Rugby League’s Biggest Teenage Sensations

With the sport enduring an extended break, at least there are some players who still have time very much on their side. Here’s an in-depth look at a dozen of the best talents still in their teenage years who will hope to be among the game’s top stars in the 2020s…

Louis Senior (Huddersfield)

Louis Senior confirmed himself as a talent to be very excited about with four tries in the final game of last season against Catalans to assure Huddersfield of their Super League status.

Remarkably it has now been more than two years since Senior made his first-team debut as a 17-year-old on Good Friday of 2018, in a draw against Leeds.

He and twin brother Innes, products of Newsome Panthers and standouts in the Giants’ academy side, were both handed debuts within the space of four days in that Easter period although it was Innes who went on to make more appearances in that season and the next.

Those four tries against the Dragons doubled Louis’ tally for 2019 to eight when more opportunities presented themselves in the latter stages of that season, and he is now firmly in the driving seat having started the first four matches this year, crossing three more times in Huddersfield’s surprise start to take his Super League tally to 12 from 19 games.

Likes Innes, Louis is yet to have his best position figured out. A future at full-back is a possibility and he has also featured at centre, but most of his games have come on the wing and it is here where his best attributes are on display.

Standing at six foot four, he is a strong carrier of the ball into contact and has pace as well, making more clean breaks than any of his teammates so far this year. He knows how to finish too, whether through his speed or through the height that makes him the perfect target for kicks.

Connor Wynne (Hull FC)

Nerves are not uncommon for a teenager making their Super League debut but admitting so on social media isn’t the best idea. Connor Wynne looked anything but nervous on his first-team bow for Hull FC though, away at Salford last April, and has been composed in each appearance since.

The full-back went on to make five appearances for the Black and Whites in 2019, scoring three tries including the final one in their Good Friday victory over Hull KR, and also made four appearances for League One side Doncaster on dual-registration.

That run of top-flight games came through the absence of Jamie Shaul, currently the undisputed custodian of the number one jersey at the KCOM Stadium, and Wynne does not have the easiest task getting ahead of the England international in the pecking order.

Both are Hull-born and joined the club from Skirlaugh Bulls, although Wynne started out at East Hull. The 19-year-old earned his deal with his performances in the City of Hull Academy, but for now remains limited to reserve-grade rugby.

Shaul will remain the go-to man whoever takes charge of FC next, but his understudy will be capable when his next opportunity comes along. Wynne is an elusive runner with great speed and footwork, and is solid under the high ball as well.

To step into such a demanding spot on the field will require enhancement of the finer details like positioning, but he has the attributes and attitude to follow in the footsteps of Shaul.

Jack Brown (Hull FC)

Debuts cannot come much better than Jack Brown’s, who scored with his very first touch of a Super League ball in April last year to help Hull to a win at Catalans.

The 12 months since then have not seen the prop kick on quite as hoped, with injury forcing him out of the team and then back with dual-reg partners Doncaster, who he played for 10 times last season including his professional debut six days before his top-flight bow in France.

He has played only twice more in Super League since, against Wakefield in the latter stages of the 2019 campaign and then in Hull’s fateful defeat to Warrington last month which cost Lee Radford his job.

A new head coach will mean a new chance to impress, and Brown will look to take it with both hands. Few players were as talked-about in academy rugby, where the former East Hull junior’s rampages marked him out as one of the game’s most fearsome young forwards, but the 19-year-old is awaiting a real breakthrough.

Of course, in no position is it more difficult to impress early than in the front-row, but few young players have the natural resources that Brown does. He is short for a prop at five foot nine but still weighs in on the muscular side of 100kg and uses it well to explosively break through tackles, as well as having an eye for a pass and an impressive offload in his armoury.

He is not afraid of hard work and there is little doubt he will be a Super League player. All he needs is more games and experience.

Mikey Lewis (Hull KR)

19th January 2020, Hull College Craven Park, Kingston upon Hull, England; Rugby League Pre Season, Hull Kingston Rovers v Featherstone Rovers : Mikey Lewis (20) of Hull KR runs with the ball
Credit: David Greaves/News Images

The coronavirus-enforced break has done nobody any favours but one player who can consider the timing desperately unfortunate is Mikey Lewis, who had just made his second senior appearance in a Hull KR shirt with a man-of-the-match showing in the Challenge Cup win over Leigh.

The 18-year-old half-back’s performance will have been of little surprise to those at Rovers as he continues to surpass expectations and looks on course for a quick ascent to the top.

He was given his first taste of senior rugby midway through last season when he was sent out on loan to League One side Newcastle. Seven matches later, having scored as many tries and instantly become one of Thunder’s key players, he was recalled for a prompt Super League debut away at Wigan.

