Men’s 2021 Rugby League World Cup: The Players to Watch
We’ve had to wait for almost an entire year, but the Men’s 2021 Rugby League World Cup finally kicks off this weekend.
But which players could have a huge impact for their teams? We asked the very best of Opta’s data editors to pick out their players to watch as the action gets underway in Newcastle this Saturday.
Click below to skip to the player:
Nathan Cleary ••• Kayal Iro ••• Jack Welsby ••• Viliame Kikau ••• Benjamin Garcia ••• Peter Mamouzelos ••• James Bentley ••• Luke Polselli ••• Jordan Andrade ••• Jacob Kiraz ••• Joseph Tapine ••• Alex Johnston ••• Spencer Leniu ••• Euan Aitken ••• Tuimoala Lolohea ••• Rhys Williams
Fresh off leading his team to back-to-back NRL premierships and one of the most dominant seasons by a team in the history of the NRL, Nathan Cleary is buoyed by momentum rarely seen. He’ll now go head-to-head with the incumbent Daly Cherry-Evans for the coveted Kangaroos No. 7 jersey in the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
Australia will face their toughest opposition to another Rugby League World Cup title since losing the 2008 final to New Zealand with high-profile players pledging their allegiance to competing sides months out from the competition. The Kangaroos’ dominance will be questioned particularly given they haven’t played a game since 2019 and Cleary could be just the guiding presence they need to bring the team together.
Cleary was instrumental in all facets for the Penrith Panthers in the 2022 NRL season but in no better way did he display his command than with the boot. No player was able to defuse Cleary’s trademark floating bombs routinely and the Penrith half-back’s impeccable goalkicking meant that his side rarely had to settle for only four points at a time.
Cleary’s boot was responsible for nine try assists in the 2022 NRL season which was the joint-third most of any player in the competition, even though he played at least three fewer games than either of the players ranked above him (Adam Reynolds – 13 in 20 games; Luke Keary – 10 in 22 games).
His kicking onslaught was ruthless whether one would result directly in points or not – at 9.4 attacking kicks per game, no player made more than the Brothers Penrith junior in the campaign.
The 2021 Clive Churchill medalist has scored 340 points from place kicks in the NRL since the beginning of 2021 which is 28.3 more than the Opta Kick Predictor forecast he would log in that time. No player has outpaced their expected points from goal kicks in that time by more than Cleary.
While the Cook Islands team isn’t as stacked with talent compared to other Pacific nations, there are many members of the team plying their trade within extended NRL and Super League squads who will undoubtedly be aiming to use this Rugby League World Cup to launch their careers. One of those players is Kayal Iro.
Contracted to the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, the 2022 NSW Cup Player of the Year was rewarded for a stellar campaign with an NRL debut in Round 24 of the 2022 season against the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. Iro played the full 80 minutes as he made 12 tackle breaks in the Sharks’ 16-0 win that day – five more than any other player in the game.
His only first-grade appearance came about due to a stunning campaign in reserve grade; Iro’s 4,070 run metres were 678 more than any other player while only team-mate Lachlan Miller (115) made more tackle breaks than Iro (110). Indeed, Iro’s 1,599 post-contact metres was 387 more than any other player in the 2022 NSW Cup.
He showed a clear ability to create opportunities as well, providing six try assists and five line break assists to go along with 14 tries (joint-third most) and 17 line breaks (third most) of his own.
With Cook Islands going up against Papua New Guinea, Wales, and Tonga in Group D of the men’s edition, look for Iro to be a key attacking cog in their push for the playoffs.
The 2022 Super League Young Player of the Year isn’t finished just yet after being selected to make his second appearance for England at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup after a solid debut against the Combined Nations All Stars in June. Welsby may be young, but he already has a career history of making game-breaking plays in the big moments in the Super League.
A three-time premiership winner with St Helens, the Wigan-born playmaker has been instrumental in recent memory. He scored the match-winning try after the final siren in the 2020 Grand Final and laid on three try assists in St Helens’ 24-12 win over Leeds in the 2022 edition.
The 2022 Super League season overall was a season in which Welsby came to the fore as one of the most prominent playmakers in the game. The St Helens playmaker made 30 try assists and 30 line break assists during the season, the second-most of any player in each category, while his 114 tackle breaks were also the fourth most of any player for the season.
Welsby was directly involved in nine tries in his last five games in the 2022 Super League season, scoring two tries and providing seven try assists in that term. He also added a reliable support run to his game in the latter half of the season, making at least 10 support runs in his last 10 games of the campaign (at an average of 16) after reaching double figures only three times in his first 16 games of the season.
