With only England reaching the quarter-finals, the European nations had a disappointing Rugby World Cup. But there were many outstanding individual performances by players previously unknown to NRL and Super League viewers. Here’s a look at emerging talent to keep an eye on in 2023.
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Luke Polselli, Italy and Sunshine Coast Falcons
The 24-year-old defender has been so impressive in the Rugby World Cup that it’s surprising he hasn’t made his breakthrough in the NRL yet. After spending some time in the junior ranks of the Manly Sea Eagles and Cronulla Sharks, along with the Newtown Jets, the Sydney native Paulsally headed north to the Queensland Cup and the Mackay Cutters. Now he is at Sunny Beach, where he continues to score goals.
With four Italian grandparents – from Rome and Sicily – Paulselli was emotionally attached to Italy long before making a fantastic debut in his first Rugby World Cup victory over Scotland. He shone in attack, and his 13 runs against Australia, for which his father had flown in from Sicily, were only one behind the leader of the game. But what really impressed me was Paulselli’s solid defense under the extreme pressure of the Kangaroo.
Siteni Taukamo, Greece and Cronulla Sharks
If Australian schoolboys defender Taukamo were four days younger, he wouldn’t be on this list. He only turned 18 on the weekend when the Rugby World Cup began, making him eligible to follow in his brother Tyrone’s footsteps by representing Greece. Born in Australia with Greek, Tongan and New Zealand roots, Taukamo postponed his exams to travel to England.
There he made history by winning Greece’s first ever RWC, landing against France to the delight of fans in Doncaster, at home in Sydney and in the bars of Athens. He also scored a goal in the England rout before a shoulder injury ended his World Cup in severe pain. Taukamo’s speed and goal-shooting prowess convinced his Cronulla club to sign him on a long-term contract amid interest from NRL rivals and rugby union clubs.
Lachlan Walmsley, Scotland and Halifax Panthers
Championship fans know the 23-year-old winger. He made a big impact in his first two seasons since moving from the Newcastle Knights, taking Whitehaven (in 2021) and Halifax (last season) to the play-offs. Although Walmsley looked as Scottish as one could possibly get think of a young David Moyes Walmsley grew up in Merriv, New South Wales. The move to Cumbria allowed him to visit family in Perthshire.
Having predicted that playing for Scotland Rugby World Cup team against Australia would be the highlight of his career, he was struck down by Josh Addo-Carr. But on either side of this humiliating Kangaroo, Walmsley delivered two extremely impressive performances. He was busy and efficient in Scotland’s defeat by Italy; and he was extremely aggressive against Fiji, scoring a breakaway attempt, giving Maika Sivo innumerable problems and getting Viliame Kikau to the point where they both spent 10 minutes in the trash can.
Kyle Evans, Wales
Despite his age, the 32-year-old winger is a newcomer to rugby league, only switching from the union last June when he joined Wakefield Trinity following a trial in Leeds. You would never have guessed it from the way he played in all three Rugby World Cup matches. His apparent strength reflected a man who had played for ten years in the second tier of the unions in Wales (at Llanelli and Merthyr) and England (at Moseley and Doncaster).
But his calmness under the high ball and complete disrespect for the legendary opponents from the NRL earned him the high praise of all who saw him at the Rugby World Cup. Only NRL superstars David Fifita (against Tonga) and Papua New Guinea center Justin Olam had more steals than Evans. Despite his instant prolific impact both in the Super League and internationally, the winger was not hired by Wakefield and is now a free agent, to the surprise of Wales manager John Keir. It will probably be picked up soon.
Daniel Atkinson, Italy and Sunshine Coast Falcons
While winger Jake Meisen made headlines with his hat-trick against Scotland and Paulselli scored at full-back, Sunny Beach’s third player shone throughout Italy’s Rugby World Cup campaign. Left center Atkinson’s incredible acceleration and prodigious performance are backed up by his stats: he ran more and farther than anyone else on the pitch in the win against Scotland and threw more interceptions than any other Italian player.
