NRL 2020: Assessing the Kiwis remaining in title contention

While the NRL playoffs have no room for NZ Warriors this season, plenty of Kiwis remain in contention for the championship title on October 25.

More than 30 players of NZ heritage are scattered throughout the eight teams still standing.

Here are some to watch out for over the next four weeks:

James Fisher-Harris

The Northland-born prop has notched up 100 appearances for the Panthers and become a key contributor to a pack that has dominated the 2020 competition.

He finished among league leaders in post-contact metres (1347) and decoy runs (150), while finishing fourth in run metres (3659) and second in runs (394), just behind Warriors skipper Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.

Fisher-Harris was the only forward in the top eight for that last category - the rest were fullbacks and wings.

With only half a dozen international caps to his name, the 24-year-old looms as a must-have selection for Michael Maguire's Kiwis World Cup roster next year.

Sitili Tupouniua

Tupouniua, 23, who played his junior football for Auckland's Marist Saints, seemed destined for a bench role this season, before injuries ravaged the champion Roosters.

With Victor Radley gone for the season, and Body Cordner, Mitch Aubusson and Angus Crichton battling injuries, the rangy second-rower proved ulta-dependable, seemingly making a run-on spot his own. 

The Tongan international has leapfrogged Crichton in the pecking order and even filled in at centre against Gold Coast Titans.

After last week's 60-8 drubbing from the Rabbitohs, the titleholders appear a long way away from a three-peat, but have the quality of depth to turn around that result quickly.

Corey Harawira-Naera

Another hailing from the Far North, Harawira-Naera was headed for the NRL wilderness, after he and then-Bulldogs teammate Jayden Okunbor lured schoolgirls to their Port Macquarie hotel room during the pre-season.

He found a new lease of life when he left the club mid-season and headed for the Aussie capital, hooking up with the Raiders.

Corey Harawira-Naera.
Corey Harawira-Naera. Photo credit: Getty

The 25-year-old second rower has proved a valuable asset off the bench for last year's beaten finalists and a ready-made successor to English star John Bateman, who has already signalled he's not coming back next season.

Sione Katoa & Ronaldo Mulitalo

Cronulla's flying wingers have accounted for 26 of their team's 85 tries this season and have the spectacular finishing strike power to trouble any team in the competition - if their forwards can win the battle up front.

Born in Hamilton, Katoa, 23, has been among the competition's leading tryscorers through the entire season, eventually finishing five short of Souths' Alex Johnston.

Mulitalo hails from South Auckland and played his junior football for Ellerslie Eagles, scoring the Sharks' final try to end the Warriors' playoff hopes this month.

Neither has represented New Zealand - Katoa has played for Tonga, Mulitalo the United States - but both are still eligible.

Jahrome Hughes

The rise of Wellington-native Hughes has gone under the radar this year, due to all the drama in the NRL, but the 24-year-old has established himself as a premier halfback in the competition. 

After playing most of his career at fullback, Hughes switched to halfback to cater for the emerging Ryan Papenhuyzen late last year and hasn't looked back. 

A recent fan survey had Hughes as the equal second-best halfback this year, behind Nathn Cleary, while he beat the Panthers playmaker in the most improved category.

In just 16 games, he finished with 13 try assists, which was more than any Warriors player.

Hughes played three tests last year, although all his appearances were off the bench as a utility. 

Dylan Brown 

If the Eels are to make a run in the playoffs, young Northlander Brown will be at the forefront of their attack. 

Brown seemed unlikely to play any further role in Parramatta's 2020 campaign, when he suffered a syndesmosis injury against South Sydney in September, but he's recovered in time for the post-season.

The 19-year-old has stepped out of his shell this year and become the perfect sidekick for Mitchell Moses in the halves. 

Brown hasn't represented NZ at international level, but with some top halves ending their careers, Maguire will pay close attention to the man who could lead the Kiwis for the next 15 years.

Jaxson Paulo

The North Shore-born wing has made the most of his opportunity, with injuries to the South Sydney Rabbitohs' outside backs paving the way for Paulo's NRL debut this season. 

Jaxson Paulo.
Jaxson Paulo. Photo credit: Getty

He has played 10 games to date and scored two tries, although one of them was controversial, as his foot touched the sideline before grounding the ball. 

On the field, he's averaged more than 100 metres and 1.5 tackle breaks per game.

Kalyn Ponga

While the fullback is Aussie born, he has Kiwi parents and even spent time living in Palmerston North. 

Ponga, who has played for Queensland at State of Origin, is one of the NRL's best fullbacks and is key, if the Knights want to make a playoff run. 

The 22-year-old is known for his quick footwork and incredible playmaking with the ball, as he finished the season as the Knights second-best try scorer (10) and most try assists (13).

While he's ineligible for the NZ Kiwis, he can still play for the All Blacks - just saying.


10:50pm Friday, October 2

Penrith: James Fisher-Harris, Jarome Luai, James Tamou, Zane Tetevano, Moses Leota (Reserves - Dean Whare, Spencer Leniu) 

Roosters: Joseph Manu, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Isaac Liu, Siosiua Taukeiaho, Sitili Tupouniua, Sonny Bill Williams (Reserves - Poasa Faamausili)

Sharks forward Briton Nikroa.
Sharks forward Briton Nikroa. Photo credit: Getty


8:40pm Saturday, October 3

Canberra: Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Jordan Rapana, Josh Papalii, Joseph Tapine, Siliva Havili, Iosia Soliola, Corey Harawira-Naera

Cronulla: Sione Katoa, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Braden Hamlin-Uele, Briton Nikora, Scott Sorenson (Reserves - Mawene Hiroti, Bryson Goodwin)


10:50pm Saturday, October 3

Melbourne: Jahrome Hughes, Jesse Bromwich, Felise Kaufusi, Kenneath Bromwich,  Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Brandon Smith (Reserves - Albert Vete)

Eels: Dylan Brown, Junior Paulo, Marata Niukore (Reserves - Brad Takairangi, Oregon Kaufusi)


6:05pm Sunday, October 4

South Sydney: Jaxson Paulo, Jaydn Su'A (Reserves - Steven Marsters, Patrick Mago)

Newcastle: Kalyn Ponga, Hymel Hunt, Mason Lino, Herman Ese'ese