NRL 2021: The five most exciting rookies at every club
This is the ultimate list for every footy fan to savour as they start counting down the days to the new NRL season.
It includes a young Englishman with the potential to push Kalyn Ponga out of fullback at Newcastle, and a young tearaway prop described as a new Jared Waerea-Hargreaves just waiting for his shot to start "hurting people".
And while most of these names are currently only known to the NRL's absolute diehards, make no mistake, these are the young men causing all sorts of excitement within club land.
We've compiled a list of 80 footballing stars of the future, the top five from each club who have not yet played first grade.
Some are expected to make their top-grade debuts in 2021 while others might have to wait a little longer.
But right here is the best of the best of tomorrow's NRL generation.
Brendan Piakura (second row): A boom back-rower every NRL club would love to have. From Palm Beach Currumbin, he has a style similar to Matt Gillett. A really good whack, tough kid with good footwork. Still has some filling out to do but a very, very special prospect.
Reece Walsh (fullback): Another from the Keebra Park production line who has been in the Broncos' development squads since he was 13 and has played Queensland and Australian Schoolboys. A really natural footballer with good speed, footwork, vision and a nice kicking game.
Xavier Willison (middle forward): Hails from Hamilton, New Zealand, and also went to Palm Beach. Described as a young man with an outstanding work ethic. At about 104kg, he has some growing to go before he's NRL ready but, at 18, he has time on his side.
Selwyn Cobbo (centre): Type his name into YouTube and watch this kid motor, it's a flashback to a young Justin Hodges. Also has a class about him off the field. From Cherbourg, Chris Sandow's home town, this youngster was Murgon State High's first male Indigenous school captain in 70 years.
Blake Mozer (hooker): You know how the Broncos always rue the day they let Cameron Smith walk out the door? Well, this 16-year-old hooker has those in the know already dreaming big dreams. Plays a similar style in that he's just a natural dummy half. It will be a few years before you see him in the NRL, but remember the name.
Toby Sexton (halfback): A schoolboy star from Palm Beach Currumbin with a genuine halfback's personality. A good talker with a good kick and all the skills but also a real student of the game. The COVID situation halted his game time in 2020 but it sounds like he has an attitude hell bent on making up for lost time.
Jojo Fifita (centre): Was regarded as arguably rugby union's brightest prospect and also a former under-15 national sprint champion. A shoulder injury has set him back but the fact he chose the Titans over all the rest who were chasing speaks volumes about where this club is heading.
Tristan Powell (middle): Played his junior footy with the Goondiwindi Boars before moving to Toowoomba to finish school. He has represented Queensland through the grades and is a young middle forward for whom the Titans have huge hopes.
Jayden Campbell (fullback): If you've got a few spare minutes, Google Preston Campbell's son. You'll understand why the Titans have big raps on this youngster, who can play fullback or in the halves. Deceptively fast and just so naturally gifted. Like his dad, he makes it look so easy.
Ben Liyou (prop): A Grafton Ghosts junior now training with Justin's Holbrook's top squad who is one to watch out for in the not too distant future. A big strapping kid who loves to roll his sleeves up and do the hard yards.
Bailey Hodgson (fullback): This seriously could end up being a case of move over Kalyn Ponga. The nephew of Canberra's superstar dummy half Josh, this young Englishman is said to be just as talented as his famous uncle but wears the No.1 jumper. Debuted in the Super League for Castleford just 10 days after his 18th birthday and moves just like Ponga. It's not an exaggeration to say that he could eventually force Ponga into the halves just to get both of them in the Knights' starting side by the end of 2021. What a problem for Adam O'Brien to have.
Chris Vea-Ila (centre): A powerfully built centre from New Zealand who came via St Pauls, this young bloke grew up playing the piano and dreaming of being Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. At 18, he's now at the Knights and while not ready for NRL just yet, will be pushing for the top grade in the next couple of years.
Simi Sasagi (five-eighth/centre): This is Simi's second year training pre-season with the big boys and he continues to grow as a footballer. A big body, very powerful and very quick. Another Kiwi junior from Auckland who spent 2019 out with a back injury but at just 19 has a huge future ahead after the dramas of 2020.
Noah Johannssen (prop): From the Gold Coast, this big, raw-boned 17-year-old has already played against men in the front row. Will play SG Ball in 2021 but is aggressive with and without the ball and is rapidly earning himself a reputation. Has an older brother, Tim, already in the Knights system.
