Upwards from QRL: The 2022 graduates

By Jorja Brinums & Rikki-Lee Arnold via qrl.com.au

When it comes to rugby league in Queensland, the talent pool is huge and success stories are aplenty.

From grassroots through to the Queensland Maroons, there is an abundance of skillful players who impress.

Thirteen players graduated from playing Hostplus Cup in 2021 and 2022 to the NRL this season. And of course, Norths Devils coach Rohan Smith made the jump to Leeds Rhinos mid-season after taking out the Cup title in 2021. His side, under the guidance of Kevin Neighbour and Ben King, went back-to-back this year.

The 2022 graduates

1. Alec MacDonald

Hostplus Cup clubs: Wynnum Manly Seagulls and Brisbane Tigers
NRL club: Melbourne Storm
NRL debut: Round 1, 2022 against West Tigers

The 21-year-old lock played 16 Hastings Deering Colts and five Cup games for Wynnum Manly Seagulls in 2021, where he caught the eye of those in the know at Storm. After joining Storm on a train-and-trial contract, he became a bolter for Melbourne’s 2022 season opener, debuting to become Storm’s 221st player. MacDonald, used off the bench, finished the season with 12 appearances. He scored his first and only NRL try in Round 17, and finished the year with 12 tackle breaks, 685 run metres, 231 tackles and a huge 95.4 per cent tackle efficiency. MacDonald also played in seven Cup games for Storm affiliate Brisbane Tigers during season 2022.  

2. Isaiah Tass

Hostplus Cup club: Souths Logan Magpies
NRL club: South Sydney Rabbitohs
NRL debut: Round 6, 2022 against the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs

The talented centre, 23, was part of the Brisbane Broncos system in 2021, playing 15 Cup games for affiliate Souths Logan Magpies, scoring nine tries and kicking 45 goals. His stellar season saw him sign with South Sydney Rabbitohs and make the move down south. This year, Tass scored a try during his NRL debut in Round 6 against the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs. He went on to play 15 more NRL games and score two more top-grade tries. Tass, born in Mackay, also played in nine NSW Cup games throughout the year.

3. Michael Molo

Hostplus Cup club: Norths Devils
NRL club: St George Illawarra Dragons
NRL debut: Round 11, 2022 against the New Zealand Warriors

Molo, the younger brother to FOG #219 Francis Molo, was a standout for Norths Devils during his 20 Cup games in season 2021, which culminated in a grand final win and Duncan Hall Medal honours for player of the match. The Wavell State High School product’s efforts saw him sign with St George Illawarra Dragons and he has since played 10 NSW Cup games and eight NRL games for the Dragons, as well as being a replacement player for two matches, before the season ended.  Molo, 25, scored a try on debut against the Warriors in Round 11 and made 148 tackles with a 98 per cent tackle efficiency during his eight games.

4. Ezra Mam

Hostplus Cup club: Souths Logan Magpies
NRL club: Brisbane Broncos
NRL debut: Round 11, 2022 against Newcastle Knights

Mam’s epic rise in 2021 saw him go from playing six Auswide Bank Mal Meninga Cup games, to two Hastings Deering Colts games, to scoring 13 tries in 11 Cup games to earn himself the Cup Rookie of the Year gong. His electrifying presence on the field saw him earn a spot in the Broncos’ Top 30 for season 2022. Mam made his NRL debut in Round 11 against Newcastle Knights; he finished the season with six tries and 13 appearances for the Broncos. Mam also donned Souths Logan black and white seven times during the year.

5. Jono Reuben

Hostplus Cup club: Norths Devils
NRL club: St George Illawarra Dragons
NRL debut: Round 14, 2022 against North Queensland Cowboys

Reuben was a try-scoring machine for Norths Devils in 2021, scoring 14 tries in 18 games for the eventual premiers. Reuben reached his 100-try milestone at Norths in 2021, which included Cup tries scored for Townsville Blackhawks and Sunshine Coast Falcons in preceding years. The speedy winger’s fine form saw him sign with St George Illawarra Dragons – after previous stints at Canberra Raiders and Sydney Roosters which didn’t lead to an NRL debut – for season 2022, where he played 15 games for their NSW Cup side. Reuben, at age 29, made his NRL debut in Round 14 against North Queensland Cowboys.

6. Grant Anderson

Hostplus Cup club: Sunshine Coast Falcons
NRL club: Melbourne Storm
NRL debut: Round 14, 2022 against Sydney Roosters

The 23-year-old centre is dangerous every time he touches the ball and after a spate of injuries at Melbourne Storm during season 2022, he got his chance on the big stage and didn’t disappoint. Anderson scored nine tries in 15 games for Northern Pride in 2021 before signing with Storm affiliate Sunshine Coast Falcons for season 2022. He played 15 games for the Falcons, but the highlight was scoring a double in his NRL debut for the Storm against Sydney Roosters in Round 14. Anderson played six NRL games all up.

7. Ronald Volkman

Hostplus Cup club: Redcliffe Dolphins
NRL club: New Zealand Warriors
NRL debut: Round 15, 2022 against Penrith Panthers

The 20-year-old halfback, who signed with the Warriors until the end of the 2025 season, was touted as one of the game’s best youngsters at the start of the year and as the successor to Shaun Johnson in the No.7 jersey. Volkman played three games for the Dolphins during Cup season 2022, scoring two tries and kicking nine goals. He made his NRL debut for the Warriors against Penrith Panthers in Round 11, experiencing a harsh 40-6 loss to the eventual premiers, before enjoying an emotional 22-2 win over Wests Tigers in the Warriors’ return to Auckland.