The Robins’ hierarchy had seen more than enough to know that Lewis would be a star for the future and duly handed him a contract extension until the end of 2023.

He scored eight tries in his first three games for the City of Hull academy after joining from West Hull and his knack for smelling a chance has not dissipated since, with an ability to find gaps and elude defenders matched by a brilliant turn of pace. He’s also a leader and is good at distributing the ball both with his hands and his left foot.

Lewis isn’t lacking for confidence and it is easy to see why. Even with four more experienced half-backs in Hull KR’s ranks, he will be pushing for a regular spot when the season resumes.

Tom Holroyd (Leeds)

14th February 2020, Headingley Carnegie Stadium, Leeds, England; Betfred Super League, Leeds Rhinos v Hull Kingston Rovers :Tom Holdroyd of Leeds Rhinos

More Super League game time is the aim for Tom Holroyd this year as he looks to buck the trend for prop forwards and break into the top-flight at the tender age of 19.

His Leeds debut came at 17 and he made three further appearances early last season before a succession of ankle, foot and wrist injuries stalled the progress that had seen him stand out in the Rhinos’ run to the Academy Grand Final in 2018.

The former Siddal junior has represented England Under-16s and Under-18s, as well as being part of the England Academy team that famously enjoyed a whitewash over Australia Schoolboys.

Holroyd is now on the cusp of the first-team again this season, featuring in every 21-man squad without making an appearance. Instead he has been given the chance to impose himself on the Championship for the first time with Featherstone, starting their last three league matches for invaluable minutes in senior rugby and making a good impression.

The forward doesn’t lack for physical stature, standing at six foot two and carrying around 110kg, and few players of his age can match the aggression that he brings into every carry of the ball.

If any young prop can make their mark in Super League at this age then it will be Holroyd who, having already shown he can mix it in Super League, must be desperate for his next opportunity.

Sam Walters (Leeds)

There are plenty of young talents at Leeds Rhinos lining up for their chance to make an impact on Super League, and Sam Walters put himself to the front of the queue with a superb first season at the club that saw him named as the Academy Player of the Year.

The back-rower took to a new environment well in 2019 having only joined the club that March from Widnes, making the switch from the cash-strapped Vikings along with fellow young forward Jarrod O’Connor.

Walters had still been awaiting a first-team debut with Widnes but, having seen his starring role for England Academy in the previous autumn’s Test series win over Australia Schoolboys, the Rhinos knew what a quality prospect they were investing in.

The former Halton Farnworth Hornets junior scored nine tries in 15 games to be crowned Leeds Academy’s best last term and also got a first-grade debut on loan with Batley in the Championship, scoring on his only appearance away at Leigh.

Standing at six foot five, Walters is a formidable runner at the line but also has a good passing game and puts his long arms to good use by getting offloads away in tight situations.

More games in the second-tier may come first once the season is back underway, but a Super League debut cannot be too far away.

Lewis Dodd (St Helens)

When allowing Danny Richardson to leave the club for Castleford ahead of this season, St Helens felt no need to bring in a replacement – in 18-year-old Lewis Dodd, they were confident they already had one.

That was confirmed in February when they tied the half-back down with a four-year contract extension, keeping him with Saints until the end of 2023, and he had given the club little choice after adapting to the step up from the academy team to the reserves by scoring five tries in the opening two games.

Dodd had already proved that he was simply too good for academy level, scoring 21 tries and 116 goals in 25 matches to lead his side to the Grand Final.

That try-record reflects how the playmaker is happy to take things on for himself. He’s always looking at the line and is an expert at spotting gaps, with a fantastic step to beat any defenders that stand in his way once he has set off.

His fine kicking game sees him notch plenty of try assists, capable of accurate short kicks in behind but equally skilful at kicking long as well.

Dodd is on the cusp of the first-team having featured in every 21-man squad so far this season. He is having to bide his time behind the established pair of Jonny Lomax and Theo Fages for now but he has the quality to make the step up to Super League when the time comes, and everybody at Saints knows it.

Jack Welsby (St Helens)

By the time Jack Welsby turned 19 last month, he had already contributed to two League Leaders’ Shields and a Super League title, appeared in the World Club Challenge against Sydney Roosters, and received an invite to the England Knights squad.

He was still in his first year of academy rugby at St Helens when he was given a league debut against Hull FC in 2018, and he ended that year by scoring two tries in the second game of England Academy’s series win over Australia Schoolboys.

11 further top-flight appearances followed last year as he became an established part of Saints’ first team, making a name for himself in particular with a man-of-the-match performance in a win over Warrington and earning a four-year deal at the end of the season.

He scored 30 tries across his two years in the academy team but it had long been certain that the former Shevington and Blackbrook junior was destined for the first team, and he has played in all seven of their games so far in 2020, scoring three tries to double his Super League try tally.

