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Some had a weight of expectation on them before a ball was kicked while others were chasing a fresh start in a bid to rediscover their best form.

Then there's the others who have come from nowhere as bargain buys at NRL clubs who have gone above and beyond to cement themselves as genuine first graders.

Whether they've been big improvers or simply recaptured previous form, the top 10 class of the new recruits have been strong contributors in making their sides better in 2023.

NRL' s Top 10 buys of the year

1. Reece Walsh (Broncos)

The Broncos were missing two pieces to their puzzle last season - a fullback with some X-factor and a consistent hooker - and got both in 2023 in the form of Reece Walsh and an improved Billy Walters.

Walsh's return to Red Hill has gone above expectations despite already showing promising signs at the Warriors with 11 tries and 23 try assists in 38 games for the New Zealand club. 

Whether it's been his blistering pace or ability to send his wingers over the line with 30 metre cut-out balls, Walsh has burst onto the scene in more ways than one to set the competition alight as one of the biggest entertainers in the game.

Wonderful Walsh

His 21 try assists is in the top five for the NRL while he went on to star for the Maroons during a maiden Ampol State of Origin series and is in contention for a Kangaroos jersey at season's end.

Walsh's challenge in his early career has been his maturity and a first major finals series will provide the perfect opportunity to see where he's at as the stakes go to a whole new level.

2. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (Warriors)

The Warriors will argue they quickly moved on from Reece Walsh's exit last year, and the numbers back up it was a win-win situation for all after the return of Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad in 2023. 

Nicoll-Klokstad ended his time at the Raiders in tears while playing ]NSW Cup last year but there's been no such thing occurring this season with CNK back in first grade playing 20 matches for the Warriors and slotting in with ease. 

The 28-year-old has six tries, six try assists and 84 tackle busts to his name. Defensively he's only missed 16 tackles for an 87 percent tackle efficiency rate - one of the best efforts by a fullback in the NRL.

With the return of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to the Warriors in 2024, Nicoll-Klokstad has certainly responded to any thought the former club captain will easily come in and take the No.1 jersey. 

3. Jackson Hastings (Knights)

The off-season swap involving Jackson Hastings and David Klemmer in the summer of last year has proven to be a masterstroke with the Knights halfback playing a key role in the club's resurgence back into the finals. 

Hastings' stability in the halves alongside Tyson Gamble has unlocked Kalyn Ponga into career-best form while the former journeyman has picked up his own form in line with Newcastle's winning run towards the finals.

Newcastle haven't had a stable halfback since Mitchell Pearce departed at the end of the 2021 season and even during Pearce's time at the club it was a rollercoaster with injury and instability with the spine around him. 

Hastings is running less compared to his return season in the NRL at Wests Tigers last year but chiming is now in when it matters while he's almost doubled his career average for kick-metres in a season this year with 307.5 per game.

Hastings gets a double

4. J'maine Hopgood (Eels)

He turned up to the Eels in the summer as a reserve grader who was stuck behind Penrith's premiership-winning forward pack and will now leave as an out-and-out first grader.

With 10 NRL games under his belt previously, J'maine Hopgood played in every match possible for the blue and gold this season to double his career numbers. 

Hopgood quickly earnt the nickname 'Hopgod' amongst Fantasy coaches for his huge work rate and with injuries and suspensions at the Eels, particularly in their forward pack, the 24-year-old was a constant mainstay.

He had a taste of the representative scene when he was part of Billy Slater's Maroons squad during the Origin series and looks like a future player in the interstate arena.

More importantly for the Eels he looks like a long-term prospect who can nail down the No.13 jersey for years to come. 

5. Jamayne Isaako (Dolphins)

A career-reviving season for the Dolphins winger who had been in the wilderness during a brief stint at the Titans and inconsistent time at the Broncos in the 12 months prior to joining the new franchise.

Jamayne Isaako's resurgence has been one of the stories of the year with his reunion with coach Wayne Bennett paying dividends for the goal-kicking flyer, who is on track to claim the NRL's top points-scorer gong with a game remaining.

His numbers have been career-best since making his debut in 2017 with 23 tries and 68 goals in 2023 while he's been a consistent workhorse on the wing to average 165 metres per game and total 27 linebreaks and 99 tackle busts. 

Hammer has a big one versus former club

6. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow (Dolphins)

Dolphins star Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow was limited to 54 minutes per game in his final season at the Cowboys before Wayne Bennett got on the phone to lure the 21-year-old south and it's been a successful move for both player and club. 

