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Next Gen: Your club's rookie to watch in 2021

One season is all it can take for a talented youngster to rise from relative unknown to bona fide star.

That was the case for Harry Grant in 2020 as the Storm hooker was loaned to the Wests Tigers, finishing the season as the Dally M Rookie of the Year and a key part of Queensland's State of Origin triumph.

Meanwhile, Panthers centre Stephen Crichton also established himself among the game's elite, scoring 17 tries in his team's minor premiership-winning campaign that ended in a grand final loss.

Who will be the inexperienced wonders of 2021? NRL.com has earmarked one young gun to watch from all 16 teams.

Only those players with fewer than five first-grade games were deemed rookies for this list (in line with the Dally M Rookie of the Year criteria).

Rookies to watch in 2021

Brisbane Broncos – Keenan Palasia

Date of birth: 24/1/1997

Position: Second row

NRL games: 2

Unable to build on his brief NRL experience because of a knee injury last year, a fit-again Palasia will push for a place in the forward pack. Perhaps not as badly scarred by Brisbane's 2020 horror show given he didn't take the field, Palasia could enjoy a breakout campaign.

Keenan Palasia on debut in 2020.
Keenan Palasia on debut in 2020.

Canberra Raiders – Harley Smith-Shields

Date of birth: 12/1/2000

Position: Centre

NRL games: 2

Named by NRL.com as Canberra's rookie to watch last season, Smith-Shields now has a couple of first-grade games under his belt and is poised to step up. With co-captain Jarrod Croker to miss the start of the campaign with a shoulder injury, Smith-Shields could replace him at centre.

Harley Smith-Shields looks set for a big season.
Harley Smith-Shields looks set for a big season. ©Keegan Carroll/NRL Photos

Canterbury Bulldogs – James Roumanos

Date of birth: 10/8/1999

Position: Second row/lock

NRL games: Yet to debut

While Canterbury have bolstered their backline stocks with a plethora of marquee signings, there's still competition for spots in the forward pack. Don't discount Roumanos, initially a highly-rated Sharks junior who played for Lebanon in 2019, from staking his claim in the back row.

Cronulla Sharks – Luke Metcalf

Date of birth: 1/3/1999

Position: Fullback/halfback

NRL games: Yet to debut

After a few injury-interrupted seasons with Manly, Metcalf has returned to the club with whom he won the 2015 Matthews Cup premiership. Currently on a development deal, the 21-year-old – who showed his electric skillset at the NRL Nines last year – could challenge Will Kennedy for the fullback role with Matt Moylan set to start at five-eighth. He can also play in the halves.

Luke Metcalf in action in last year's trials for Manly.
Luke Metcalf in action in last year's trials for Manly. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Gold Coast Titans – Darius Farmer

Date of birth: 22/4/1999

Position: Second row

NRL games: Yet to debut

Standing 190cm tall and weighing more than 100kg, Farmer - a Kiwis under-18s representative - has long been considered an exciting second-row prospect. The 21-year-old endured a setback in 2019 when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer but is now on the cusp of realising his NRL dream.

Darius Farmer brings size and strength to the table.
Darius Farmer brings size and strength to the table.

Manly Sea Eagles – Josh Schuster

Date of birth: 5/5/1999

Position: Five-eighth

NRL games: 1

It took Schuster just 64 minutes of NRL last year to stamp himself as a player of immense potential. Benji Marshall told Fox League the five-eighth's debut against the Wests Tigers was the best he'd ever seen. Still only 19, Schuster – who is big enough to play as a skilful back-rower – is competing with prodigal son Kieran Foran and Dylan Walker for the No.6 jersey.

Quality lead up work from Schuster and DCE creates a try for Taufua

Melbourne Storm – Aaron Pene

Date of birth: 26/9/1995

Position: Prop

NRL games: 1

Unleashed for his debut in the final round of the 2020 regular season, Pene has a chance to play regular first-grade this year with Tino Fa'asuamaelaui's departure opening up a spot in the forward pack. At 25, Pene has shown great persistence and could be about to reap the rewards.

