How good is... Peta Hiku
Manly utility back Peta Hiku began 2014 not even in Manly's best 17 and finished it a Test incumbent, a Four Nations champion, and a long-term Sea Eagle after penning a three-year extension that will keep him on the northern beaches until at least 2017.
Prodigiously talented and able to play centre, wing or fullback, Hiku plugged several gaps in the Sea Eagles backline throughout 2014. Still just 22, he seems the natural long-term successor to first-choice custodian Brett Stewart when the prolific 29-year-old eventually decides to hang up the boots.
Until then, Hiku will continue to ply his trade in the three-quarter line and filling in when Stewart is unavailable – two things he did with great success in his breakout season.
What made 2014 so special?
Manly's incumbent 2013 grand final wingers, Jorge Taufua and David Williams, were each coming off fruitful years yielding 20 tries apiece. Early season injuries to those men and Stewart gave Hiku his chance and he never looked back.
A somewhat surprise call-up to Steve Kearney's new-look Kiwis side for the Trans-Tasman Test in May, Hiku acquitted himself admirably and went from strength to strength thereafter. He capped the year with a successful Four Nations campaign, performing strongly in all four games as the first-choice Kiwis fullback as the team clean-swept the competition.
He played every game for Manly in 2014: three at fullback, four at centre and 19 on the wing. His tally of 17 tries was the NRL's equal fifth-best, and he added 15 line breaks and 33 offloads, averaging 110 metres per game. He was also responsible for one or two of the most spectacular groundings of the season; a four-pointer in Auckland in Round 20 against the Warriors lives long in the memory.
How can he be better in 2015?
Hiku missed 67 tackles in 2014, a number he would like to get down this year, and the same goes for his one-error-per-game record of 27 mistakes last season. But probably the biggest improvement for Hiku in the next few years will come when he moves closer to the action in a shift to centre or fullback.
With arguably the game's best centre pairing in Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai returning for at least one more year, and one of the competition's best fullbacks also still on the Manly roster, this may not happen this season. But when it does happen, and we'll probably get a few more mini-glances before it happens full-time, we could really see Hiku blossom.
Which new signing will have the greatest influence on him?
For now, the big changes for Manly are in the forward pack, with the backs and playmakers unchanged from 2014. As someone who spends most of his time on the wing, having Willie Mason and Feleti Mateo replace Jason King and Anthony Watmough shouldn't have a huge impact on Hiku's form.
As a quality support player, lurking around a gifted offloader like Feleti Mateo could provide some opportunities for Hiku, while the emergence of other outside backs such as Clint Gutherson and Tom Trbojevic could change the configuration in the backs, especially if injuries become a factor throughout the season.