The Best Rookie Seasons in NRL History
Most players struggle to make a serious impact in their debut season of top-flight rugby league. Occasionally, though, a special player emerges and becomes an immediate star. Here we remember 10 of the finest rookie seasons.
10. Bobby Lulham
Newcastle winger Bobby Lulham arrived at Balmain in 1947 and took the NSWRL competition by storm, crossing for a club record 28 tries – the second-highest total in premiership history at the time and still equal-fourth almost 70 years later. Lulham crossed for a hat-trick against Newtown in his third appearance, bagged four tries against St George and crossed for a club record five tries against Parramatta, before featuring in the Tigers’ Grand Final defeat of Canterbury. A NSW debutant after just eight games, he scored three tries in the four interstate clashes, but he was prevented from earning rookie-season international honours as Australia did not play any Tests that year. A tragic Rugby League figure, 1948-49 Kangaroo Lulham’s career was curtailed when he was poisoned by his mother-in-law – who he was having an affair with – and consequently became involved in a sensational court case that gripped Sydney.
Bobby Lulham was named in Wests Tigers’ Greatest XIII.
9. Jarryd Hayne
Jarryd Hayne was a standout Dally M Rookie of the Year in 2006 as an 18-year-old winger for Parramatta, scoring an incredible 17 tries in just 16 games. He was immediately promoted to first grade by caretaker coach Jason Taylor in Round 11 after Brian Smith quit the club, and impressed right away with his speed, balance and freakish skills. Hayne scored 11 tries in a seven-game burst – including a four-try haul against Newcastle – to help lift the Eels from second-last to an eventual finals berth. The blockbusting flyer was chosen in Australia’s Tri-Nations squad at the end of the season, although he was not called upon for a Test debut until the following season.
8. Jim Leis
The inaugural Dally M Rookie of the Year in 1980, Wests lock Jim Leis achieved string of representative honours during his debut season. The 20-year-old notched a remarkable four-try haul against Penrith in his second first grade appearance. He came off the bench for NSW in a residence-selected interstate match, before winning selection in Australia’s squad to tour New Zealand. Although he did not play any Tests on tour, the tyro was chosen at lock in the Blues side for the historic one-off State of Origin match at Lang Park with Ray Price unavailable. Leis also collected the Dally M Lock of the Year gong and finished the season with eight tries as the Magpies reached the preliminary final.
7. Ian Schubert
Wauchope product Ian Schubert earned instant acclaim as a dashing, long-haired teenaged winger/fullback for dominant Eastern Suburbs in 1975. The 18-year-old debuted on the wing for City Firsts during the season and starred as the Roosters pieced together a premiership record 19-game winning streak. Schubert turned 19 on the eve of the finals and stepped into the fullback role for the injured Russell Fairfax, scoring a try in Easts’ 38-0 Grand Final destruction of St George – his 12th touchdown of the year. He was subsequently selected in Australia’s World Series squad, playing all four matches and crossing for seven tries, including hat-tricks against Wales and England.
6. Larry Corowa
Snapped up by Balmain after scoring five tries for Monaro against Great Britain in 1977, Queanbeyan Kangaroos winger Larry Corowa produced a magnificent debut season in the premiership. The 20-year-old Indigenous flyer – labelled ‘The Black Flash’ – topped the ’78 competition with 24 tries, eight clear of his nearest rival despite the Tigers’ ninth-place finish. He scored four tries against Newtown in just his second appearance and had three more hat-tricks to his name before the end of the year. Corowa crossed on debut for NSW and was picked in the Kangaroo Tour squad at the end of the season, although he made just seven minor match appearances (crossing for six tries) and would have to wait until the following year to make his Test debut.
5. Alex Johnston
La Perouse junior Alex Johnston made his NRL debut for South Sydney in Round 8 of the 2014 season and immediately cemented a wing berth. The 19-year-old crossed for an extraordinary 21 tries in just 18 games – including a touchdown in the Rabbitohs’ drought-breaking Grand Final triumph – to top the premiership. Edged for Dally M Rookie of the Year honours by Wests Tigers halfback Luke Brooks, Johnston was a bolter in Australia’s Four Nations squad but was not called upon for a Test debut, with fellow international newcomers Josh Mansour, Sione Mata’utia and Daniel Tupou preferred.
4. Steve Rogers
Cronulla’s 18-year-old centre Steve Rogers packed a career’s worth of experiences into his 1973 rookie season. A fresh-faced star as the Sharks reached their maiden finals series, Rogers top-scored for the club with 119 points. He scored a try in the preliminary final victory over Newtown and slotted two goals in the 10-7 Grand Final loss to Manly, regarded as the most violent decider on record. Rogers played two interstate games for NSW mid-season – scoring a try in each game – and was selected in the Kangaroo Tour squad at the end of the year. Although he did not play any Tests, Rogers made six minor match appearances, and turned 19 while abroad.
3. Daly Cherry-Evans
Daly Cherry-Evans slotted into the Manly No.7 jumper with astounding poise and confidence in 2011. The 22-year-old half played all 27 games as the Sea Eagles finished second in the minor premiership and surged to Grand Final glory. He finished equal-15th in the Dally M Medal and was a runaway Rookie of the Year winner, before scoring a vital try just before halftime of Manly’s 24-10 decider victory over the Warriors. Cherry-Evans leapfrogged the likes of NSW halfback Mitchell Pearce for a place in the Kangaroos’ Four Nations squad. He scored a try on Test debut, coming off the bench against Wales in his only appearance at the tournament, before being named RLIF Halfback of the Year.
2. Israel Folau
Israel Folau scored a try on NRL debut on the wing for Melbourne in the opening round of 2007, two weeks before his 18th birthday. Folau announced himself as a star and quickly became a strike weapon in one of rugby league’s best backlines. The tall, robust three-quarter bagged doubles in his next three outings and notched a hat-trick later in the year against the Bulldogs, finishing atop the competition’s regular season tryscoring table with a club record 21 touchdowns. After collecting a premiership ring as a centre in the Storm’s 34-8 Grand Final thrashing of Manly, the Dally M Rookie of the Year was selected in the Junior Kangaroos side. But an injury to Justin Hodges saw Folau called into Australia’s Test side, becoming the youngest Australian Test representative in history at 18 years and 194 days – breaking Balmain legend Charles ‘Chook’ Fraser’s 96-year-old record – and crossing for two tries on debut in a 58-0 demolition of New Zealand.
1. Reg Gasnier
Rugby League Immortal centre Reg Gasnier enjoyed a meteoric rise during his 1959 rookie season, debuting for St George shortly before turning 20 and scoring four tries in a match against Wests in his fifth appearance, after which he was chosen for NSW. The prodigious talent was called up to make his Test debut after just one further first grade game, playing all three Tests against New Zealand; he scored a hat-trick in the second Test and a double in the third clash. Gasnier’s semi-final double against the Magpies helped the Saints into the Grand Final and took his season tally to 13, but he was ruled out of the decider by injury. That disappointment was tempered by his selection in the Kangaroo Tour squad, and he starred with 20 tries in 19 games. Gasnier played in all six Tests against Great Britain and France, scoring another hat-trick in the opening Ashes encounter.
Read more: St George-Illawarra’s Greatest 13.