Mitchell Black (hooker): From Taree, a tough little hooker from the same town that brought us Danny Buderus. Just to prove he's made of the right stuff, young Mitchell cracked three ribs boxing during pre-season but still turned up to rough it up with the first grade squad, while not telling anyone of his injury. That's a good quality for a young hooker to have.
Sione Fainu (prop/lock): Younger brother of Manly's suspended hooker Manase, the towering middle forward was named NSW under-18 player of the year in 2019. Came through Westfields Sports High and it's only a matter of time before he makes his mark in the NRL. Apparently there is a couple of more from the same family on their way through who have the potential to be just as good.
Ben Trbojevic (centre/back row): Don't think for a minute it's just the family name that's creating all the hype. At 19, Trbojevic is 193cm, 105kg and, while he looks more like Tom, Ben's playing style is a bit of a mix of both him and older brother Jake. Doesn't have Tom's electric fullback speed but still has enough with good skills and, like his brothers, doesn't shed the hard work.
Jacob Sykes (middle): Manly's 2019 Jersey Flegg best and fairest, a rock-solid middle who hits hard up under the ball, is tough and has enough natural talent and athleticism to make him one of the most talked about players in a very elite crop coming through at the Sea Eagles.
Jonah Palota-Kopa (centre/wing): A former New Zealand under-18 rising star who came to Australia as a 15-year-old. A very strong running centre with good footwork.
Alec Tuitavake (prop): His old man was a kickboxing champion and they reckon Alec is a young fella you wouldn't want to mess with. NSW under-18 and Australian Schoolboy graduate who has been in the Manly system since he was 14.
Sam Walker (halves): The most talked about young halfback to emerge in a long time and those who have witnessed his development say the hype is well justified. Was the standout in a cracking Queensland under-18 team in 2019. While COVID limited how much time he had on the park, Kyle Flanagan's exit certainly opens the door for Walker to push Lachlan Lam to start the season as Luke Keary's halves partner.
Joseph Suaalii (outside backs): We've all read about the contract circus that followed Suaalii from Souths to the Roosters. Now we all wait with anticipation to see young Joseph pull on the boots and get out there and do what he does best. Could be one of the biggest stories of the 2021 season. It's just a matter of where he fits into a Roosters backline that already boasts Brett Morris and Daniel Tupou on the wings and James Tedesco at fullback.
Egan Butcher (second row): Rated one of the game's most exciting emerging forwards. The younger brother of Nat Butcher had his 2019 season ruined by an ACL knee injury while COVID further limited his development. But they say he's training the house down and is ready to rip in 2021.
Naufahu Whyte (second row): A big, powerful back-rower who was the Roosters' 2020 junior rep player of the year. Has the pace and footwork of a centre and the power and size of a rampaging edge forward. Put that together and you've got the next big thing coming out of Bondi.
Moala Graham-Taufa (fullback): Another great family story. There is only a split hair separating 18-year-old Moala and his twin brother, Lani, who are both exceptional talents. Both outside backs, they'll make their presence felt when the time is right. Back in the 1990s their dad Una was graded at Canberra and played for Tonga at the 1995 World Cup.
Blake Taaffe (halves/fullback): From The Entrance on the NSW Central Coast and can play fullback and in the halves. Has some pretty handy players ahead of him in Adam Reynolds, Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell. But Taaffe was brought up into the bubble towards the end of 2020 to play fullback in opposing sessions when Corey Allan was elevated into the No.1 jersey and Taaffe didn't look out of place.
Lachlan Ilias (five-eighth): Played Australian Schoolboys rugby union from Trinity Grammar, a five-eighth with a flashy step and good speed. Has all the skills but a particularly good running game. Lined up in the halves alongside Taaffe in the 2019 premiership-winning Jersey Flegg side.
Joshua Cook (hooker): From La Perouse, this youngster is no relation to Damien Cook but is part of the Longbottom family that has a rich Rabbitohs history. Not an out-and-out flying machine like the fella who currently owns the No 9 jumper. But this Cook has good dummy half skills with strong defence and might get a call up around Origin.
CJ Mundine (outside back): The son of Anthony Mundine who is training pre-season with the NRL squad. The former Dragons junior has a style similar to his famous father, fast and skilful, although he's said to have a personality that is a bit more reserved.
