Cyril Connell Challenge, Mal Meninga Cup and Harvey Norman U19s: 100 of the best male and female players to watch in junior rugby league in 2023

Discover 100 of the top Cyril Connell Cup, Mal Meninga Cup and Harvey Norman U19 women’s players you have to know going into the 2023 season. Find out who made the list

If we’ve learned anything this week it’s that Queensland has no shortage of rugby league talent.

From fullbacks to hookers, centres to front rowers, the state’s rugby league depth is extensive.

Multiple players are already on the radars of NRL and NRLW clubs as they edge closer to starting their senior careers.

After combing through the states Cyril Connell Challenge,Mal Meninga Cup and Harvey Norman squads we have found the best of the bunch to reveal over 100 of Queensland’s best young rugby league talents.


Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:

Camden Hopes, Kooper Shears, Mark Morrow and Cohen Jackson

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:

Xavier Kerrisk, Jaxon Purdue and Will Shears | These three are some of the dominating factors of this year‘s Mal Meninga cup. All signing rising star contracts with the Cowboys they will be the standouts for the club

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:

Emily Bella, Lily Peacock, Lara Hutchinson


Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:

Isaac Cullen: Has dominated in the junior ranks, he drew the attention of arguably rugby league’s biggest juggernaut.

Seth Gundry: Garnered Queensland schoolboys selection just last year

Luke Jones: Who has been renowned in junior levels for playing big minutes, will likely be the young man who sets the standard in the pack.

Nelson Makaafi: Rugby league fans be on high alert for this stellar talent.

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:

Ryder Williams: will get the chance to test himself against the best of his age group. The Future Titans prospect was a shining light for the Future Titans under-17s side, blessed with a complete package of a game.

Jye Watton: “McCormack described Watton as ‘a natural leader’ and the type of player the rest of the squad would look up to.”

Jac Finigan will come back from Future Titans commitments eager to continue building momentum throughout the year, having impressed in otherwise scrappy affairs in the under-17s.

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:

Bella Thompson: Is in line to become one of the most enigmatic forces in the competition Already with two years of experience at this level under her belt

Yasmin Elabbasi: Will warrant a call-up to the senior ranks this season.

“What I liked about her was she didn’t mind the nitty gritty stuff, rolling up her sleeves to get us forward. That says a lot about a player, it’s not all the flashy stuff,” Coach Taplin said

Lily Kolc: Has displayed the makings of a future NRLW champion. The crafty hooker may be in the under-19s set up again to start the season, but with five QRLW appearances to her

credit, she appears destined for greater exposure to the elite level.

Brisbane Tigers

Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:

Kobi Floro: A big, mobile 6.4ft, 100kg front rower from Wavell SHS who brings great energy to the group – along with his big personality.

“He is a big target but I believe he can handle the added pressure,’’ said Tigers coach Lote Tuqiri.

The big bloke has attracted interest from NRL clubs.

Frank Howarth: The brother of extremely promising Storm rookie Jack, this young edge forward has come under the notice of the Broncos and for good reason.

He is big, mobile, a physical player who will be hard to stop.

“If he stays fit, he could be better than his brother,’’ Tuqiri said.

Now that would be worth seeing.

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:

Mikael Ibrahim: A No. 13, he is a very experienced junior and natural leader who will be playing his second season of Meninga Cup. The Tigers junior is also a two-time premiership winner with St Laurence’s College First XV and two years ago was the Tigers Connell Challenge Player of the Season.

Maddox McLean: McLean has been outstanding from the very first session, a talented half and organiser who is looking to strive for higher honour as a second season Meninga Cup player.

Jack McCosker: McCosker is often underrated and under valued, but not by the Tigers’ coaching group. “He has had a stellar pre-season and is a player with a high work rate who leads by his actions, not his words. He will play second row and has come through the Tigers systems,’’ said coach Lambert.

Maika Poese: Poese has silky smooth skills and a ton of ability. A centre, he has been injury plagued but is looking to make amends for last year’s disappointment.

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:

Tigers coach Paul Nieuwenhuyzen said he was reluctant to single out any players from his squad because “we have a great squad’’.

“I have been impressed with all of the players’ dedication to training and their commitment to playing rugby league. Many of our players travel long distances,’’ he said.

The squad will be captained by Delilah Eliu.

Central Queensland Capras:

Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:

Tyler Melrose: Very talented player who did a great job steering the team’s attack in halfback and also as captain against Redcliffe. Shaping up to be one of the team’s most dangerous attacking weapons this season.

