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Experts' view: Breakout player of 2021

Each year brings with it a host of players who either burst onto the scene or take their game to a previously unexpected level.

This season has been no different, with a host of players making the leap from squad players to among the first picked every week.

The experts at have their say on who they think has made the biggest leap in 2021.

Experts' view - Breakout player of 2021

Steve Renouf (Maroons legend)

Unfortunately for the Broncos, it has to be Reece Walsh. He had only played a handful of NRL games and was then picked to play Origin. His form has been great and he will only get better.

Brett Kimmorley (Former Test halfback)

Sam Walker. His debut season at the biggest club in Sydney has been brilliant. He will be great to watch in the coming years.

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Jamie Soward (Premiership winner)

Nicho Hynes played himself into a new three-year contract at Cronulla and has also shown how great Craig Bellamy is as a coach. Plays with so much time and patience. 

Robbie Farah (Wests Tigers great)

Sam Walker. Anytime a teenager makes a debut it's worth watching. When it is someone in the halves who makes such an impressive, and immediate, impact it becomes must-see TV.

Mary Konstantopoulos (Ladies Who League) 

Isaiah Papali'i has been close to the Eels' best this year and is my tip for signing of the year.  Despite just being 23, Papali'i has really stood out this year with his barging runs and his post contact metres. I'm not sure how the Warriors let him go. 

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Brad Walter ( senior reporter)

Nicho Hynes has been in and out of NRL systems since 2015 but this season he had gone from a backup player with the Melbourne Storm to one of the most sought-after stars on the transfer market after playing 13 matches in place of Cameron Munster and Ryan Papenhuyzen.

Paul Suttor ( editor)

Scott Drinkwater has gone from a solid first-grader to a potential representative playmaker this season. Tom Dearden has arrived and Chad Townsend is on the way next year but they will find it hard to knock Drinkwater out of the North Queensland halves.

Alicia Newton ( reporter)

They say you’ve got to take your opportunities in the NRL and Nicho Hynes has done exactly that after Ryan Papenhuyzen went down in Magic Round. Hynes has slotted into the fullback role with ease and ensured Melbourne’s dominance continued.

Paul Zalunardo ( senior journalist)

Nicho Hynes. As only the Storm can, they've been able to quickly cover for the man (Ryan Papenhuyzen, who remains on the injury list) who replaced the great Billy Slater. Hynes has been great for Melbourne, with his 20 linebreak assists in 13 matches this year the best in the NRL. The Sharks must be loving his development. 

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Martin Lenehan ( senior journalist)

Isaiah Papali’i had gone largely unnoticed in 63 games at the Warriors between 2017-20 but has emerged as one of the superstars of the 2021 season at Parramatta. The 22-year-old is averaging 15 runs and 154 metres per game and has 70 tackle breaks to his name, giving the Eels a new dimension in attack.

Zac Bailey ( reporter)

He comes from a rugby union family, but Josh Schuster never dabbled with the leather elbow-patch brigade and is going to be a force for the Sea Eagles after his performances this season. When young Josh slots into the five-eighth position he'll be throwing no-look passes and putting Tom Trbojevic over for more tries than you hear a rara ref say "Crouch, touch, set".

Chris Kennedy ( reporter)

Since 'breakout' and 'rookie' don’t necessarily mean the same thing I’ll say Isaiah Papali’i. His performances this year though have far exceeded anything we’ve seen from him in his past four seasons of unfulfilled promise at the Warriors. He’s the very definition of a breakout player.

Dan Walsh ( reporter)

Sam Walker. Looks 13, plays like he’s 30 and touted by astute judges as a No.7 with the smarts and potential to redefine halfback play in the age of cookie-cutter coaching. Can’t be overstated how well he’s travelling in a team that has lost Keary, Friend, Cordner and Brett Morris.

Troy Whittaker ( reporter)

If there was an NRL Most Improved Player award, Sharks fullback Will Kennedy would be among the frontrunners. The 24-year-old has put a mortgage on his team’s No.1 jersey and earned a new two-year deal. Kennedy’s skills landed him in equal-sixth place on the Dally M Medal leaderboard when voting went behind closed doors after round 12.

Lone Scout ( Fantasy guru)

Sam Walker started the season behind Lachlan Lam and possibly Drew Hutchison in the pecking order as Luke Keary’s halves partner at the Roosters, but an injury to Keary gave the 18-year-old his chance to shine. Now he's already being discussed as Daly Cherry-Evans’ successor in the Maroons No.7 jersey.

Kenny Scott ( podcaster)

Are we allowed to say Tom Trbojevic? We all knew he was an amazing athlete and one of the top players in the league but this year he has gone from a "arguably one of the best" to just "the best". His game is so good now that he absolutely dominates any position in the backline he’s slotted into.


Alexa (Your Trusted Voice Assistant and Footy Fan)

It’s always close when the cockroaches and cane toads clash, but I think NSW have a stronger spine this year. If you have an Alexa-enabled device, try saying, “Alexa, who will win the State of Origin?” If you don’t have one yet, you can grab one here 


With the NRL Alexa skill, you can sign up for match reminders, catch the latest news and listen live to every match of the season, including State of Origin. Just say, “Alexa, open NRL”  

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The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.

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Melbourne Storm respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.