The writing was on the wall for Tabuai-Fidow to depart North Queensland the moment the Cowboys understandably re-signed Scott Drinkwater on a long-term deal and he's taken his opportunity at the new franchise to burst onto the scene.

The Dolphins put faith in his fullback ability from the start and although he's played a bit of centre his 14 tries in 16 games in the No.1 jersey has been impressive, along with his 146-metre running average and 83 tackle busts.

A maiden full Origin series followed with the 'Hammer' one of the best players for the Maroons over the campaign with four tries and two try assists across the three matches. 

With the arrival of Jake Averillo and Herbie Farnworth next season expect Tabuai-Fidow to go to another level alongside them in the backline.

7. Api Koroisau (Wests Tigers)

Wests Tigers may not have climbed off the bottom of the ladder in 2023 but many ask where they would be without the services of Api Koroisau after his shift from the Panthers in the off-season.

Koroisau hasn't had the consistent support around him, particularly in the spine, to help the team climb higher, but his own form has wavered from when was at Penrith and he's shown his commitment to the joint venture long-term.

The 30-year-old equalled his tries scored tally while at the Panthers last year with five again in 2023 while he's produced seven try assists - just five shy of his efforts with the premiers. 

His running game average has returned to 57 metres per game which was the same at Penrith in 2020, while he's stepped up his kicking game for a career-high 62.6 metres a game.

A match-winning conversion in Round 25 against the Dolphins was matched by Koroisau's efforts to help his side get over the line with a rare win while a contract extension in July shows he's determined to help the club turn things around.

8. Dylan Walker (Warriors)

He wasn't the club's most talked about recruit but the form of Dylan Walker at the Warriors hasn't got unnoticed with the former Manly utility playing a role for the side that has unlocked their attack around the middle of the field. 

Walker has spent most of his first season at the club coming off the interchange but with the likes of Jazz Tevaga and Josh Curran sidelined he has brought a point of difference to the side's forward pack that they haven't had previously. 

The 28-year-old also helped steer the ship alongside Shaun Johnson in the halves when Te Maire Martin and Luke Metcalf were sidelined with injuries. 

Walker's season has included two tries, four try assists, 25 tackle busts, three linebreaks and 479 tackles while his running game has returned to its best at 97 metres - all of which while averaging just 54 minutes per game.

Marzhew bags a hat-trick

9. Greg Marzhew (Knights)

Pips his Knights teammate Tyson Gamble in the top 10 given where he's come from in the past 12 months, how he turned around a Round 1 omission and what he's been able to do for the side on the left edge. 

This time last year ex-Titan Greg Marzhew scored a double against the Knights in a match that meant little with neither team reaching the finals. 

But the Knights clearly saw something in the 26-year-old to push for a swap deal with Chris Randall in the off-season and like the Jackson Hastings-David Klemmer trade it has paid dividends. 

Newcastle struggled to get any momentum in sets from their back five last year but Marzhew's powerful ability to break tackles (a competition-high 162 in 2023) has been just as impressive as his improvement in defence. 

His 19 tries in 19 games is easily his best efforts in an NRL career that started late just three years ago and now looks on track to become a mainstay in first grade.

10. Eliesa Katoa (Storm)

When Craig Bellamy signed Eliesa Katoa in August of last year it immediately looked like a case where the premiership-winning coach could work his magic and turn water into wine. 

Despite being restricted to 18 games this season due to a nagging eye injury, the former Warriors forward has showed glimpses of his potential in a scary sign for the future at just 23. 

The Storm were crying out for youth in their back-row after the departures of Felise Kaufusi and Kenny Bromwich in the off-season with Katoa taking his opportunity with both hands. 

He's made 12 linebreaks on the right edge this season to produce six tries and four try assists while defensively he's made a career-high 480 tackles this season to go with 16 offloads.

His most damaging efforts have come in the past month of the competition in a positive sign ahead of the finals, where he'll need to climb to even greater heights under pressure.


Honourable mentions: Tyson Gamble (Knights), Jackson Ford (Warriors), Jeremy Marshall-King (Dolphins), Zac Hosking (Panthers), Connelly Lemuelu (Dolphins), Tyrone Peachey (Panthers).

Acknowledgement of Country

The New Zealand Warriors honour the mana of the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific. We acknowledge the traditional kaitiaki of the lands, elders past and present, their stories, their traditions, their mamae and their mana motuhake.

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