In the loss to Australia, only James Tedesco broke more tackles. Born in Brisbane to Italian tobacco farmers from Treviso, the 21-year-old has been called up by the Melbourne Storm from their Covid bubble to make his only NRL appearance in 2020 and has spent the past two years in the Queensland Cup.
Kieran Rush, Jamaica and Huddersfield Giants
Yes, Rush plays for Jamaica, but the country’s team falls under the jurisdiction of the European Rugby League – and he is from Dewsbury. He played on loan with the Rochdale Hornets earlier this year, but few Rugby World Cup viewers knew about him. A leggy but lean youngster from the Huddersfield academy, he looks more like a flyweight boxer and it’s no surprise that he has become a target for opponents. But he managed.
Rush turned 20 the day Jamaica kicked off their Rugby World Cup campaign against Ireland at Headingley. Playing from left to left, he was heavily involved from the outset, sending a plethora of left foot shots across Ireland’s half – from 40/20 shots on goal to powerful shots from the pits – darting from the dummy half and defending valiantly against the much larger men. He made history by scoring Jamaica’s first RWC points from penalties, and he showed similar promise in heavy defeats to New Zealand and Lebanon.
Josh Ralph, Wales and Toulouse Olympique
Despite playing for Wales Rugby World Cup team since 2017, the diminutive midfielder was still one of the RWC surprises. Time and time again, the 25-year-old brought intelligence and cunning to his team’s offense, setting up all three of Wales’ attempts against the defenses of the Cook Islands, Tonga and Papua New Guinea, players he was familiar with from the NRL farm system.
Born and raised on the Gold Coast with a Welsh grandmother, Ralph began his professional career with the Titans before touring the lower rungs of the NRL ladder: Newcastle Knights, Tweed Heads Seagulls, Brisbane East Tigers, North Sydney Bears. 2022 with Canterbury Bulldogs and Mounties. By signing with Toulouse Olympique, he will change the second tier in Australia to Europe. For more to know about Wales Rugby World Cup Tickets.
Josh Cook, Ireland and Canterbury Bulldogs
After being mentioned as a possible call-up to Italy, the Sydney-born Cook was named to the Republic of Ireland squad thanks to the courtesy of his grandmother from Belfast and made his debut in the 20th minute of their first win over Jamaica. In the loss to New Zealand, he made 35 tackles, more than any other Irish player.
Looking more like a defender than a prostitute, the tall and slender 23-year-old is a solid distributor who represented New South Wales and the indigenous peoples of New South Wales at the under-16 level when he went through South Sydney’s development while playing for North Sydney Bears. spent last season playing in the New South Wales Cup for the Canterbury Bulldogs. Now a free agent, Cook is considering offers from British teams for 2023.
Guy Graham, Scotland and Whitehaven
After a year with the team, the Stirling-born Graham made his Test debut when they were robbed by Australia, becoming the third member of his family to play rugby for Scotland (his father, George, played nines and union rugby, and his brother Gary won two union caps). Graham stood out when Scotland made Fiji work really hard to win at Kingston Park.
While Walmsley irritated Fiji, Graham thwarted them. After the set in Fiji, the 24-year-old made more than one tackle, the highlight of which was Henry Raivalui’s thunderous strike, which caused the crowd to roar in approval at his old court. Having worked his way through the system at Newcastle Falcons, Guy played for Howick, Borders and Scotland under 20s, only moving up to the league two years ago, becoming a league regular at Whitehaven.
Bailey Antrobus: Wales and York Knights
Antrobus only arrived in the UK in May of this year when he signed for York City announcing his intention to secure a place in the Wales Rugby World Cup squad. Born and raised in Wollongong, the 22-year-old second-row forward made his way to the second team of local NRL giants St George Illawarra Dragons before deciding to try his luck in England.
First played by Wales against France in June, the dynamic Antrobus became the Rugby World Cup tackling machine with 35 against Cook Islands, 29 against Tonga and 34 leaders against PNG. He was the best by meter in the Wales-PNG game and made the most runs (15). Add to that 16 minor results against a powerful Tonga defense and you can see why Leeds Rhinos seem interested in giving him a Super League chance when his contract with York expires this year.
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