The next generation of England rugby league superstars are on the horizon, and they are spearheaded by a red hot Welsby who has the opportunity to properly kick off his international career with a successful Rugby League World Cup on home soil.
Fiji have progressed to the semi-finals in each of the last three men’s Rugby League World Cups including a best-ever performance at the 2017 edition when they finished the group stage undefeated, enjoying a historic 4-2 win over New Zealand in the quarter-finals before being bundled out by Australia to the tune of 54-6.
The Fiji Bati might be missing some high-profile players from that campaign like Suliasi Vunivalu, Taane Milne, and Ashton Sims, but they now boast an in-form Viliame Kikau who is coming into the tournament on the back of the best NRL season of his career. The Penrith Panthers edge forward – who is known for his line-bending runs – added an effective and attacking defensive style as well as classy off-ball movements to place him amongst the premier back-rowers in the competition.
The Fiji veteran made 15 line break assists in the 2022 NRL season, the joint-most of any forward in the campaign alongside creative dynamo Harry Grant of the Melbourne Storm. In fact, Kikau’s tally of 15 was the most of any Penrith Panthers player as they went all the way to secure back-to-back NRL premierships.
Opposition teams should be wary of him throughout the tournament as he’s likely to lift when he dons the Fiji jersey as he has in past games for the team. Kikau has scored eight tries in his 12 international appearances for the team including four tries in his last four games and a tally of three at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Overall, only Akuila Uate (14) and Vunivalu (12) have scored more tries for Fiji than Kikau has.
Two-time World Cup runners-up France did not make it out of the group stage at the last iteration of the tournament, but there is reason for optimism amongst fans. Since the last tournament, France have been selected as the hosts for the 2025 World Cup, Catalans have won a Challenge Cup and finished as runners-up in the 2021 Grand Final, along with Toulouse spending a season in the top flight.
France will kick off against newcomers Greece in their opener and then face tough tasks against both England and Samoa. At the forefront of their charge will be all-action versatile forward Benjamin Garcia. With influential half-back Théo Fages missing the tournament through injury, Garcia’s leadership will be key to France’s challenge.
Catalans’ season ended abruptly after they lost to Leeds in the play-offs, but Garcia finished the season leading his team in all defensive areas. Garcia completed the most tackles topping the Dragons’ count with 764, averaging 34.7 tackles per game and an impressive 92.4% tackle efficiency.
Garcia’s contributions are not limited to his defensive efforts, totalling 1,906 metres gained (fourth-highest in the Catalans team) along with 96 tackle breaks.
His willingness to lead his team in every facet of the game was epitomised at Magic Weekend when Garcia suffered a serious ear injury, described as “hanging off” by his head coach. After emergency surgery, Garcia remarkably played the following week.
Garcia will be looking to lead Les Tricolores to at least the quarter-finals where a potential tie with 2017 semi-finalists Tonga could wait.
Greece have made history by qualifying for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup, their first-ever appearance at the tournament. Alongside Jamaica they will be making their World Cup debut and have been given perhaps the toughest of all the groups – facing off against England, France, and Samoa.
The team does boast some NRL-level experience with half-back Lachlan Ilias fresh off steering the South Sydney Rabbitohs to the 2022 NRL preliminary finals and while he will certainly be a key cog in the Greek machine it’s NSW Cup stalwart Peter Mamouzelos who will be the glue that holds the Titans together.
Mamouzelos – who has himself made five NRL appearances in the last two seasons – has been among the South Sydney Rabbitohs most reliable players in their 2022 NSW Cup campaign. The hooker made an average of 36.7 tackles per game in the 2022 season which is the fifth most of any player to have featured in at least 10 games.
Something special stirs in Mamouzelos’ heart when he dons the blue and white of his representative nation, however. He’s set to make his eighth appearance for the nation on the international level but across his seven previous games, he has scored an eye-watering 10 tries including eight tries in his last four appearances and a four-try haul in a 56-26 demolition of Norway in the 2019 European Championship C Final.
If Mamouzelos can rekindle the kind of form that saw him help Greece to emphatic wins in the European Qualifiers then the likes of England, Samoa, and France will need to rise to the Titans’ challenge.
Ireland will face some tough tests if they are to reach the knockout stage of the men’s Rugby League World Cup this year, a feat they’ve not achieved in either of the last two editions of the tournament. New Zealand will start Group C as the favourites with Ireland likely fighting it out with Jamaica and 2017 surprise package Lebanon to claim that all-important second spot in the pool.
