2020 has seen NRL clubs blood a huge number of young guys. This is the next generation of rugby league in Australia – guys born in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In 2019, the Kangaroos re-aligned their pathway to match the NRL’s move away from an under-20s focus.
The Holden Cup was made defunct in 2017 and the NRL pushed the under-20s systems back to state-based competitions.
This transition emphasised the importance of senior football in the Queensland and NSW competitions before making the move to the NRL.
Subsequently, the Junior Kangaroos have been elevated to under-23s so they truly represent the best young talent currently playing in the NRL, rather than in aged-group competition.
This has effectively established a development squad of future internationals.
Read on below to find out my picks for the best Australian players under the age of 23.
1. Kalyn Ponga (Newcastle Knights, age 22)
Arguably the most hyped talent of the social media generation, Ponga debuted for the Cowboys in 2016 after fending away multiple offers from within the NRL, as well as rugby union and AFL. The mercurial fullback moved to the Newcastle Knights in 2018 and stamped his mark on the competition in his first full season, culminating in an Origin debut and a second-place finish at the Dally Ms. He is now the first-choice fullback for the Maroons and considered one of the top-tier players in the NRL, with that value accumulating into the new $4.5 million contract he signed with Knights earlier this month. Should Ponga find his way into the senior Kangaroos squad, he would be aptly replaced by Melbourne Storm custodian Ryan Papenhuyzen (22).
2. Nick Cotric (Canberra Raiders, 21)
The hulking winger for the Green Machine has already gathered an impressive NRL resume since debuting in 2017 as an 18-year-old. Already in his fourth year in the league, Cotric has 76 NRL appearances, a NSW cap, two senior Kangaroos caps and a grand final appearance under his belt. Cotric has been a regular threat down the left wing since his debut and has developed into one of the premier wingers of the game. His tackle-busting ability (second in NRL) has been a boon to the rise of the Raiders’ attack in recent years and he has been duly rewarded with representative appearances. With Origin moving to the back end of the year, he faces a tight, season-long battle with Blake Ferguson for the left-wing spot for NSW and likely Australia too. If Cotric appears for the senior Australian side this year, Reuben Garrick (Manly Sea Eagles, 22) and Phillip Sami (Gold Coast Titans, 22) loom as options for the under-23s side.
3. Kotoni Staggs (Brisbane Broncos, 21)
NSW supporters will be buoyed by Staggs’ commitment to the NSW and Australia jumper as shown by his presence at Brad Fittler’s pre-season senior Blues camp. The strike centre is of Indigenous Australian and Tongan descent and was already capped by the Tongan national team and the Indigenous All Stars before the age of 21. Debuting in 2018 for the Broncos, Staggs has transitioned from a back row/centre replacement to the key focus of his side’s attack, in particular this year, with five tries in four games. NSW may have immovable back line depth but in the meantime Staggs is comfortably considered one of the two best under-23 centres in the NRL.
4. Latrell Mitchell (South Sydney Rabbitohs, 23)
Latrell Mitchell has cut himself a polarising figure over the last six months, from the highs of Dally M centre of the year and a second premiership win to the lows of a highly publicised exit from the Roosters, breaching COVID-19 laws and an underwhelming start to his Rabbitohs career. However, at 23, Mitchell has already built himself an impressive NRL resume. He is the most experienced member in this team with 102 NRL caps and 66 tries since his 2016 debut. The Taree junior, despite losing his spot in Fittler’s side in 2019, has already played four games for the Blues and four games for Australia. Mitchell’s form is on the up in the last couple of rounds of the NRL and Bunnies supporters would be hoping he can return to his Roosters prime, which could win you games on his own. He is a supreme talent who may feature in Mal Meninga’s senior side again in 2020, so in his absence the likes of Jesse Ramien (Cronulla Sharks, 23), Curtis Scott (Canberra Raiders, 22) or Bradman Best (Newcastle Knights, 18) could be considered for a centre spot.
5. Campbell Graham (South Sydney Rabbitohs, 21)
The 197-centimetre winger was a highly touted youngster in the Rabbitohs’ system and has since gone on to play 54 games for the cardinal and myrtle since his debut at 18 years of age. He featured in last year’s under-23 Kangaroos side and spent the pre-season training with Brad Fittler’s emerging Blues. While yet to set the NRL alight, Graham has solidified a reputation as one of the most reliable three-quarters in the game. He is often the target for Adam Reynolds’ cross-field kicks and is a noted strong defender and capable ball carrier out of his own half. He has competition in this spot, just beating out fellow emerging Blue Reuben Garrick (Manly Sea Eagles, 22) and Queensland Origin pre-season squad member Phillip Sami (Gold Coast Titans, 22).
