NRL Magic Round: Who is the best young star in rugby league?
Joseph Suaalii and Will Penisini are just two of a bumper crop of teenagers taking the NRL by storm, Brent Read tells why they are so special.
The students and teachers at The King’s School will be paying extra attention on Sunday afternoon as two of their own face each other at Suncorp Stadium.
Joseph Suaalii and Will Penisini are good mates. Good enough to catch up most weeks, share a coffee and speak about their dreams and aspirations.
They are on a journey together and on Saturday night, their paths will collide in one of the dream match-ups of Magic Round. At King’s, they still speak in reverential tones about Suaalii and Penisini, star rugby union players who drifted to rugby league, and the glitz and glamour of the NRL.
Penisini has made such an impression in a short time that Parramatta are trying to tie him to an extended deal. Suaalii has options galore in his contract with the Sydney Roosters but the expectation is that some time soon, he will commit his future to rugby league and spurn the chance to push for a place at the 2023 rugby union World Cup.
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When they take up their new deals, the celebratory cartwheels will extend beyond their existing clubs. The game should savour it as well because Penisini and Suaalii are the sort of kids you can build a club and code around.
They are cleanskins from loving families whose desire to succeed on the football field is matched only by their plans to leave a lasting legacy off it. Penisini told this newspaper only a matter of weeks ago that he and Suaalii catch up regularly to talk about how they can become better role models and help children who aspire to be like them.
They want to make something of their lives because they see how it can leave a lasting impression on others. They are part of a new legion of teenagers who are ready to share the stage with some of the game’s biggest stars at Magic Round.
Sam Walker has been the standard-bearer of the class with Reece Walsh not far behind. They are the sport’s future, if not the present. Throw in Jeremiah Nanai, Selwyn Cobbo and Tolu Koula and rugby league is in safe hands.
Where Suaalii and Penisini are concerned, the hands don’t come any safer. At The King’s School, they talk about Suaalii’s star rising on the rugby union field while his feet remained firmly on the ground.
He never strayed far from the same group of friends. Suaalii played on the basketball team as well. They say that his first instinct was to look for the kid with the open shot, even if he had the chance to score. He had no desire to hog the limelight. He preferred to share it with others.
Penisini, legend has it, ended up at The King’s School because his family started to see a swagger in his stride. They were concerned he was heading down the wrong path. So the family decided that his education had to take as much priority in his life as his sport, if not more.
Only a matter of weeks ago, Penisini gave away about 20 kilograms to Moses Suli and held his own. He came up with a freakish play against Penrith, going himself on the last tackle and flicking a pass for captain Clint Gutherson to score.
He backed himself when others would have looked elsewhere. Suaalii is playing with similar confidence. He is honing his trade on the wing but those in the know say you will only see the best of the 18-year-old when he isn’t shackled by the sideline.
Fullback may be his best position but he will have to bide his time behind James Tedesco. The centres may become his home in the short-term future.
“The reason they are good boys is not just because they went to a good school, it’s because they come from good families,” said Stephen James, the master of rugby and cricket at The King’s School when Penisini and Suaalii attended.
“They are impressive boys. It’s not for show. They are both very humble. They carry themselves really well. What Will and Joseph got out of King’s was that they gave plenty in their sport and leadership - they were both leaders around the school - but they got that all-round education.
“They had a real presence about them - and I tell you what they both had, they had a burning ambition to do well. They both recognised without cockiness or being big-headed, that they were both good at their craft and they were going to be successful.”
Sadly, the pair will be on opposite sides of the field on Sunday night. There will be no personal duel. They will want each other to do well, but they will no doubt want to win the bragging rights as they lock horns for the first time.
The good news for rugby league is it is only the start.
RUGBY LEAGUE’S BUMPER CROP OF TEENS
1, Sam Walker - The Sydney Roosters beat a host of rivals to land the young half and he has quickly become a fixture in their side, Destined to play State of Origin one day.
2. Reece Walsh - The most attacking threat at the Warriors, Walsh would have played State of Origin last year but for injury. Has picked up in 2022 where he left off last season.
3. Will Penisini - Has been a mainstay in the centres for Parramatta this season and handled whatever has come his way. A schoolboy rugby union star who has found a home in the NRL.
4. Joseph Suaalii - One of the most hyped teenagers in the game’s history. The ARL Commission changed the rules to allow him to play before his 18th birthday. Rugby union’s loss has been the NRL’s gain.
5. Jeremiah Nanai - North Queensland were forced to fight off a bidding war for Nanai, such was the hype around the back rower in the pre-season. Has showed why with some starring performances for the flying Cowboys.
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6. Selwyn Cobbo - The Broncos are locked in a fight for Cobbo’s future after some outstanding performances on the wing. Expected to eventually find a home at fullback or in the centres.
7. Tolu Koula -Lightning fast outside back who was forced to bide his time before getting his chance in first grade. Has more than held his own since being given his chance.
Originally published as NRL Magic Round: Who is the best young star in rugby league?