Davvy Moale (prop): Has been compared to a young Payne Haas. Played reps in league and union coming through and also won a scholarship at Waverley College. He is only 18 and just finished school but he has the build and can play big minutes.
Brandon Tumeth (second row): Not overly big but the raps on him are huge. Was NSW under-16 player of the year in 2019 and rated up with the very best emerging forwards. A Balmain junior likely to start 2021 in SG Ball and then move up to Jersey Flegg. A while off NRL.
Felix Smith (prop): A Marty Taupau lookalike who has many of the same attributes. Played the back end of 2019 in NSW Cup as a 19-year-old and was outstanding. A really good prospect with a great attitude. It might take him a year or two to reach his potential.
Jake Simpkin (hooker): Tigers fans were filthy about losing Harry Grant but this is another young Queensland dummy half with a huge future. While Jacob Liddle will most likely get first crack at owning the Tigers' No 9 jersey, Simpkin is banging down the door.
Jock Madden (halfback): A former Australian Schoolboy halfback who until now has been stuck in a log jam behind Luke Brooks, Benji Marshall, Billy Walters and Josh Reynolds. With Benji gone and Walters coming off an ACL injury, Madden just needs a bit of luck and he'll get his crack. Adam Doueihi is likely to start the new season at five-eighth but Madden should be next cab off the rank if anything happens to Brooks.
Henry O'Kane (second rower): Another Balmain junior who, along with Tumeth, is seen as a long-term hope for the club. Likely to kick off the new year in SG Ball before moving up to Jersey Flegg.
Jackson Topine (second row): Captained Australian Schoolboys in 2019 and was named the Bulldogs 2020 club person of the year for his superb attitude. Even more impressive when you consider Topine is still 19 and this award was presented to him after spending a season inside the bubble, which all the players said was the toughest year they've ever had.
Chris Patolo (middle/edge): A talented local junior from Bankstown, Patolo has impressed with his attitude. Has been in the club's junior rep system for some time and training for a chance to crack the big time under Trent Barrett.
Kurt Picken (centre): A talented outside back from the Yarrawarrah Tigers in the Cronulla junior comp. Has been in the Bulldogs' junior system for a few years now and has a chance to impress in the full-time squad over summer.
Paul Karaitiana (halves): Arrived via Keebra Park, where he grew up playing alongside the likes of David Fifita and Tanah Boyd. Also a gun touch player who represented Australia in under-18s.
Joseph O'Neill (five-eighth): Still SG Ball age so is a long way off first grade but has talent and a tremendous attitude. Westfields Sports High coach Wayne Lambkin reckons O'Neill "is just a scholar of the game, and you wouldn't meet a nicer kid".
Sean Russell (fullback): Got a taste of NRL in a 2020 trial match and it won't be long before he's pushing for a permanent spot. Tall and athletic with good speed and skills, he starred in Patrician Brothers Blacktown's NRL Schoolboy Cup premiership. Still eligible for SG Ball but Brad Arthur is a fan.
Sam Hughes (prop): A big, bustling brute of a kid who went into the bubble last season. Still only 19 but at 193cm and 111kg he has plenty of aggression, a prerequisite for any prop. The other front rower at the Eels to keep a watch for is David Hollis who is a towering 196cm and has been a standout through the junior reps.
Viliami Penisini (centre): Came through The King's School at Parramatta with Joseph Suaalii, Penisini is only going into his first NRL pre-season so he might be a year off really pushing for a first grade spot. But he is a big, robust outside back with a future to match his frame.
Jake Arthur (halfback): Talk about pressure. Every team he runs out to play targets this bloke because he's Brad Arthur's son. But every year Jake just rises to the challenge and ploughs ahead to forge his own dreams. Starred for Patrician Brothers who won the NRL Schoolboys final against Westfields. Not blisteringly fast, but what Jake does have is a really good footy IQ as well as a top kicking game, while he is starting to find his confidence running the ball.
Samuel Loizou (five-eighth): Was the youngest player in the 2019 Australian Schoolboys and, at 16, was named Parramatta's SG Ball player of the year. Came through the same junior teams as Arthur and also plays in the halves. He is a prodigious athletic talent so could easily end up in the outside backs.
Lindsay Smith (prop): A raw-boned 20-year-old local junior from St Marys. Was outstanding coming through the junior ranks where he was man of the match for NSW at under 16 level and played Australian Schoolboys. A shoulder injury set him back in 2018 but he's bounced back to win a two-year extension and a top 30 spot for 2021.