Will McLaughlin: Played for Rocky Tigers and Emmaus College last season. A dangerous and unpredictable half who will be very hard to defend against. Has some very impressive skills.

Jake Reily Oberhardt: Nuggetty, very strong and has great leg speed for a middle forward. Also in his second year in this squad, he has just made the move from Emerald to St Brendan’s College this year.

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:

Mutua Brown (fullback/centre): North Queensland Cowboys’ signed talent who provides confidence in the team with his ability on and off the ball. A leader.
Tommy Green (hooker/half): Reads a game well. Brings plenty of energy to the team with his speed and defensive efforts.
Connor Hinds (edge forward):
Dolphins’ signed talent who is strong in defence and possesses great ball-playing ability.

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:

Luca Howarth (fullback/winger): Queensland schoolgirls rep in 2022. Classy runner of the footy and great finisher on the wing. Talented fullback also.

Gail Wing (winger): A Capras under-19 player last year, she brings experience and reliability. Safe and strong carry in attack.

Shauna Barnham (five-eighth): Natural ballplayer. Recruited back to Capras after starring for Marsden State High School last year. Player with untapped potential.

Ipswich Jets:

Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:

Cooper Cracknell: The Queensland under-15 prop will be a forward leader who will set an example to his teammates. The Jets have lost their main man from 2022, David Leota to Canterbury, but watch for Cracknell to step up to the plate.

Tyson Walker: The younger brother of Roosters NRL star Sam Walker, Tyson is another playmaker (five-eighth) who is a typical Walker in that he plays eyes up football. He has a very good long ball and is dangerous in broken play, but Walker is also starting to understand the importance of setting things up rather than playing off the back of limited opportunities.

Xzavier Timoteo: There will not be too many players who will finish a match against the Jets’ under 16s without plenty of bumps and bruises, and many of them will be caused by Timoteo who will play in the middle.

James Pou: New to the Connell Challenge environment, the No. 13 will complement fellow middle men Cracknell and Timoteo. He is physical, loves the contact and hard work, but also has a good off load.

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:

Dominque Sandow: The nephew of former NRL halfback Chris Sandow, Sandow is a dynamic fullback with great vision and game awareness. He’s an attacking threat from anywhere on the field. Sandow attends Ipswich SHS and was a 2022 Met East Under 18 representative.

LJ Nonu: Keep an eye out for this young centre who has been identified by the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Another Ipswich SHS student, he is sure to bea handful for any defender this season, with a combination of speed and strength. He is originally from Victoria but has been in Ipswich since 2021.

Tarell Indich: Indich is a newcomer to Brisbane, having arrived at Ipswich SHS and the Jets from Cherbourg. A second row or centre, Indich recently played in the Murri under 16 team against the NSW Koori side and was one of the players of the day. He is a gifted ball carrier and is physical in defence.

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:

Tiresa Elika: Tiresa outplayed the Newcastle Knights in the recent under-17s Titans future Academy trial game, making huge metres in the middle while dominating with strong defence. Selected for the under-18s Australian Schoolgirls team which played Fiji last year, Elika’s discipline will likely help develop her game further, in what will be an exciting year of women and girls rugby league this year.


Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:

D’Artanyan Connolly and Ira Yeatman: outstanding talents who both have electric speed, can create something out of nothing, and are as unpredictable as they come.

Cayde Miller: Will be one to watch, a “professional” who has set the example with his attitude as he recovered from a back injury.

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:

Braithan Robertson-Ketchell and Cohen Briggs: North Queensland Young Guns members are expected to bring experience as the Cowboys-contracted development players grow their game.

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:

Aerielle Hobbler and Montana Mook-Kusu: These two will act as the experience and muscle upfront as they work towards a potential future in the NRLW.


Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:

The Devils will be talented – they always are – although on this occasion coach Shannon Tupara declined to single out his players or put pressure on them. But expect them to be a good side.

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:
Loto Salei:
He has come the long way around – from Christchurch to Alice Springs to Cairns to Wavell SHS and now finds himself at Bishop Park. Meet Loto Salei, a wonderful young player with great versatility who will probably play No. 13, but who can also move to the edge or centre. He really developed his ball running last season.
Tyreece Tait: Now here’s a real talent. The Queensland schoolboy and Maroons under 19 squad member is an elite finisher who has played much of his football on the wing, but will be moved closer to the action at centre. He has been signed by the Broncos.