6. Scott Drinkwater (North Queensland Cowboys, 23)
At 23, he is a relatively late arrival to regular NRL football compared to some of the other stars of this team but Drinkwater has found his place in first grade since moving to the Cowboys in 2019. Having spent two years in the Melbourne Storm NYC team followed by two full years of Queensland Cup for the Sunshine Coast Falcons and Easts Tigers, Drinkwater finally made his Storm debut in Round 25 in 2018. He was released midway through 2019 to join the Cowboys but since scoring on debut he has cemented his place at five-eighth despite his team’s woes. The former Australian schoolboy rep was player of the tournament at this season’s NRL Nines and since the injury to skipper Michael Morgan, Drinkwater has performed admirably as the dominant half in a struggling team.
7. Nathan Cleary (Penrith Panthers, 22)
The second most experienced player in this side, the strongest chin in rugby league has already scored 636 points across his first 83 games of NRL since his 2016 debut. Cleary has been widely hailed as the chosen one for the perpetually under-performing Panthers and has had a similar aura at the NSW Blues, playing all three games in their drought-breaking 2018 series win and two games in their 2019 victory. The Penrith junior is regarded for maturity beyond his years on the field (not off it, regarding the TikTok incident) with coach Anthony Griffin admitting at the time that Cleary ran the show even with James Maloney in the side. He has been a clutch field goal exponent and has an insane 86 per cent goal-kicking record to go with his record of scoring 34 points in a single game (second highest of all time) against Newcastle in 2019. Higher honours are definitely on the cards in the near future but with Daly Cherry-Evans’ mortgage on the Kangaroos’ seven jersey, Cleary will bide his time with the under-23s squad.
8. Corey Horsburgh (Canberra Raiders, 23)
The fiery red head for the Green Machine has become a cult favourite in the NRL after a number of barnstorming performances in his rookie 2019 season. Horsburgh debuted in Round 1 and found his place in a pack that brought the Raiders all the way to the NRL grand final. His aggressive style of no-nonsense footy hasn’t gone unnoticed, as he was drafted in to Kevin Walter’s pre-season Maroons squad and will certainly press for selection this year. The Caboolture Sharks junior played in this team last year and has worked his way into the Raiders’ starting 13 in 2020.
9. Reed Mahoney (Parramatta Eels, 22)
Former Sunshine Coast junior Reed Mahoney has burst onto the scene at a convenient time for the Parramatta Eels and potentially the Queensland Maroons. After debuting halfway through the 2018 season, Mahoney is the first player in a long time to make the nine position his own at Parramatta. Mahoney’s hot form in 2019 brought the Eels a semi-final berth and he was recognised with a call-up to the Maroons’ pre-season Origin squad. Mahoney may have a battle on his hands for Queensland hooker, not just with incumbent Ben Hunt but with Wests Tigers phenomenon Harry Grant. Since his controversial loan move, Grant has been the Tigers’ best player and currently sits third on the Dally M medal count after six rounds. Maroons selectors will be delighted with the competition between the young stars, and the one who shines brightest will likely get a spot in the Junior Kangaroos at year’s end.
10. Payne Haas (Brisbane Broncos, 20)
It may be a pointless exercise adding Payne Haas to the under-23s squad because he is now a near certainty for the senior Kangaroos. To be able to say that speaks volumes of the meteoric rise of the giant Bronco, who only had his first full NRL season last year — and what a year it was. In one of the greatest rookie seasons, Haas claimed Dally M Rookie of the Year, Prop of the Year and made his State of Origin and Test debuts. The Keebra Park product has a sublime combination of work ethic and destructive ability seldom seen in in footballers of any age, let alone for a 20-year-old. He is already the de facto leader of the Broncos’ pack, leading the team in tackles (256), runs (98) and metres (980) in 2020. Due to the likelihood of senior Kangaroos selection, Emre Guler of the Raiders is a leading candidate to start in Haas’ place.
11. Victor Radley (Sydney Roosters, 22)
Another player who is reaching the levels of NRL superstardom, Radley’s selection in the under-23 side is contingent on him not earning his maiden call-up to the Kangaroos. The Clovelly Crocodiles junior has ascended to the starting lock position at the Roosters after spending his first two and a bit seasons floating between the back-row positions, hooker and utility. He has been chosen at second row in this side, a nod to the seniority of incumbent NSW Blue and Kangaroo Cam Murray (see below). The extra minutes have seen Radley go to another level this season, now averaging 132 metres a game along with 32 (mostly bone-crunching) tackles. Brad Fittler faces a daunting but welcome problem trying to fit three world-class locks (Radley, Murray and Jake Trbojevic) into the same 17. Fittler could sacrifice size by including both dynamic youngsters on the bench, or may yet prefer Radley, who can cover hooker as well.