His versatility has helped him to slot into whichever positions need filling, primarily taking on the full-back role despite spending much of his youth career in the halves, while also lining up on the wing or at centre on occasion.

Eventually he will need to settle on which position suits him best, but he has the pace and skill to adapt to any and the potential to reach the very top of the game.

Josh Thewlis (Warrington)

The youngest player on this list and still only 17, Josh Thewlis became the second-youngest debutant in Warrington’s history when he was handed his first game in Super League last June against Catalans.

The full-back stood up to the test well and earned a second appearance two months later on the wing against St Helens, scoring his first try. Those matches, alongside his performances for the academy team, saw earn the club’s Rising Star award and a three-year deal.

Hailing from Oldham and coming through the Waterhead Warriors amateur club before joining the Wolves, Thewlis has been earmarked for the first team for some time having impressed in a full pre-season while still only 16 ahead of last term.

He is quick both in feet and in mind, anticipating danger and reacting well as all good full-backs must, and his support play makes him a dangerous asset in attack too. At his tender age he is still growing, but he has been bulking up accordingly and is set to be a top athlete.

Full-back remains his primary position but he can fill in on the wing or at centre, an adaptability which should help him to get further games in the next couple of years while Stefan Ratchford remains number one at the Halliwell Jones.

He has played just once for the reserves so far this year, with most action coming again for the Under-19s where he has notched five tries in three games. More opportunities will certainly come his way though, and time is most definitely on his side.

Jacob Dugdale (Widnes)

Regardless of the club’s recent struggles, the Widnes academy continues to churn out top talent ready for first-team action.

Plenty of young prospects got their chance to shine in a difficult Championship campaign last season but the only first-year academy player to do so was Jacob Dugdale. The hooker made his debut against Batley in June and went on to make seven appearances in total.

All of his first-team games last season came off the bench, where he was able to inject speed into the team from dummy-half. He is an exciting player always looking to make things happen, darting out quickly to put defenders on their toes and also possessing a decent kick.

The Wigan St Judes junior has earned plenty of recognition from county and country, being named in the England Academy squad last autumn and featuring in their win over Wales, and he is in their Performance Squad again for 2020.

So far Dugdale’s activity this year has been limited to the Under-18s and the reserve team, playing the first three games for the reserves at scrum-half and scoring two tries in a win over Castleford.

Even though new coach Tim Sheens has yet to call upon his services for the first team, he has already proven that he is capable of playing at Championship level and will be an even better player when his next chance comes along.

Ethan Havard (Wigan)

There is no shortage of young talent at a club which has won the last three academy Grand Finals but few are talked about as highly at Wigan as prop Ethan Havard, who has made quite the impression so far in 2020.

Having made just the one Super League appearance before the start of the campaign, debuting last July against Wakefield, Havard impressed enough in pre-season to get the nod for the first match of the year against Warrington ahead of several senior players.

He has now come off the bench in four of the top-of-the-table Warriors’ seven matches, earned a place in the England Knights performance squad, and been the subject of reported interest from none other than Melbourne Storm.

All in all, not a bad start to the year then for the 19-year-old, who was born in the Bulgarian capital Sofia while his parents worked there but raised in Wigan, playing for St Pats amateur club before joining the Warriors’ scholarship system.

Havard was key in leading the Under-19s to academy glory in the past two seasons, with the towering six foot three forward catching the eye with aggressive performances and a brilliant work rate.

Head coach Adrian Lam had seen enough to make Havard a key part of his plans for this season and he has shown himself to be just as fearless and willing to make an impact at the top level, where he will surely be playing for a long time to come.

Morgan Smithies (Wigan)

There’s no need for introductions to the final player on this list, who enjoyed a remarkable breakthrough campaign to win League Express’s Albert Goldthorpe Rookie of the Year medal last year.

A spate of injuries presented Morgan Smithies with the chance to make his Wigan debut at home to Catalans last March and he certainly made it count, impressing so much that he has only missed one Super League game in the 12 months since.

Few can match his phenomenal work rate and that was proven in cold statistics in September, when he broke the Super League record for tackles in a match with a staggering 72 in their play-off match against Salford, despite not even playing the full game.

The Yorkshireman joined Wigan from his local amateur side Siddal and caught the eye in 2018, helping the Under-19s win the Grand Final and starring for England Academy. That put him on the radar for a first-team opportunity in 2019, but nobody could have anticipated the superb season which culminated in more international honours, this time with England Knights as he featured in their Test against Jamaica.

There is no doubt that Smithies is a tackle machine – and doesn’t miss many either – but there is more to his game than hits, capable of making a mean carry and possessing the strength to keep driving for extra metres after contact.

With one legendary loose-forward’s career coming to a close this year, Wigan could not have hoped for a better successor to Sean O’Loughlin.