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Whether they're pushing for a spot in Round 1 of the NRL Telstra Premiership or looking to benefit from their time on a development contract, here are the best up-and-coming players to watch in the Pre-season Challenge.

Week 1 schedule

Thursday, February 9

  • 6.00pm — Warriors v Wests Tigers at Mt Smart Stadium

Friday, February 10

  • 5.55pm — Knights v Sharks at Central Coast Stadium
  • 8.00pm — Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles at Central Coast Stadium

Saturday, February 11

  • 6.00pm — Eels v Panthers at BlueBet Stadium
  • 8.05pm — Dragons v St Helens at WIN Stadium

Sunday February 12

  • 1.50pm — Storm v Roosters at GMHBA Stadium, Geelong
  • 3.55pm — Raiders v Bulldogs at Ack Weyman Oval, Moruya
  • 6.00pm — Cowboys v Dolphins at Barlow Park, Cairns
  • 8.05pm — Broncos v Titans at Sunshine Coast Stadium

Rookies to watch - Pre-season Challenge Week 1 

Deine Mariner (Broncos)

At just 19, Mariner already has two NRL games under his belt, where he ran for a combined 229 metres from 23 carries and broke four tackles in Round 20 and Round 21 last year.

Mariner demanded the attention of Kevin Walters in the Hostplus Cup for Wynnum-Manly Seagulls, where the Auckland born outside back produced a four-try, 217-metre effort in Round 1.

An out-and-out speedster who has been in the Broncos system since he was 15, Mariner will be looking to get his hands on the football in Sunday's Pre-season clash to show Walters he's worthy of more first grade this year.

Trey Mooney (Raiders)

One of the most hyped young forwards coming through the ranks, the former Parramatta junior is continuing to push his case that he's ready for the NRL.

Captaining NSW to victory in the Under 19s Origin last year, Mooney also has the leadership attributes to match his barnstorming feats on the football field. 

He has had only the one NRL start so far but you can expect plenty more following the exits of Ryan Sutton and Adam Elliott in the nation's capital.

Paul Alamoti (Bulldogs)

Named at centre in Cameron Ciraldo's Round 1 Pre-season Challenge side, Alamoti has a big opportunity to bang down the door for the Bulldogs' vacant centre position left by the departed Aaron Schoupp.

The local junior emerges in Canterbury's top 30 hot off the back of an impressive NSW Cup season where he averaged 150 metres and scored four tries in 15 games.

Alamoti will face some competition for the No. 3 jersey alongside Braidon Burns, Jake Averillo and newly recruited rugby union convert Jeral Skelton, but Bulldogs fans should expect the 19-year-old to see more NRL action this year. 

It opens up for Alamoti

Jesse Colquhoun (Sharks)

He's an Illawarra junior but the 21-year-old forward was quick to catch the eye of Craig Fitzgibbon and sign a two-year deal with Cronulla last season.

Handed a taste of first grade in 2022, the hard-running edge forward will be chasing at least a permanent bench spot in his second NRL campaign.

He'll get his first opportunity after being named to start in Cronulla's Pre-season Challenge clash against Newcastle and will want to prove he's the impact forward the Sharks need in 2023.

Isaiya Katoa (Dolphins)

The young five-eighth was lured from the Panthers to join the Dolphins on a three-year deal on his 18th birthday with many predicting Katoa to be one of the next best halves in the game.

He is yet to taste NRL footy but the prodigious playmaker had his skills on show in last year's World Cup, scoring a try on debut for Tonga against Papua New Guinea. 

Bennett has shown in the past that he is not afraid to give rookies a chance and after being named at No. 7 for Sunday's Pre-season clash, fans will be eager to see how the 18-year-old leads the rookie team around the park. 

"No other man like Bennett" to take Katoa to the top

Alofiana Khan-Pereira (Titans)

Alofiana Khan-Pereira proved to be the one of the stars of the Queensland reserve grade competition in 2022 as he lit up the competition with a season-high 25 tries in 19 games to be named the Hostplus Winger of the Year. He now gets his shot on the wing for the Titans as part of an backline featuring plenty of NRL experience, and an abundance of speed with Philip Sami, Jojo Fifita and Jayden Campbell.

Given the unavailability of both Brian Kelly (suspension) and Patrick Herbert (injury) for the first three weeks of the competition, Khan-Pereira could well be the man to take advantage of a spot in the backline in his third year with the NRL side.

Jake Toby (Sea Eagles)

The 25-year-old gets an opportunity to start at fullback after training with the Sea Eagles NRL squad over the summer. 

Toby was named Players’ Player for Manly's reserve grade side in 2022, where he scored six tries in 21 NSW Cup games.

With injury concerns to Tom Trbojevic and a possible positional switch for Reuben Garrick on the table, Toby will be looking to take advantage in Manly's No.1 jersey to leave food for thought for Anthony Seibold in the future.

Jonah Pezet (Storm)

Pezet announced himself as a genuine NRL prospect with an impressive performance in last year's under-19s State of Origin match, setting up four tries at Leichhardt Oval.

The 20-year-old signed a three-year deal with the Storm in December despite the club locking in Cameron Munster and Jahrome Hughes to long-term deals. 