When faced with such a test you need players willing to fight for every inch and not take a backward step and in James Bentley Ireland have a player ready to do just that. The Leeds Rhino – who will turn 25 shortly after the tournament kicks off – certainly proved that in Super League last season.
Of players to feature more than once in the regular season, Bentley ranked fifth overall for tackles per game, averaging more than any of his team-mates, showcasing an incredible engine and desire to get off the line time and time again, while only Saints duo Jonny Lomax and Joe Batchelor made more one-on-one tackles than the Rhino (48).
A slight area of concern for Ireland may be the discipline of their key man who has been sin-binned on three occasions this season. However, every team needs a player who is willing to play on the edge and if the Ireland forward can stay on the right side of the referee, he will be a huge asset to the Wolfhounds.
Only time will tell if Ireland can reach the knockouts for the first time since 2008, but if they are to progress to that stage then Bentley will surely be one of the driving forces behind that Irish success.
Italy have booked their ticket for a third consecutive Rugby League World Cup and in doing so have earned group fixtures against Australia, Fiji, and Scotland in Group B. They’ll be looking to progress from the group stage for the first time after finishing with just one win from each of their two previous appearances.
One of the nation’s strengths in the 2021 Rugby World Cup will be the pre-existing combination of Sunshine Coast Falcons trio Luke Polselli, Daniel Atkinson, and Cooper Johns who will again link up but this time on the international stage in England. Polselli has been the weapon of choice for the Falcons in the 2022 Hostplus Cup – Queensland’s state-based rugby league competition and the first division below the NRL – showing that he can both create and take advantage of attacking opportunities.
Polselli made 14 line breaks and 15 line break assists during the 2022 Hostplus Cup, making him one of only five players across the entire competition to log at least 10 in both categories. He was the ultimate support player in the competition, running as a support on 215 occasions for the season which was more than any other player.
Not only could he set up (13 try assists) and score (9 tries) tries for the Falcons, but the ones he saved were equally as valuable for the club. Polselli’s 11 try saves in the 2022 Hostplus Cup led any other player in the competition with the Burleigh Bears’ Taine Tuaupiki (10) the only other player to make double digits.
Jamaica will travel to the Rugby League World Cup for the first time in the history of the tournament after defeating the United States of America 16-10 in the Americas Championship Final. In fact, the Reggae Warriors bring one of the most formidable form lines into the competition, coming to England on the back of a four-game undefeated streak (W3 D1) which included a brace of wins against the United States of America (not including two losses to the England Knights in 2019 and 2021).
Part of the forward pack looking to mix with the best in the world for Jamaica will be Jordan Andrade whose career has entailed three caps for the country so far. The Reggae Warriors will be hoping he can replicate any of those performances however, given that he has scored three tries across his three appearances for the team so far.
In fact, Jamaica have never lost a men’s international rugby league game when Jordan Andrade has played on the day (W1 D2) including a 68-16 win over Ireland in October 2016 – the biggest in the country’s history in the sport.
Andrade could be just the good luck charm that the team could use as they go head-to-head with Ireland, Lebanon, and world #1 ranked New Zealand in Group C of the men’s 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
Lebanon has been synonymous with powerhouse outside backs in recent rugby league internationals with the likes of Josh Mansour, Abbas Miski, and Reece Robinson all bringing ample first grade experience to a continually improving team overall. All three of those players have retaken their positions in the squad for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup but this year there’s a new face and one that might be there to steal a jersey from them – Jacob Kiraz.
In a year that saw several rays of sunshine break through the dark clouds of the last few seasons for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs few were as immediate and memorable as the unveiling of robust outside back Kiraz. The Lebanon international didn’t waste any time once given the opportunity, logging 13 tackle breaks and seven offloads within his first two games in the competition alone.
Kiraz would go on to become one of the most dynamic ball runners for the Bulldogs in the 2022 NRL season, finishing the regular season with an average of 2.2 offloads per game which was more than any other Canterbury-Bankstown player other than perennial offload machine Tevita Pangai Junior (2.6 per game).
Meanwhile, high-profile recruit Josh Addo-Carr (109) was the only Bulldogs player to make more tackle breaks throughout the 2022 NRL season than Kiraz (52), for whom the season was highlighted by a hat-trick of tries against the Newcastle Knights in Round 20 – a game in which he also ran for 259 metres from 21 runs, made seven tackle breaks, three offloads, and a one-on-one steal.