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:
Grace Giampino:
A front rower or second rower, coach Jake Rowden said Giampino had strong first up contact in defence while also being a devastating ball runner. She was a natural leader.

Cedilla Matatahi: A hooker Cedella is a noted strong communicator who has vision while also possessing a massive engine

Tayla Sykes: The Devils will have Skys as their five-eighth, with her strong running, footwork and great kicking game an asset.

Blessing Leota-Williams: Another strong communicator, she is great under pressure, level headed and a leader.


Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:

Brian Pouniu: The 2022 Queensland under 16 edge forward is a real dynamo who is sure to again be a handful at this level.
Mereki Warradoo:
A Dolphins junior from the Moreton Bay junior league club, Warradoo is an exciting fullback talent who last year was voted best Queensland under 15 player at the nationals.

Jarius Halahala: A Redcliffe SHS student, the 2022 Queensland under 15 prop will be a real asset to the side with his strong, aggressive game. He also has great late footwork.

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:
Michael Waqa:
From the Dolphins northside catchment, Waqa gained valuable open rugby league experience playing front row in the Langer Trophy last season. He has impressed coach Scott Tronc by being a “tough competitor with a great motor’’. Although a likely middle, he has the versatility to play on the edge.
John Paul Donevski: A real impact player in the backs, he will probably play centre but can also play fullback or wing with ease. “He is versatile, a very skilful fast and athletic outside back,’’ Tronc said.

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:
Grace Filipo:
A young footballer, Filpo is a real natural who has both toughness and skill. She will be used as a utility player.

Reegan Hicks: Hicks will be an impact player, using her strength, skill and pace as a back rower.

Armarni-Lea Auvae: Watch for this strong, athletic middle forward who has good hands.


Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:
Ezra Leota:
A dummy half, Leota is an explosive player who is a little like his idol, premiership winning NRL star Api Koroisau. He is also very strong in defence and is always pinching those extra metres around the ruck.
Levi Bannan:
Bannan will play either fullback or halfback and features ridiculous speed off the mark and great footwork.

Sam Martin: Plays at hooker and is super calm and a natural born leader. Martin plays a very intelligent game and is always three plays ahead. He loves big contact and is always looking for that shot that can change the game’s momentum.

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:
Israel Leota:
Watch for his damaging outside back to influence games. A survivor from last season’s premiership winning side, the tall, athletic Leota is a powerful and damaging outside back and good in the air. He has been signed by the Broncos.

Jacob Tinsley: A very smart dummy half around the ruck, and tough as teak, Tinsley can generate ruck speed and will be a key player.

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:
Savannah Tato:
The hard running forward will be the leader of the pack and has the potential to be elevated into the BMD senior competition when the 19s is finished.
Jaydika Tafua: A second rower, she is a good defender who reads the game well.


Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:
Jackson Koina:
“Jackson will be one of our captains,”
“He’s a real leader through the team and especially within the forward pack.
“He’s very mature but also has some great ball skills and is willing to give the defensive side of things a real crack in the middle.”

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:
Joseph Meikle:
“Joe’s come down from Murgon and is attending the University of the Sunshine Coast,”
“He’s a big, strong, centre and a true hard working kid coming from a farm background. “He’s new to the Falcons set up but has thrived in the environment.”
Tully McLellan:
“Tully’s a fullback or can play in the halves,” he said.
“He’s on a Melbourne development contract and is a well rounded type of player.
“He’s got skill, he’s got speed, he’s got vision and he’s a great communicator so I’m looking forward to seeing him develop over the next few years.”

Chase Paterson:
“Chase is a middle and edge player and is another that’s Melbourne development contracted,” he said.
“He’s the quintessential Storm player as he’s rough and tumble, does all the little one percenters and all the tidy up stuff really well.

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:
Kahurangi Hetaraka:
“Kahu was strong in patches in our opening trial,”
“Her fitness needs to be better as an edge second rower but she showed a lot of good signs and is an exciting prospect.”

Nancy Sullivan:
“Nancy was strong when she was on the park, again her fitness was down a bit but we expected that with a lot of the girls as we haven‘t had a big pre-season,”
“She played on the edge and in the middle as our lock and was really promising.”

Lila Parr:
“Lila at halfback was also really strong,”
“She’s got good vision and passing skills.”


Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:
Don Paiyala:
A dynamic player that has strength beyond his size and could be used at centre or on the wing.
Ryan Van Zanden: Played for the Queensland Schoolboy Whites last year, basically a secondary team to the Maroons, proving he is knocking on the door of higher honours.
Cooper Cox and Cooper Reinders: These twodon’t just share a name, Norford said they could easily find themselves swapping roles depending on who was firing at training.