A controlling halfback with a strong kicking game, the Gosford product set up five tries in 10 appearances for the Brisbane Tigers last year, with eight of those coming off the bench.

Pezet will have to bide his time behind Munster and Hughes but an opportunity to start at No. 7 in this week's trials could come in handy during Origin time.

Match Highlights: U19s Blues v Maroons

Krystian Mapapalangi (Knights)

The 20-year-old outside back appears to have found a home at the Knights after brief stints at the Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles. 

A centre or five-eighth, he had a taste of first grade towards the end of the 2022 season, impressing on NRL debut against the Raiders in Round 23 with a try assist. 

He backed it up the following week with 172 running metres against the Titans and with Kalyn Ponga's expected shift to the halves, Mapapalangi could prove to be a handy utility back-up or right centre option for Adam O'Brien in Round 1.

Tom Chester (Cowboys)

Handed his debut in Round 18 last season, Chester will return is set to the NRL arena after coach Todd Payten named the promising youngster at No.1 for this weekend's clash against the Dolphins.

A capable fullback, Chester scored six tries and broke 50 tackles for the Townsville Blackhawks last season but the 21-year-old sits patiently behind Scott Drinkwater at the Cowboys.

Hiku's guidance helping Chester push for more NRL time

Also boasting experience in the halves, Chester's utility value could bring priceless depth to the Cowboys' spine in 2023 and the Townsville local has a golden opportunity to play regular first-grade this year with Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow’s departure opening up a spot on the bench.

Toni Mataele (Eels)

Picked on Brad Arthur's interchange bench for Saturday's match, the 2023 development player could be the answer to the prayers of Parramatta fans still coming to terms with the loss of rampaging forwards Isaiah Papali'i and Marata Niukore.

Averaging 117 run metres and breaking 12 tackles in eight games for Parramatta's NSW Cup side last season, the line-running edge forward will be challenging new recruits Jack Murchie and Matt Doorey for an NRL call-up in 2023. 

Sunia Turuva (Panthers)

With Taylan May suspended for the opening two rounds of the 2023 season, an impressive trial run in the No. 3 jersey could see Turuva finally cement a position in Cleary's top 17. 

The Western Sydney product earned three NRL caps last year, including a try in Round 25 and is poised to add to that tally this year.

After starring for Fiji in the Pacific Test against PNG last year, the 20-year-old has all the skills to be Penrith's next-best thing in the club's backline, particularly with the departures of Christian Crichton, Rob Jennings and Charlie Staines in the off-season.

Turuva tip-toes to the tryline

Leon Te Hau (Rabbitohs)

With Taane Milne suspended until Round 2, Te Hau has been handed an opportunity to start on the Rabbitohs' right edge in their Pre-season Challenge against Manly.

Scouted through the Rabbitohs’ South-East Queensland Elite Player Development Satellite program in 2021, the 19-year-old moved into Jason Demetriou's top 30 squad this year where he will hope to prove his wares as an outside back. 

The Marsden State High School product was a three-season Langer Trophy player before being snapped up by the Rabbitohs.

Connor Muhleisen (Dragons)

Promising dummy half Connor Muhleisen will start at five-eighth for the Dragons against St Helens on Saturday in a position that the Red V need to find some answers before Round 1. 

There's huge promise in Muhleisen and at worst the 21-year-old could do his chances no harm of making his NRL debut this year with a sound performance against the Super League champions. 

With Jacob Liddle the only recognised hooker in the Dragons squad, Muhleisen can use the next fortnight to push his case for a permanent spot in the club's roster.

Siua Wong (Roosters)

Reportedly knocking back a monster deal from Wayne Bennett to join him at the Dolphins, Trent Robinson must have given teen sensation Wong confidence that a future awaits for him with the Roosters.

Wong had one of the great ascensions through the grades in 2022, beginning the year in the SG Ball Cup before taking a starting spot in NSW Cup by season's end.

The 19-year-old backrower will have gained plenty of confidence after playing every minute of Fiji's World Cup campaign last year and will be hoping to grace the field for the Tricolours in 2023.

Wong slides over

Ali Leiataua (Warriors)

Selected on Andrew Webster's bench to play the Wests Tigers on Thursday, the nephew and namesake of Warriors legend Ali Lauitiiti could be New Zealand's best-kept secret.

An outside back not quite in the mould of his uncle, but every bit as tough, Leiataua represented the Counties Stingrays before joining the Warriors extended squad based in Australia.

On a development contract until the end of 2024, the Papatoetoe Panthers product will be hoping for an opportunity to show off his pace and skills at centre or fullback this year.

Rua Ngatikaura (Wests Tigers)

A young gun rake who has worked his way through the Wests Tigers junior system, Ngatikaura will be hoping to impress new coach Tim Sheens in his second season in the top 30.

The 22-year-old, who previously captained the Western Suburbs Jersey Flegg side and won the club's Player of the Year award in 2021 has been likened to Brandon Smith.

Ngatikaura will have plenty of confidence heading into 2023 after representing Cook Islands at the World Cup and could find himself a genuine back-up option Api Koroisau this season.

Acknowledgement of Country

North Queensland Cowboys 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.