He’ll go into the 2021 Rugby League World Cup as a favourite to lock in a backline position for Lebanon and if he can strike up combinations with an experienced halves pairing including Mitchell Moses, the Cedars will be well within their rights to expect a quarter-final berth.
Joseph Tapine put the Canberra Raiders on his back and carried them to victory more than once in the 2022 NRL season with the powerhouse prop forward putting on some of the most complete performances we’ve seen from a forward in the competition in recent history. Speed and power define the Canberra forward’s game, making him near unstoppable when he’s on song.
The Wellington-born Tapine was the post-contact leader of the NRL this year, notching 1,731 metres past the point of contact – the most of any player in the competition and 48 metres more than next-best Reagan Campbell-Gillard, who played three more games than Tapine throughout the season. Not only does he carry the defensive line with him when he carries, but he keeps that momentum going in the next play for his team.
A fast play-the-ball is golden in modern rugby league and while teams have manufactured different methods of achieving this no player has been on par with Tapine in the 2022 NRL season. The Kiwi forward made 48 play-the-balls within two seconds of being tackled this campaign which is at least five more than any other player in the competition. A New Zealand team brimming with talent would pose a real threat to the trophy on the back of those kinds of play-the-ball speeds.
Perhaps most dangerous of all for teams hoping to go toe-to-toe with New Zealand at the 2021 Rugby World Cup is that Tapine is just one of an imposing unit of in-form forwards set to represent the Kiwis alongside the likes of James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Isaiah Papali’i, and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. The Kiwis will be looking to repeat their 2008 heroics which saw them wrench the trophy from Australia and on paper this team presents the best team to do so since that triumph.
Papua New Guinea
Alex Johnston is one of the most devastating try scorers in all of Rugby League, but it remains to be seen if he can transfer his red-hot form onto the international stage. The South Sydney Rabbitohs winger recently secured his third successive Ken Irvine Medal, awarded to the NRL’s top try scorer, becoming the first player to manage back-to-back 30-try seasons in the process. At just 27 years of age, he sits tied-fifth with 166 in the list of all-time top try-scorers across top grade Australian Rugby League, just 56 behind Irvine’s record.
Despite all this, AJ has just a solitary international score to his name across four caps, scored for Papua New Guinea against Great Britain on their memorable 2019 Tour down under. Many feel he has been unlucky not to crack an ever-stacked Australia squad, failing to add to the appearance he made for them back in 2015, but his Kangaroos snub will be The Kumuls’ gain.
PNG’s all-time top try scorer David Mead made the decision to retire back in June after crossing the whitewash 10 times in 15 caps, opening the door for the likes of Johnston and indeed Xavier Coates, to target his record as they go in search of emulating 2017’s quarter-final appearance.
As well as finishing 10 ahead in the NRL’s try-scoring charts this season, Johnston also finished comfortably clear for line breaks with 41.
Placed in a group with Tonga, Wales, and the Cook Islands they will fancy their chances of advancing to the knockout stages.
There are few more specialist roles in rugby league than a genuine supersub. The sport has been blessed in the past with interchange dynamos from Dean Widders to Iafeta Paleaaesina, and it’s players like Spencer Leniu of the Penrith Panthers who are flying the supersub flag high in 2022.
Known for his trademark short, violent stints on the field, Leniu was a key cog in the Penrith Panthers machine which rolled to back-to-back NRL premierships in 2021 and 2022. He’ll link up with a large contingent of Panthers team-mates in the Samoa squad for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in what is poised to be a team that can move and shake with the best.
Once Leniu rumbles onto the field he spends all his time working the ball forward. The Penrith Panthers interchange forward has run for 3.15 metres per minute on the field in the 2022 NRL season which is the third-most of any player in the competition among those who have played at least 400 minutes of game time. Joseph Tapine (3.21) and Tom Burgess (3.17) – who will also feature at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup for New Zealand and England respectively – are the only players to have moved the ball more metres per minute than Leniu this season.
It doesn’t start and stop with the hard yards for the Minchinbury Jets junior. Leniu has also made a habit of finding the try line this season, crossing for six tries in total. All six of those tries came from the interchange bench for Leniu which was two more than any other player in the competition. He also made 40 tackle breaks as an interchange forward which was the joint-second most of any player in the competition behind only Connor Watson (48); however, Watson’s 1,000 minutes played were nearly twice as many as Leniu’s 548 minutes.
