Published in Thirteen in 2006
by Jason Emery
Ones to Watch in 2006.
(Have re-published this as it’s interesting to see which made the fulfilled their potential and which haven’t.)
Ashley Gibson – Leeds
Keen Academy followers of Leeds Rhinos rate 19-year-old Ash Gibson as one of the best juniors to emerge for the past five years which is really saying something considering that the likes of Rob Burrow, Danny McGuire and Chev Walker have gone on to become internationals and another boom youngster, Lee Smith, has recently graduated to the first team.
Gibson is equally adept at fullback or centre and has even played loose forward on several occasions. He is of solid build, has a very deceptive running style and is a lot faster than he looks. His good footwork and natural strength allows him to glide past defenders with ease.
2005 was a massive year for the former Stanningley amateur who made his Super League debut against Leigh and will go down as being only the seventh player in the history of the Leeds club to score a hat-trick on debut joining an impressive array of names which includes the likes of Eric Grothe, Cliff Lyons and Marcus Bai. If that wasn’t enough, he also kicked five goals for a total of 22 points, not bad for starters.
This prolific point-scorer topped the charts for the Academy with 320 points which paved the way for his inclusion into the England Under-18s for the second year in a row, this time against the French, where he played in the centres and scored 32 points with two tries and 12 goals.
So far in 2006, Gibson has played in a couple of the clubs friendlies and he has performed well, especially against Wakefield when, playing in the centres, he scored two good tries and looked a class act. With his utility value, the pressure will be on the incumbents to perform.
James Graham – St Helens
It must be quite daunting for a teenager to be rubbing shoulders with a host of the game’s biggest stars, but young forward James Graham seems to revel in the situation. Last year, James had progressed from the new kid on the block to blossom into one of the most consistent prop/second rows in Super League. In what was a breakthrough season, he played over 20 games and kept more experienced, high-profile players out of the side.
James is a model professional who has a massive future in the game. Apart from his great attitude, his strengths are his extra speed which provides strong go forward and he has developed a neat off load before he hits the line. Over the past year there has been a notable difference in Graham’s physique with the obvious benefits of turning pro. He is taller and has less body fat, thus allowing him to cope with the demands of playing up front week-in, week-out.
He had the huge honour of captaining the England Academy on their history-making tour to Australia and New Zealand in 2004 where they beat the Aussies for the first time ever on home soil, also beating the Junior Kiwis and it was the skipper who showed his outstanding leadership skills continually driving the ball forward and rallying his troops, leading them to their magnificent achievements on tour.
St Helens look to have a superb squad full of quality and depth and James Graham will be competing for his spot with a pack of internationals like Lee Gilmour, Vinnie Anderson and Jon Wilkin but you can rest assured if he carries on from where he left off last year then his name will be on the team sheet every week.
Jamie Langley – Bradford
Outstanding in the World Club Challenge win over Wests Tigers, ex-England Academy skipper Jamie Langley has always been a player of enormous potential and natural ability. He has been a regular in the Bulls squad over the past few seasons but without ever really establishing himself enough to nail down the number-13 spot in the starting line-up.
Last season Langley was used mainly as an impact player who could come off the interchange bench and be a potent attacking weapon out wide. His form in the play-offs was almost good enough to warrant a spot in the Great Britain squad with the highlight being his two try performance in the sensational win at St Helens. However a shoulder injury prevented him from taking part in any of the end of season rep games.
Still just 22 years of age, if Langley can add some consistency to his game then he can become one of Super League’s most dominant players and selection for Great Britain will be a formality.
Andy Kain – Castleford
20-year-old scrum half Andy Kain is perhaps under as much pressure as any other player entering into the new Super League season.
While it is generally agreed that the Tigers have assembled what looks to be a competitive forward pack, many experts believe that Castleford could struggle in the halves and out wide given their lack of experience and big name players. Some fans expected to see a major signing to bolster the halves, but in Andy Kain, the ex England Schoolboys star, we feel the Tigers have one of the best up and coming young British half backs in the game with a mature head on young shoulders and a good kicking game.
Kain is very nimble on his feet and has the acceleration to speed through a gap in a flash, if the Tigers forwards such as Nutley and Sculthorpe can provide a good platform as expected and offload in the tackle then you can bet Andy Kain will be sniffing around in support, ready to take full advantage.
He certainly has the ability to develop into a top class halfback.
Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook – Harlequins
Louis who?, many will ask, but once fans set eyes on this promising young prop they won’t forget him in a hurry. He is a real personality player who loves it tough. He only knows one pace and that’s fast.
Whilst the 19-year-old may be very raw, Harlequins may have discovered a real diamond in the former Greenwich Admirals junior who, in 2004, was named as BARLA’s player of the tour to Australia following an outstanding season with the Broncos Academy side.
Last year Louis spent the season on loan with Hull FC where he was a part of the successful under 21 premiership winning team. That experience played a massive part of his development and when the Broncos became the Harlequins, Louis returned from up north with his typical determination and enthusiasm to make it at Super League level.
In his recent debut in the pre-season against Les Catalans, Louis was regarded as the best prop on the pitch amongst Temata, Mills, Chan and Guisset. There’s much more to come.
Matt Gardner – Huddersfield
Amongst the host of star signings made by the Giants for 2006, one signing in particular seemed to go largely unnoticed which was that of 20-year-old winger Matt Gardner from Leeds Rhinos, who is the younger brother of Saints’ Ade.
