be aiming to be in the No.6 jersey once 2023 rolls around, as will former Wests Tigers star Jackson Hastings. Gamble is coming to Newcastle fresh off a grand final win with Norths Devils in Queensland’s Hostplus Cup and he also won player of the match honours in the preliminary final after setting up a number of key tries. Hastings is known for his competitive nature and he will be gunning for the five-eighth or halfback position as well, although he showed his versatility in playing at halfback and at lock for his former club last year. Meanwhile, the adaptable Kurt Mann has done a job for the club there previously. All of that too doesn't include speculation of a potential switch into the halves for Kalyn Ponga as well in 2023, which would only further increase the healthy competition for halves spots in the Hunter next year.


Halves – Kieran Foran v AJ Brimson v Toby Sexton v Tanah Boyd

The Titans have been one of the more active sides on the player market this past off-season and have some key talent to join them on the field next year. The biggest signing is arguably that of Rugby League World Cup Kiwi representative Kieran Foran who will no doubt feature highly in coach Justin Holbrook’s plans for Round 1. Who joins him in the halves will be an interesting puzzle, with AJ Brimson, who could keep Jayden Campbell out of the fullback role, a front runner, while youngster Toby Sexton would greatly benefit from playing alongside an experienced mentor in Foran. Tanah Boyd, who can also play hooker, kicked the winning field goal in their final 2022 round game, while Paul Turner also played in the halves this past season. Waiting in the wings is highly regarded youngster Tom Weaver who will be working towards making his NRL debut.

Fantastic Mr Foz: Foran reports for Titans duty


Second row – Tariq Sims v Eliesa Katoa

The Storm had their squad depth severely tested during an injury-hit 2022 but that is set to put them in good stead for the year ahead having lost a number of leaders in their forward pack. The departures of representative edge forwards Felise Kaufusi and Kenny Bromwich in particular mean it will be a new-look second row that runs out for round one. Two new signings in Tariq Sims and Eliesa Katoa will no doubt be fighting it out for starting spots alongside existing players who will looking to make their mark in Tom Eisenhuth, Trent Loiero, Josh King, Tui Kamikamica and Alec MacDonald, who spent time between the second row and lock last year. While the more experienced Sims, who has played Origin for NSW and Test footy for Fiji may seem like he has the inside running to claim a starting spot, there is much to like about the play of former Warrior Katoa who fans will be hoping will blossom under the coaching of Craig Bellamy.


Utility – Ben Hampton v Jake Granville v Tom Chester

Following their unexpected and impressive run to the finals last year, you’d imagine not many changes would be made to the make-up of the squad for the North Queensland Cowboys next year. However, with the departure of Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to the Dolphins, there is room on the bench for a utility who can slot in at the back if needed. While Ben Hampton and Jake Granville are known quantities, having both filled this position previously, young gun Tom Chester is another option who will be pushing to add more games to his resume after making his debut last year. Primarily a fullback, Chester has been training at centre, but came up through the grades as a youngster in the halves, and was also the starting lock with the Townsville Blackhawks when they won Queensland’s statewide Hastings Deering Colts under 20 competition in 2020.

Hiku's guidance helping Chester push for more NRL time


Centre – Jarrod Croker v Semi Valemei v Sebastian Kris

The Raiders backs were a mix-and-match bunch last season with wingers and centres named interchangeably throughout the whole season. While young talent Matt Timoko seems in the box seat to retain his spot in the centres, having been one of the most consistent in the position (featuring there in all 26 of his club appearances last year), his opposite partner is an interesting proposition. With Jarrod Croker returning from injury and expected to resume contact training in January, that leaves him up against impressive Fiji representative Semi Valemei, who had a strong World Cup campaign, and Kiwi Seb Kris, who played 16 games in the centres for the Raiders last year to compete for the remaining place.

Timoko goes bang bang


Fullback – Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad v Luke Metcalf v Dallin Watene-Zelezniak

While the returning Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad has been given the nod of approval by new coach Andrew Webster to start as the team’s custodian next season, he will be kept on his toes by a bevy of talented players. While both Luke Metcalf is more likely to contest for the five-eighth position with Te Maire Martin, both have performed in the role for their past clubs. Similarly, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak played all his games with the Warriors on the wing last year, but he is no slouch at the back and was fullback when he captained New Zealand to a Test win over Australia in 2018. The 2022 Hostplus Cup player of the year Taine Tuaupiki is at the club for a train and trial and will be making his case to stay around with the club during this pre-season.

Acknowledgement of Country

Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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