Brendan Hands (hooker): Great kid with a ripper backstory. In under-6s, playing for Emu Plains, he crossed for 56 tries and his coach at the time said he'd one day be an NRL star. Was also a gun basketballer growing up. Came through playing in the halves but has been developed into a dummy half. Scored a good try in a NRL pre-season trial against Parramatta but another held back in 2020 by the year that was.
Tom Jenkins (outside back): Hails from the NSW country town of Boorowa and is now rated among the absolute elite at arguably the best development system in rugby league at Penrith. A tall outside back with the speed and skill to go with his athletic frame.
Sunia Turuva (fullback/centre): Api Koroisau's cousin who scored the match-sealing try for Patrician Brothers in the NRL Schoolboy Cup win over Westfields Sports High. Was also a hero off the field when he dragged his mother and four brothers out of a house fire during the year.
Jayden Tanner (prop): Came through at Patrician Brothers alongside Stephen Crichton, where they both won Australian Schoolboys selection. While Crichton has since gone on to become an NRL sensation, Tanner has plenty of fans within the Panthers' system.
Franklin Pele (prop): A massive 125kg Junior Paulo-type build with hands like dinner plates. Big and powerful with good leg drive. Still eligible for Jersey Flegg but just about ready to bulldoze his way into the top grade.
Jonaiah Lualua (fullback/winger): An outside back with size and speed, he was a member of the Sharks' premiership-winning 2018 Jersey Flegg side at just 18 before an injury interrupted 2019 was followed by the COVID shutdown that has limited his development. Still only 20, he's on the development list.
Jack Martin (prop): From Ipswich, the big redhead has arrived at Cronulla from the Broncos' system and is a no-frills, run hard, tackle hard type of prop. Played in Queensland's successful under-18s team in 2019.
Luke Metcalf (halves/fullback): A local junior who went to Manly but has returned for 2021. Has blistering speed and it was on show at the NRL Nines in Perth where he scored three tries in as many games. Played a lot of halves coming through but was training at fullback at the Sea Eagles.
Jenson Taumoepeau (centre): A big ball-playing centre who looks super fit. Came over from New Zealand to play a year up in SG Ball a few years back and has now progressed into the top-30 squad. John Morris has blooded 11 debutants over the past two seasons so he's shown that he's not frightened to put faith in the youngsters with ability.
Mathew Feagai (centre): His twin Max has already been rewarded with his NRL debut, and it appears it will be just a matter of time before Mathew joins him. Part of the young Illawarra team that won the SG Ball comp in 2019 when he also represented NSW under-18s alongside his brother. They reckon the only way to tell the difference is Mat has a short cut and Max doesn't.
Tyrell Sloan (winger/fullback): Came through the same SG Ball side as Jayden Sullivan and the Feagai brothers, Tyrell gets comparisons with a young David Peachey and you only need to watch his highlights to see why. Tall and deceptively fast, he just glides across the turf like he's in cruise control. Played NSW 18s and is training with the top squad.
Junior Amone (halfback): The Tigers went hard for Amone before the Dragons locked him up long term. Has already caught the eye of new coach Anthony Griffin and again it is not hard to see why. Just has it all, the speed and the silky skills whether it's running, kicking or passing.
Shaun Sauni-Esau (centre/winger): Came from Campbelltown but has had two years in the St George juniors playing under-20s and Canterbury Cup. Big left centre with a good offload and looks equally at home on the wing.
Josh Coric (prop): Another of the SG Ball graduates, Coric is not in the development squad at this stage but is training with the top squad over summer and looks to have a big future after signing a four-year deal. An old fashioned-style front-rower, rough and tumble and doesn't take a backward step.
Trey Mooney (lock): Canberra pinched him from Parramatta last year and they've been pretty happy with his progress ever since. Just dedicated to succeeding with a work ethic and determination that will reward his natural talent.
Xavier Savage (winger): A lightning-fast Queenslander originally from Cairns who came through Palm Beach Currumbin before the Raiders sneaked him away from under Gold Coast's nose. Clocked 10.95sec as a 17-year-old which, to put in perspective, is just a blink behind Josh Addo-Carr's reported 10.6sec at the same age.
Adrian Trevilyan (hooker): When Andrew Voss named his greatest schoolboy team from all the players he has called on TV, this young dummy half was alongside names such as Matty Bowen, Craig Gower, Payne Haas and Benji Marshall. Raiders recruitment guru Peter Mulholland also reckons he is right up with the best he's ever seen.