While Matt is very big for a winger standing at 192 cm and weighing nearly 100 kilos, he is one of the fastest runners at the club and should prove to be a difficult proposition for opponents to handle.
He played a starring role for the England Academy side (pictured) in the historic 2002 series win over the Australian Schoolboys and now he has been given the opportunity at Super League level, it is one this prolific try scorer will want to make the most of.
The two vital components that the Giants lacked out wide in 2005, at times, was genuine size and speed and this season Gardner will provide them with both, when given his chance in the side.
Kirk Yeaman – Hull
Will 2006 be the year Kirk Yeaman goes from being a very good centre to a great centre?
Yeaman has a reputation for being one of the games most dedicated trainers and is renowned at his club for being first into the gym and the last to leave.
One of Kirk’s greatest strengths is hitting the line at high speed and he formed a wonderful combination with the ball playing skills of Paul Cooke towards the end of last season. A night the fans won’t forget in a hurry was the night Hull spoiled the Andrew Johns party in the play-offs at the Halliwell Jones stadium and that was possibly Yeaman’s finest display in Super League yet.
Given the below par performances of both Keith Senior and Martin Gleeson in the Tri Nations for Great Britain, the centre positions could be up for grabs and, if Yeaman continues his rapid progress, he will be surely come into the minds of the selectors for the 2006 tour Down Under.
Gregory Mounis – Les Catalans
Keep an eye out for the talented young loose forward Gregory Mounis who has already played a dozen internationals for his country and has stood out at that level against both Australia and New Zealand.
Mounis has displayed an impressive array of ball skills and he has a great understanding with scrum half Julien Rinaldi, his team mate for both club and country.
Originally a stand off, Mounis has grown in stature over the past three years and now has the perfect build for a mobile loose forward where the strength of his game is his ability to hit the defensive line on the fringes of the ruck and off load to his support players.
Mounis is such a mature player that it’s easy to forget that he is only 20 years of age. He captained his country at junior levels and he seems destined to lead France again in the future. Maybe that will happen at the 2008 World Cup.
Karl Fitzpatrick – Salford
One of Super League’s most exciting players of 2005 was Karl Fitzpatrick whose scorching pace and unpredictability combined to produce many magic moments for the Reds, although, sadly injury took out a large chunk of the season for the former halfback who has now found a home at fullback.
In a Salford team which is rather more workmanlike than blessed with outstanding individuals, fans will be hoping for an injury-free season for Fitzpatrick so coach Karl Harrison can continue to give him a free reign in attack. The experience gained in the Euro Nations Cup playing for Ireland will have given him the taste for the Representative scene and he will be a key player in the lead up to the World Cup.
With Super League getting tougher and tougher every season, it could only take a split second of Fitzy brilliance to turn a match such as in the games against London Broncos, for those who saw the match winning tries at the Willows last season will know that again in 2006, Karl Fitzpatrick is the one to watch.
Jon Whittle – Wakefield
The Wildcats look to have picked up a real find in the exciting centre Jon Whittle. The 23-year-old has been compared to a younger Martin Gleeson with his speed and footwork and fans will be hoping that Whittle can add a bit of magic to the Wildcats’ backline which lacked a bit of class at times last season.
Signed from the relegated Widnes Vikings, Whittle was one of the real shining lights in a poor year and he was one of the few players to really perform anywhere near his best. Signed by Widnes from Wigan Warriors, Whittle had dabbled in a bit of rugby union for Orrell but it didn’t last long as he soon returned to Wigan for whom he had previously played Academy league in 2001 and 2002.
Jon should be excited about the prospect of playing outside the likes of Ben Jeffries, Jamie Rooney and Sam Obst, players who should provide him with some early ball and, with a bit of space, and the right service, then watch him make an impact on the eleventh Super League season.
Andy Bracek – Warrington
They say prop forwards don’t mature until their late 20s and if that’s the case, then we are in for a treat with 18-year-old Andy Bracek, who, standing at almost 190 cm and weighing in at 100kg, has pace, mobility and toughness in abundance.
Bracek also has the ball skills in his armour to trouble opposition defences. One of the features of his game is he can pop a pass from anywhere with one particular admirer being Andrew Johns, who Bracek was lucky enough to play with during Johns’ short stint in England.
Coach Paul Cullen used Bracek off the bench to great effect late last season, when he could come on against tired defences and put on some neat footwork to beat his opponents. However, if Bracek can start well and prove his consistency, he may well force his way into the starting thirteen.
With big Paul Rauhihi joining the Wolves pack, competition for places will be intense which, in the long run, will do Bracek no end of good.
Harrison Hansen – Wigan
The tall, rangy second rower Harrison Hansen exceeded everyone’s expectation in 2005 by playing superbly in over 20 games and narrowly missing out on the Super League Young player of the year award.
While serious injury to Gareth Hock and Sean O’Loughlin, plus the loss of Andy Farrell and Luke Davico, opened the door, the athletic Hansen was a revelation in a tough season for the Warriors. Perhaps more known as a dynamic running backrower, his defence also caught the eye and he should be proud of his efforts in his debut season.
Now, after a rigorous off-season where he has bulked up, this year looms as another big one for Hansen as he faces a massive challenge for a place in the Wigan side with Danny Tickle, Bryan Fletcher and Hock.
He’s a class act who will be a key player for the Wigan side in 2006 and a star at the club for years to come if he fulfils his potential.