8. Zac Hosking

Hostplus Cup club: Wynnum Manly Seagulls
NRL club: Brisbane Broncos
NRL debut: Round 17, 2022 against St George Illawarra Dragons

The barnstorming backrower had certainly put in the hard yards before he earned his NRL debut this year. Son of former Manly prop, David Hosking, the 25-year-old came to Queensland in 2022 fresh from four years in the NSW Cup system with Newcastle Knights. While his time down south never eventuated in an NRL stint, he was a two-time NSW Cup player of the year and brought that form straight to the field with Wynnum Manly. Hosking played 15 matches with the Seagulls in 2022, scoring four tries and making 442 tackles – an average of 29.4 per game. He then earned his call up to the Broncos’ starting side in Round 17 and played four games at the NRL level. Hosking has since signed a two-year contract with the Penrith Panthers to return to his home state.

9. Jojo Fifita

Hostplus Cup club: Tweed Seagulls
NRL club: Gold Coast Titans
NRL debut: Round 18, 2022 against Brisbane Broncos

With a surname that is already well known in rugby league and rugby union circles alike, it was only a matter of time until Jojo Fifita found his way into the NRL. Son of Tongan union international Pila Fifita and second cousin to Gold Coast Titan and FOG #200 David Fifita, the 19-year-old talent played eight games for the Titans in the back end of 2022. He averaged 122 run metres per game and scored three tries, playing a mix of centre and wing. Fifita – who also represented Queensland Under 19 this year – graduated to the NRL after playing eight Cup games with Tweed to start the season and two games with the Seagulls’ Hastings Deering Colts in 2021. He capped off this year with an appearance for the Australian PMs XIII.

10. Deine Mariner

Hostplus Cup club: Wynnum Manly Seagulls
NRL club: Brisbane Broncos
NRL debut: Round 20, 2022 against Wests Tigers

From community footy to the NRL, it was a huge year for Mariner, who started season 2022 in Wynnum Manly’s Cup side before being sidelined with an ankle injury. He then starred with the Beenleigh Pride A grade team in the Brisbane Rugby League as part of his comeback, and also played one match with the Hastings Deering Colts. The 19-year-old – who played Auswide Bank Mal Meninga Cup with Tweed in 2021 – finished the year with eight Cup appearances, but his highlight would have been his time with the Broncos. Mariner spent three games on the sideline as Brisbane’s replacement before finally earning his debut in Round 20 against Wests Tigers. He played just the two NRL matches but has set himself up for a promising future.

11. Klese Haas

Hostplus Cup club: Tweed Seagulls
NRL club: Gold Coast Titans
NRL debut: Round 24, 2022 against Newcastle Knights

Haas – the younger brother of Broncos star forward, Payne – enjoyed a rapid rise in 2022. The 20-year-old played 14 Hastings Deering Colts games for Tweed in 2021 and picked up where he left off, notching up another five appearances at the under 21 level in 2022. But his form soon saw him graduate to Cup, where he played six games for Tweed, before he earned an NRL debut with the Titans. Haas played two games off the bench at end the season. He made 88 run metres and 22 tackles across the two matches and will look to go to another level in 2023, now on a fulltime contract at the Titans.

12. Tom Chester

Hostplus Cup club: Townsville Blackhawks
NRL club: North Queensland Cowboys
NRL debut: Round 18, 2022 against Cronulla Sharks

The 21-year-old half-turned-fullback took the step up to the next level in July, when he came off the bench for the Cowboys in their clash with Cronulla. It was the sole NRL appearance for Chester in 2022, but has put him in good stead for the years to come. Chester – a product of Ignatius Park College – was with the Cowboys Young Guns squad in 2021, where he also played seven Hastings Deering Colts matches for the Townsville Blackhawks. This year he not only graduated to the NRL level, but also to Cup, playing 13 games for Townsville. He scored six Cup tries and set up another five, averaging 122 run metres per game.

13. Josh Stuckey

Hostplus Cup club: Northern Pride
NRL club: Canterbury Bulldogs
NRL debut: Round 24, 2022 against Cronulla Sharks

Versatile forward Stuckey was a standout for Pride in 2021, with his player of the year efforts earning him a contract with Canterbury. Across 17 appearances for the Pride, he averaged close to 200 run metres per game and continued that form down south in 2022, toiling away in NSW Cup for 18 matches. Used as a prop, second rower, lock, and off the bench, it was a big season for the 24-year-old, who also played in the NSW Cup grand final against Penrith. The Queanbeyan product got the call up to the NRL in Round 24, making one appearance for the Bulldogs before the end of the season.

14. Rohan Smith

Hostplus Cup club: Norths Devils
Super League club: Leeds Rhinos
Super League debut: Round 12, 2022 against Salford Red Devils

Former Devils coach Smith and the Leeds Rhinos in the Super League both enjoyed a meteoric rise throughout 2022. Fresh off leading the Devils to the 2021 Cup premiership, Smith returned this year to coach the Devils in their opening four matches of the season before he was appointed head coach of the Rhinos. Smith left for the United Kingdom to take over the reins of a club that was just one point clear of the bottom of the ladder after 11 rounds. Under Smith’s tutelage, Leeds went on a remarkable winning run, finishing the season in fifth and eventually qualifying for a grand final showdown with St Helens. While St Helens came away with the victory, Smith certainly made quite the impression in his first season as a Super League head coach.

Main photo by Vanessa Hafner/QRL

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