Aaron Pene with Tyson Frizell after his NRL debut in round 20 last year.
Aaron Pene with Tyson Frizell after his NRL debut in round 20 last year. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

New Zealand Warriors – Rocco Berry

Date of birth: 17/5/2001

Position: Fullback/centre

NRL games: Yet to debut

Former coach Todd Payten wanted to hand Berry, a speedy fullback or centre, his debut last year but held off because of the youngster's back injury. However, Payten anointed the son of All Black Marty Berry a long-term NRL player of the future.

Dominic Young will look to break into Adam O'Brien's side in 2021.
Dominic Young will look to break into Adam O'Brien's side in 2021. ©Newcastle Knights

Newcastle Knights – Dominic Young

Date of birth: 8/9/2001

Position: Centre

NRL games: Yet to debut

After playing two games for Huddersfield in the UK Super League, 19-year-old Englishman Young has decided to test himself abroad. The centre/winger stands 198cm tall and has a 106kg frame that will help him absorb the physical rigours of the NRL.

North Queensland Cowboys – Kane Bradley

Date of birth: 3/2/2000

Position: Wing

NRL games: Yet to debut

Unable to crack the Wests Tigers line-up, Bradley moved to Townsville just last week. A big-bodied winger who started out in the second-row, the 20-year-old will aim to force his way into a backline that is far from settled.

Analysing the Cowboys' 2021 draw

Parramatta Eels – Samuel Hughes

Date of birth: 31/1/2001

Position: Prop

NRL games: Yet to debut

A towering NSW under-16s and 18s representative who tips the scales at 111kg, Hughes already has the physical attributes to make an impact at the top level. More time in the Canterbury Cup will do him good given the competition's cancellation in 2020, but the prop may get a taste of NRL at some point in the year.

From Forbes, to Flegg, to four on debut

Penrith Panthers – Charlie Staines

Date of birth: 4/10/2000

Position: Wing/fullback

NRL games: 2

Two NRL games, six tries in 2020. A hamstring injury and Penrith's star-studded backline prevented Staines from adding to that record, but he's set to become a regular first-grader. The Panthers have invested in Staines by signing him until 2023 at the expense of Josh Mansour, whose contract won't be renewed beyond this season if he stays with the club.

South Sydney Rabbitohs – Brock Gardner

Date of birth: 14/1/2000

Position: Second row

NRL games: Yet to debut

A member of South Sydney's top-30 squad, Gardner previously captained Newcastle's Harold Matthews and SG Ball junior teams. With Bayley Sironen departing for the Warriors, there's perhaps an opening for the second-rower to nab some game-time.

Analysing the Rabbitohs' 2021 draw

St George Illawarra Dragons – Cody Ramsey

Date of birth: 15/2/2000

Position: Wing/fullback

NRL games: 3

After starring at the NRL Nines last February, Ramsey made his NRL debut on the wing in round 18 and scored two tries. Having beefed up his frame a touch over the pre-season, the 20-year-old is applying the pressure on incumbent fullback Matt Dufty.

First touch. First NRL try for Cody Ramsey

Sydney Roosters – Sam Walker

Date of birth: 16/6/2002

Position: Halfback

NRL games: Yet to debut

One of the most-hyped juniors in recent times, the Roosters fended away offers from NRL rivals and rugby union to recruit Walker in 2019. He's still just 18, but with the Tricolours parting ways with Kyle Flanagan, the son of Ben Walker is in the mix to play halfback.

Walker isn't the only prodigiously-talented teen on the Roosters' books, with recently-signed former Rabbitohs outside back Joseph Suaalii also in line for an NRL debut.

Sam Walker is highly regarded by the Roosters.
Sam Walker is highly regarded by the Roosters.

Wests Tigers – Jake Simpkin

Date of birth: 16/10/2001

Position: Hooker

NRL games: Yet to debut

Could the Tigers be about to unveil a young gun hooker for the second straight year? Harry Grant's return to Melbourne has left the No.9 jersey vacant, with Jacob Liddle and Simpkin the main contenders to fill it. A Queensland junior representative, Simpkin is signed until the end of 2022 and has big raps on him.