12. David Fifita (Brisbane Broncos, 20)
The captain of last year’s under-23 Junior Kangaroos will more than likely not feature in this side again, with a call-up to the senior Kangaroos on the cards. He may face a battle for a Kangaroos bench role with fellow under-23 back-rowers Radley and Murray, which speaks to the quality of the youngest player of the bunch. Only 37 games in to his NRL career, Fifita has already reached the upper echelon of the game’s current second-rowers and his career trajectory is a really exciting prospect for any rugby league fan, but especially if you are a Queenslander. In 2019, he represented the Indigenous All Stars, the Maroons and the Australian Nines, all before his 20th birthday. Similar to Payne Haas, it is difficult to remember such raw destructive ability in a young talent. In just two games this season he managed 15 tackle breaks, the kind of impact the Broncos are sorely missing in his injury absence. Should he be included in the senior Kangaroos squad, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui (Melbourne Storm, 21), Jaydn Su’A (South Sydney Rabbitohs, 22) and Nat Butcher (Sydney Roosters, 22) are potential options in the back row.
13. Cameron Murray (South Sydney Rabbitohs, 22)
It feels as if Cam Murray has been around for a while but the 22-year-old will still be eligible for this side in 2021. After debuting in 2017, Murray had his breakout season in 2019, claiming Dally M Lock of Year and earning his maiden NSW and Australian jerseys. The former Newington College rugby union star is now 64 games into his NRL career and considered one of the premier locks of the competition. He is highly regarded for his complete lack of self-preservation and high-octane effort in both attack and defence. Having started the season on the right edge, common sense returned to the Bunnies and Murray has been back at his best in the middle of the park.
14. AJ Brimson (Gold Coast Titans, 21)
A former schoolmate of Payne Haas and David Fifita, Titans young gun AJ Brimson played the utility role for last year’s Junior Kangaroos and is backed to be in that position again in 2020. Brimson is equally comfortable at fullback and five-eighth and has been trusted to fill in the hooker position on multiple occasions at NRL level. His versatility and eye-catching performances have been noticed by Queensland coach Kevin Walters, who invited Brimson to the pre-season Maroons camp. His multi-position versatility wins him a spot in this role over Tigers rake Harry Grant. Fingers are crossed that Brimson can overcome a serious back injury to return to NRL footy in the near future.
15. Emre Guler (Canberra Raiders, 22)
The Turkish delight Emre Guler has established his spot in the Raiders’ forward rotation after a string of impressive 2019 performances, which culminated in a grand final appearance. Standing at 191 centimetres and 110 kilos, the big unit also received a call-up for last year’s Junior Kangaroos match against France and participated in the emerging Blues pre-season camp. Guler is currently a premium bench option for the Raiders, averaging over 100 metres and 25 tackles in 2020. As he continues to develop, clubs will be circling when his contract ends after the 2021 season and Guler will be looking for his first starting gig and big NRL pay day. With Payne Haas’ likely inclusion in the senior side, Guler is primed to start for this team, and the likes of Thomas Flegler (Brisbane Broncos, 20) and Blake Lawrie (St George Illawarra Dragons, 22) may come into contention.
16. Patrick Carrigan (Brisbane Broncos, 22)
The junior lock has already led a young Broncos side and in doing so was earmarked as a future full-time Broncos and Maroons captain. Carrigan was elevated to his club’s leadership circle in 2020 and his performances not just as a leader but as a starting NRL lock have belied his experience. Still just 25 games into his career, Carrigan ranks in the top ten in the NRL in tackles made, with 90.3 per cent tackle efficiency. He is also churning out 132 metres a game and ranks in the NRL top 15 for post-contact metres. A strong season could see the workhorse come into contention for the end-of-year State of Origin series.
17. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui (Melbourne Storm, 20)
He is picked on potential here, much as he was in last year’s Junior Kangaroos. A raw talent with a formidable combination of size speed and strength, the Melbourne youngster is yet to hit his straps in first grade despite his 197 centimetre and 115 kilo frame. The Gympie Devils junior has showed glimpses of his destructive capability in showings for Melbourne, enough to be named in the Prime Minister’s XI and for Samoa. His 2021 move to the Gold Coast could be do or die for his career. Regular starting minutes could be exactly what he needs to kick-start his career, yet the success rate of Gold Coast’s conversion of highly rated talent is less than desirable. Despite this, spending time among the best under-23 talents and learning elite Kangaroos systems may prove to be another experience to further the development of the future superstar’s game.
18th man: Harry Grant (Wests Tigers, 22)
The controversial loan move to the Wests Tigers from Melbourne has come up trumps for the boy from Rockhampton. Blocked by Cam Smith for a regular starting spot, Harry Grant has repaid the faith shown in him by Michael Maguire by setting the NRL alight in 2020, becoming arguably the form hooker of the season so far. The surge in form for the Wests Tigers (compared to last year) is clearly the result of having a regular, NRL-standard hooker who can be relied upon to attack from the middle of the park. Harry Grant will be one to watch in coming seasons and could very soon find himself in a Maroons jumper before too long.