X-factor: Player that’ll make your NRL team a contender
JUST about every NRL club has a player that elevates the team from also-ran to premiership contender.
We take a look at the 16 players with the ability to make or break your NRL team's season in 2019.
TIGERS: BENJI MARSHALL
How many times do you think Benji Marshall has been described as an X-factor? He debuted in 2003 as a 17-year old who sidestepped like a kangaroo on acid and his X-factor capabilities have only grown stronger with time.
Throw in the flick passes, the dud shoulders, that period where passes were either hitting the winger on the chest or the bloke in the first row with literally no other possible outcome and Marshall might be the biggest X-factor player of all time.
As he prepares for what may be his final NRL season, Marshall is still an extremely X-factorish guy even though he's settled down a lot. Marshall doesn't make as many errors as he once did and his ability to organise and direct has improved out of sight, but by virtue of the Tigers' muddled spine (it remains to be seen if Marshall or Josh Reynolds start at five-eighth) and his X-factor pedigree, Marshall still holds the Tigers' destiny in his hands.
DRAGONS: MATT DUFTY
There has been talk ever since the season finished regarding Matt Dufty's future at St George Illawarra and it may continue well into next season, but it would be a mistake if the Dragons were to move on from the Hurstville junior.
While the 22-year-old is far from the finished product, especially as a ballplayer, his speed and ability as an open-field runner are rare weapons and he still has plenty of improvement left.
The Dragons found all sorts of interesting ways to play towards Dufty's strengths in attack last season and it's something they should focus on again in 2019 - he is a unique attacking weapon and those things need to be exploited as much as possible.
RAIDERS: AIDAN SEZER
Sezer is entering his fourth season as a Raider and there are still more questions than answers when it comes to the 27-year old. He has all the physical skills an elite-level half could need - sharp passing, a howitzer boot, good footwork and a running game he should trust more often.
But since he arrived in Canberra in 2016, Sezer has struggled to put it all together for a lengthy period. There have been good games and good patches, but he's yet to fulfil his considerable potential.
Some of that is not his fault - his move to hooker last year was a total disaster and the constant shuffling of the spine through the season didn't help matters either - but the time has come for Sezer to prove if he is more than what he;s become.
As Sezer prepares for his eighth season in first grade it is reasonable to question if he ever will, but Canberra chose him over Blake Austin when the duo came off contract in 2018 and if the Raiders are to return to semi-final football there can be no more waiting.
COWBOYS: BEN BARBA
North Queensland's flabbergasting journey to the foot of the ladder last season was attributable, in part, to a total points drought.
After years of boasting one of the better attacks in the competition, the Cowboys were 12th in points scored last season and would have been even lower if they hadn't finished the year as well as they did.
The return of Michael Morgan will help matters, as will the recruitment of Nene MacDonald, but the revival may well live and die with Ben Barba.
The former Dally M Medal winner dubbed himself "the X-factor" at the beginning of his career for a reason and his excellent stint with St Helens showed his powers have not yet dulled.
Given how much of North Queensland's attack flows directly through their spine look for the former Bulldog, Bronco and Shark to have plenty of touches.
BRONCOS: ANTHONY SEIBOLD
To the immense relief of everyone who was sick to death of it, the Anthony Seibold-Wayne Bennett swap has gone through and the Broncos now belong to the former German international.
Seibold's Rabbitohs were the most exciting attacking team in the league in 2018, thanks in no small part to the brilliant, intricate and perfectly executed attack the rookie coach managed to impose.
Now, with a very different roster with very different strengths, it remains to be seen if Seibold's Broncos play the same way.
Brisbane don't have a kicker as good as Adam Reynolds but they have a tremendously talented spine, albeit one that lacks versatility at times. What Seibold decides to do with his new charges will be one of the fascinating developments of 2019.
STORM: CAMERON MUNSTER
The future of the Storm beyond the Cronk-Slater-Smith triumvirate is Cameron Munster but where Craig Bellamy chooses to play him could be the determining factor for Melbourne's title hopes.
It is a measure of Munster's ability as a footballer that he would have been the Australian five-eighth had he not withdrawn from the end of season Tests even though his best position is probably still fullback.
With Slater retiring, Bellamy is expected to lean on Jahrome Hughes as the new man in the spine but, like Munster, Hughes can alternate between fullback and five-eighth.
Given Munster has spent the last two seasons in the halves he may well stay there but given he is the future of the club it may make more sense to play him in a position where he can have maximum impact.
ROOSTERS: WINNING THE PREMIERSHIP
On the surface, the Roosters have nothing to worry about. They still have James Tedesco and Cooper Cronk, they still have a forward pack capable of matching it with the best in the competition, they still have Latrell Mitchell and Joseph Manu and hey, they're going to have to bench Kiwi Test forward Isaac Liu because they signed NSW Origin forward Angus Crichton. How are they ever going to get by?
The only thing that can stop the Roosters is the same thing that stopped them in 2014, 2015 and 2017 after they won the 2013 premiership. Having climbed the mountain, can they summon the same effort?
The Roosters will still be one of the top sides next season, that seems all but certain, but will they have the same hunger, the same edge, the same single-minded focus they showed on their road to the title this season?