Brad Schneider (halfback): Captained the Kirwan side last year alongside Trevilyan and played for Queensland. Controls a game really well with a good kick and is strong defensively.
Ata Mariota (prop): Switched from New Zealand rugby union three years ago when Mulholland went across to sign his brother Niu and came back with Ato's signature instead. Built like Josh Papalii and the similarities don't stop with their appearances.
Jack Howarth (second row): This bloke is rated as good as they get at his age. After coming through the Queensland GPS rugby system, Howarth knocked back the Queensland Reds and Wallabies to sign with the Storm. All the good judges put this bloke near the top of the pile.
Trent Loiero (second row): A towering back-rower who likes to stamp his authority with bone-rattling defence. Still on a development contract but Storm football manager Frank Ponissi reckons the youngster could easily find himself in Craig Bellamy's top 17 in 2021.
Dean Ieremia (fullback/wing): It's scary when they start comparing teenagers to a young Israel Folau but that's already happening here. Looks set to be just the second Victorian-developed Storm NRL player behind Mahe Fonua.
Judda Turahui (centre/second row): The Kiwi teenager is talented enough to make his NRL debut next season even though they still don't know what his best position will end up being. From The King's School in Auckland and just looks to be another of those genetic freaks.
Jonah Pezet (halfback): The Storm recently signed the 18-year-old from Newcastle after the outstanding halfback prospect was guaranteed a release from the final two years of his contract at the Knights. His father, Troy, played 28 NRL games for South Queensland Crushers and Parramatta. The skilful Pezet has been likened to Roosters half Sam Walker and is signed through to the end of 2023.
Rocco Berry (fullback): Father Marty was an All Black and young Rocco was an outstanding rugby talent as a schoolboy. Has only played one game of rugby league before going down with back stress fractures. But recruitment king Peter O'Sullivan has really high hopes for this bloke. "He will play first grade," O'Sullivan said. "It is a matter of when, not if."
Junior Ratuva (winger): It wouldn't be a lot of fun trying to tackle this bloke. Stands 196cm, weighs 110kg and plays on the wing. A rugby schoolboy hot shot before he had a year with the Melbourne Storm. Spent 2020 recovering from leg stress fractures and has now tore a pectoral. Might not get his shot before the back end of 2021 but, when fit, he could be anything.
Viliami Vailea (centre): Is a development player who played three SG Ball games in 2020 so expect him to play some Canterbury Cup early before he can push for a first grade start after round 10. He is an elite player with outstanding potential that won't be denied for too long.
Jackson Frei (middle): Went to school at Wavell State High in Brisbane before three years developing at the Roosters. Would have broken into the Warriors' first grade side in 2020 but for a knee reconstruction. As soon as he gets back and builds some confidence, he'll be in the mix.
Isaiah Vagana (middle/edge): The son of former international forward Joe, this former Junior Kiwi still needs to develop but he is a big boy with the talent to make it. Plays either middle or edge and has had a great footy education and so really knows the game.
Heilum Luki (prop): Google this kid if you want to see the prototype for a modern front-rower. About 195cm and 104kg but with room to grow, he is already big and athletic but will develop into an NRL gun.
Tukimihia Simpkins (second row): Signed from New Zealand as a 15-year-old where he was touted as an All Black in the making, this kid is tough and aggressive with a good offload and stands at 192cm and weighs 105kg. His teammates describe him as one of those blokes who hands out bruises when you try and tackle him.
Wiremu Greig (prop): If you want a comparison think Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. This bloke is one right out of the box, a powerhouse who stands at 192cm and weighs a whopping 124kg. "A middle who loves hurting people," was how it was put to me. An absolute handful when he's running the ball and possesses a good offload.
Griffin Neame (middle): A big, tough redhead likened to Brisbane's Thomas Flegler, he's apparently been destroying them at pre-season training. A big kid from Greymouth in New Zealand, has a wonderful work ethic and the size to make an impact.
Michael Bell (centre): From Moranbah, his dad Chris is a boxing trainer and young Michael has apparently notched up a pretty impressive record in the ring. A bit like James Roberts with the way he moves though not quite as quick. But he is very good athlete who will be backing himself to continue the Cowboys' production line of outside backs.
Originally published as The five most exciting rookies at every club