The engine behind Samoa’s tilt at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup is one of the most imposing that the country has ever put together and another supersub performance from Spencer Leniu might be all it takes to get them over the line.
Euan Aitken is admired throughout the NRL for his versatility in being able to play at centre or in the back row to a high standard. This professionalism will be key as Scotland aim to progress from the group stage of a Rugby League World Cup for just the second time – a quarter-final appearance in 2013 where they were defeated 40-4 by New Zealand.
Aitken has spent the last two NRL seasons with the New Zealand Warriors. Faced with the prospect of playing most of their matches in Australia in that time, Aitken has risen above the adversity and been one of the Warriors’ most consistent players.
Aitken’s 738 tackles in the 2022 NRL season was the most by any New Zealand Warriors player. This included 43 kick return tackles – eight more than any other team-mate – demonstrating a desire to lead the line defensively and apply pressure. These selfless acts were further seen in 80 decoy runs, the third most by any New Zealand Warriors player in the 2022 campaign (Bunty Afoa – 116 and Addin Fonua-Blake – 85).
On the offensive side of the ball, Reece Walsh (86) and Marcelo Montoya (45) were the only New Zealand Warriors players to make more tackle breaks this NRL season than Aitken (43).
Scotland find themselves in an intriguing Group B at this Rugby League World Cup alongside Australia, Fiji, and Italy; Euan Aitken will be a key player in determining their aspirations at this tournament.
The Huddersfield Giants scooped up Tuimoala Loloheafrom Salford Red Devils ahead of the 2022 Super League campaign and the short trip across the M62 to West Yorkshire looks to have been a fruitful one. The 25-year-old was born in Auckland and started his career there with the NZ Warriors, also earning one cap for the Kiwis against England in 2015, a 26-12 loss in Hull.
He left the Warriors in 2017 but stayed in the NRL with Wests Tigers, however that was short-lived and since 2019 he has found himself playing in Super League, initially for Leeds Rhinos before jumping across the Pennines to Salford and then back to the Giants this year.
After his brief international career with NZ, he soon swapped allegiances to Tonga and has been a key figure for them since. He earned widespread acclaim for spearheading Tonga’s World Cup bid in 2017, which took them all the way to the semi-finals and saw him score three tries as one of just two players (also Daniel Tupou) to play all 400 minutes of their campaign.
In 2022 Lolohea has been at his creative best, setting up 29 tries in the regular season, a tally only bettered by Hull FC’s Jake Connor (33), whilst also creating a league-high 33 line break assists. He also topped the charts at Giants for tackle breaks (93, eighth best league-wide) and ranked second in the Super League for kick return metres (989, behind Jai Field’s 1,075m), averaging 45 metres per game when running the ball back from kicks.
His kicking game was also on target in 2022, chipping in with seven try assists from a kick (joint-sixth best in the league) and forcing 21 drop outs with his tactical kicks, the most of anyone in the competition. Although he is bound to be a key attacking threat for Tonga at the World Cup, his side will be hoping he can cut down his error rate, his tally of 32 in Super League this season was the joint-third highest. High risk, but high reward maybe.
Wales’ squad for the Rugby League World Cup is predominantly made up of Championship players (63%, 15/24), with seven others playing either in leagues below that or Australia and just a further two in Super League. A third of those 15 players plying their trade in the Championship represent Bradford Bulls, including skipper, Elliot Kear. Remarkably Kear is a former classmate of Sam Warburton, who captained the Wales Rugby Union team at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, and Gareth Bale, who is set to lead out Wales in the football World Cup in Qatar later this year – quite the yearbook from Whitchurch High School.
Those two Super League players are the top and tail of the team in terms of experience. Kyle Evans (Wakefield Trinity) is uncapped and only has one season of professional rugby league under his belt having switched codes from union at the age of 31, meanwhile Rhys Williams (Salford Red Devils) is Wales’ most capped player and record try scorer.
Between them they only notched up 11 Super League appearances in 2022, with Williams accounting for eight of those.
Across those eight appearances, Williams impressed in attack, averaging 7.9 metres gained per carry and 2.6 tackle breaks per game; also crossing the try line four times in the season. His try-scoring record for Wales is unlikely to get broken any time soon, having scored nine more than the second placed player (Christiaan Roets, 13), although he is only three ahead of captain Kear (28) on the most caps ranking for Wales. Both players will be key as Wales aim to upset the odds in what will be a tough pool alongside the Cook Islands, Tonga and Papua New Guinea.
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