EELS: JUNIOR PAULO
There were a lot of things wrong with Parramatta last season but their biggest problem was how small they were in the middle of the field. Nathan Brown is tenacious, Tim Mannah is industrious, Daniel Alvaro is all effort all the time, but sometimes rugby league is as simple as big fellas running over little fellas.
The Eels have rectified that problem by getting two of the biggest fellas they can find - tall timber Shaun Lane from Manly and the incongruously named Junior Paulo from Canberra. Paulo, who returns to Parramatta after two-and-a-half seasons with the Raiders, is the best prop nobody talks about.
He can play big minutes and carries the ball as well as any big man in the game. If he hadn't been with the Raiders these past few years he would have entered Origin discussions.
The returning Paulo has the ability to completely transform Parramatta's forward pack this season.
BULLDOGS: REIMIS SMITH
Electric winger Reimis Smith can play the same role as Jordan Rapana in Canberra. In a Canterbury side lacking spark, the Dogs must use Smith as often as possible.
If they can inject him around the ruck, Smith can manufacture points and second-phase play out of nothing.
The son of former Kiwi international Tyran Smith has scored nine tries in 12 NRL appearances and collected four consecutive club man-of-the-match awards at the back end of 2018. Expect a big year from the youngster who could enter the New Zealand Test debate for the end of season.
TITANS: BRYCE CARTWRIGHT
You'll struggle to find a player more fitting to the X-factor criteria than Bryce Cartwright. Nor will you find a player who has highs and lows further apart. At his best, Cartwright can be absolutely devastating.
At his worst, he's the highest paid player in Queensland Cup. Adding greater pressure to Cartwright's form is that Gold Coast's bolstered squad is significantly short a right edge back-rower. The rangy ball-playing forward went away from the fundamentals of rugby league last season with an eye on creativity.
He wasn't willing to roll up his sleeves and commit to the dirty work required at NRL level. If he embraces a run first, pass second mentality, the rest will follow.
KNIGHTS: CONNOR WATSON
Connor Watson has an unfortunate habit of striking injury every time he begins to peak in form. Nathan Brown's decision to shift him and Kalyn Ponga between five-eighth and fullback is baffling, but let's for a minute back the expertise of the coach. Watson provides attacking flair wherever he roams on the field.
If Watson, Ponga and Mitchell Pearce can stay injury free after playing just the first three games together last season, the trio can evolve into one of the most potent spines in the NRL.
PANTHERS: VILIAME KIKAU
Following a stellar Fijian World Cup campaign, Kikau matched his immense hype leading into 2018. He was at times literally unstoppable. Kikau developed an 80-minute motor, a superbly timed offload and game awareness with those around him.
The towering second-rower was Penrith's go-to man last season, often acting as an unconventional extra playmaker on the left edge. At just 23, Kikau's talent is still so raw. The terrifying prospect for rivals is that there's plenty of improvement left in his game.
His combination with James Maloney will continue to thrive and frequently bust games wide open.
RABBITOHS: DAMIEN COOK
While a bleedingly obvious X-factor, the Rabbitohs hooker is likely to find the 2019 season more difficult than last. Cook's limited game time prior to 2018 gave him a wildcard factor when igniting the competition with his running game last season.
In a natural course of events for any great player, rivals dissected his game throughout the year. Extra attention and a tighter ruck defence reduced his impact in the latter end of the season.
In 2019, Cook must find ways to adjust his game and get ahead of his competition. Expect the crafty rake to continue the development of his kicking game which would take plenty of pressure off South Sydney's halves.
WARRIORS: TOHU HARRIS
The big second-rower is a key cog in New Zealand's right-edge attacking unit. When out with his frequent niggling injuries, the edge significantly loses its potency.
The loss of creative genius Shaun Johnson heaps additional pressure on Harris' role.
His ball-playing quality and ability to capitalise on an attacking advantage will need to be at its peak in Johnson's absence. If the Warriors fail to sign a halfback, either of the untested Chanel Harris-Tavita or Adam Keighran will likely be promoted into the starting line-up.
This would make the experience of Harris pivotal to the attacking structures on the right-edge.
SHARKS: SHAUN JOHNSON
The debate is on as to whether or not the flamboyant Johnson will suit Cronulla's style. The gifted playmaker has spent his career in the Warriors' unstructured unit, while the Sharks focus on grinding opponents down with low-risk completions.
Johnson is too good a player not to succeed in his new surroundings over time, however the speed at which he gels with the side will prove crucial to Cronulla's immediate premiership credentials.
Should his creative prowess thrive early in the season, it could be the perfect balance to catapult the Sharks into title contention.
SEA EAGLES: MARTY TAUPAU
The importance of the big prop to Manly is enormous. The side lack punch off the bench, so in the absence of Taupau and Addin Fonua-Blake they struggle to set a platform for the playmakers.
Taupau's tackle-breaking and offloading abilities provide the majority of the side's second-phase play, allowing the likes of Tom Trbojevic and Daly Cherry-Evans to shine.
Manly have developed a dependence on Taupau's go forward, making his long-term fitness paramount to the club's success.