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Break-out stars of 2021: Part 3

Roar Rookie
24th January, 2021
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Roar Rookie
24th January, 2021
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This is the third instalment in this series on players to watch in the 2021 NRL season. 

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Ben Murdoch-Masila (New Zealand Warriors)
New Zealand have a plethora of quality young outside backs, headlined by Rocco Berry, who will be aiming to debut this year. However, all will be waiting on one or two injuries or a couple of homesick players before they get their chance. Thus I have gone with Ben Murdoch-Masila.

It may not be fair to label a guy who debuted back in 2010 and has 58 NRL games as well as 12 Test caps to his name as a breakout contender. However, given big Ben Murdoch-Masila has spent the last five years in England and managed only six NRL games across the two years prior to leaving Australia, he may not be known to the casual fan.

More discerning followers, however, will remember his starring role for Tonga in their 2017 World Cup campaign and 2019 upset of the Kangaroos and know that the Warriors have one heck of player for 2021.

Not only does Murdoch-Masila bring size, strength and agility to the Warriors forward pack, but he also brings a very underrated attacking game that saw him average about one try every third game while in England. His Super League efforts gave him something of a cult following at Warrington, and I expect him to be similarly embraced by Warriors fans.

Capable of playing both in the middle and on an edge, expect him to be used in both roles throughout the 2021 season.

Tom Gilbert (North Queensland Cowboys)
Tom Gilbert has been earmarked for big things for a long time, having been a standout in the Cowboys academy program and having continued to impress with each step of his career.

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Excelling at the junior level 2019 delivered Gilbert his first taste of senior football, playing for Townsville Blackhawks in the Queensland Cup. He went on to take out the Q Cup’s rookie of the year and lock of the year awards as well as player of the year for the Blackhawks.

His rise continued in 2020 when he debuted as a middle forward off the bench for the Cowboys in Round 4. By the end of the season Gilbert was starting games for the Cowboys as the left back-rower.

Gilbert will once again be in contention to start in the back row for the Cowboys in 2021 but will need to overcome the likes of Coen Hess, Mitch Dunn and Shane Wright to do so.

He is undoubtedly the greatest talent of this lot, but he may be forced to the bench if new coach Todd Payten intends to use him primarily as a middle forward. This seems the most likely scenario given his exceptionally high work rate and mobility – emphasised by his 2019 Q Cup season, in which he finished the season ranked third in the competition for running metres and seventh for tackles – may be more suited to the middle, especially when the new rules are considered.

Haze Dunster (Parramatta Eels)
Eels have a largely settled line-up going into 2021. While there are opportunities for the likes Tom Opacic to fill a centre position and young Oregan Kaufusi to get more game time, the reality is any breakout star may have to bide their time in reserve grade for their chance.

Haze Dunster is one such player who will be waiting for his chance. Tipped as a player to watch by many experts the last two seasons, the young winger’s only NRL game to date came as a late call-up in the finals last year following Michael Jennings being stood down.

It is likely Dunster will again start the season behind Blake Fergusson and Maika Sivo, but if either winger should miss a game, Dunster will ably step in as an exceptional athlete with great speed, footwork and balance, plus he’s reportedly stronger than ever.

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Spencer Leniu (Penrith Panthers)
The obvious choice here was to go with the young speedster Charlie Staines, who after six tries in two games last season has forced his way into the team at the expense of veteran Josh Mansour. While I expect Staines to be the young guy who again gets all the praise this year, it will be Spencer Leniu in the middle doing plenty of work.

Having recently reportedly turned his back on bigger offers elsewhere to re-sign with the Panthers, Leinu looks set to play a major role this year in the Panthers front-rower.

Having lost 2020 club captain James Tamou and the experienced Zane Tetavano from their engine room, there is undoubtedly an opportunity for Leniu to add to his 17 first-grade games.

Likely to start the season as first man off the bench, Leniu will come on and increase the tempo with his trademark wrecking ball charges into his line. However, it’s the defensive side of his game that impresses me – he boasted a whopping 97.4 per cent tackle efficiency last season.

Given his ability on both sides of the ball, don’t be surprised to see Leniu earn the starting position by the end of the season, with Moses Leota to resume his 2020 role of impact player.

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Being of Samoan decent, born in New Zealand and raised in Western Sydney, I’m not sure where his international allegiances lie, but if he chooses to represent Samoa or New Zealand, I think a Test debut will also come his way in 2021.

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