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:

Iowani Cavuilati: Cavuilati played on the wing for the Under-16 Queensland Fiji rugby union team in 2022 at the Pacific Youth Rugby Festival on the Gold Coast. The junior cross-code star is a member of the North Queensland Cowboys Academy, and could offer a lot to whichever sport he dedicates himself to.
Jack Hebei: Hebei has made the move south from Cairns this year and is a member of the NRL Cowboys House. The elusive outside back played for the Northern Pride in last year’s Cyril Connell Challenge. After raising eyebrows at Blackhawks trials, Kyle said he was still working out where Hebei would best serve the team.
Emparama Kikau: The younger brother of NRL-famous Viliame, Eparama Kikau is about to burst onto the Australian rugby league scene. The athletically-gifted centre or backrower attended Marist Brothers in Suva, where he was named best player in the U17 schools final in 2022.

Tekelu Mene: The Cowboys-contracted junior returns to the side after a strong showing in the Mal Meninga Cup last year. Originally from Warraber Island in the Torres Strait, Mene is an NRL Cowboys House 2022 graduate and represented Queensland Country U17 in 2022.

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:
Halls Barker:
Barker plays her club rugby league at the Western Lions, where she went up into the women’s open competition last year and won the competition. Entering her second year with the Blackhawks, Hall said he would use Barker in the outside backs.

Remi Bishop: Joining the Blackhawks for her third season is Bishop, who was one of the team’s inaugural women’s team members. Bishop plays locally for Centrals and came through the Southern Cross Catholic College system.

Thalia Clarke: Clarke is a cross-sport athletes that joins the team from the St Margaret Mary’s College school system, and she’s also been added to the Cowboys Gold Stars Academy squad.


Under 16 Cyril Connell Challenge:

Brathien Scott: Having leadership qualities beyond his years and 16 years-old, Scott is the side’s utility. Capable of playing in five-eighth and other play making roles, he will be key to the sides creativity in attack. A Valleys junior, he has represented Queensland for both touch and league. This is his first year in the competition.
Shaun Elara: A solid unit in the front row, he has been described as a very explosive player. At 16 years-old the lock and former Highfields junior will be integral to the sides efforts going forwards.
Harry Robinson: A good, hard running and hard tackling player, Robinson is a Valleys junior.

A second-rower, as well as a centre, his coach has called him a, “great kid, who works really hard.”

Under 18 Mal Meninga Cup:
Matthew Moore:
Fullback and captain of the side, Moore is a Valleys junior. Coming from a touch footy background, he has represented Australia and plays A-grade. A good communicator and great in contact, he is a great in contact. Combining his elite fitness and his knack at reading the game, he is an important asset to the team.
Jake Durie: A Souths junior, he is the five-eighth of the side, Durie is a player to watch. An important part of the side, it is his ball running and ability to take on the line that makes him a special player.

Bud Smith: With a big and solid frame, he is a big presence in the middle. Playing at lock, his ball playing is underrated. A leader of the pack, he keeps his fellow forward in check. Smith also comes from NRL heritage with his father is former Maroons and Kangaroos lock, Jason Smith.

Under 19 Harvey Norman Women:

Mackenzie Zeller: A Highfields junior, this Zeller’s second season in the U19’s competition. At just 17 she is already the sides captain, kicking off her campaign already with a hat-trick in her first match. Not a big talker, Zeller leads by example through her powerful style of play and physicality.

Regan McMillian: Her first year in the side and only 16 years-old, McMillian had an outstanding first game. A Brothers junior, she has the ability to make “fantastic“ underline runs. McMillian also has a very strong left handed fend and a good left foot step.

Chloe Palliser: Playing in the halves, the 16 year-old is coming back from an ankle injury. The Souths junior is a great organiser of her side, frequently taking on the line with impressive ‘show-and-go’s.

Anna Dingley: A senior in the side at 18 years-old and in her second season, the Newton junior was in the Qld Sapphires last year. Having missed some games and a few training sessions, she in back on deck full time. She has been described as a strong and very capable player.

Originally published as Find out who to watch this year with some of Queensland’s best sporting talents on display in 2023 Cyril Connell Challenge, Mal Meninga Cup and Harvey Norman U19s: 100 of the best male and female players to watch in junior rugby league in 2023

Ryan Sederquist

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