The Rugby League World Cup 2021 kicked off this weekend, a year later than intended courtesy of Covid-19 delays. Australia are the overwhelming favourites, with New Zealand, England and Samoa nipping at their heels. Regardless of which team performs, there are a handful of key players to watch across the next few weeks that have the potential to shape their team’s results. Here are three possible stars of the Rugby League World Cup 2021.

Nathan Cleary – Australia

There’s one name on everyone’s lips in rugby league this year, and that’s Nathan Cleary. 

Rarely has there been a more dominant two-year period in NRL history, where one team has been so far ahead of the rest of the competition as we’ve seen from the Penrith Panthers the last two years. Having gone back to back in the NRL winning the Grand Final a few weeks ago, much of the Panthers’ success has been down to the player guiding them around the field, Nathan Cleary.

Cleary will contest the No.7 jersey for Australia at this year’s Rugby League World Cup and adds some much-needed star power to a side that has seen several high-profile players quit to represent other nations. With Cleary at the helm, Australia know they have an excellent chance of defending their title, particularly with no team decoding how to combat Cleary’s kicking game yet.

Joseph Tapine – New Zealand

Spearheading the Kiwis’ attack at the Rugby League World Cup over the next month will be Joseph Tapine, one of the NRL’s most influential props this season.

Tapine played for the Canberra Raiders and notched up the most post-contact meters in all of the NRL for his side. Tapine’s ability to make ground after that initial tackle has been invaluable for the men in green from Canberra, and on more than one occasion carried his side to victory. Performances like this are exactly what New Zealand will be looking for from Tapine at the Rugby League World Cup, as will any rugby betting punters that are putting money on the Kiwis to pull off another upset.

Prop Joseph Tapine will combine with other in-form forwards to create an imposing pack for New Zealand, alongside the likes of James Fisher-Harris, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Moses Leota, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Isaiah Papali’I.

Jack Welsby – England

Home team England will want a strong showing at the Rugby League World Cup 2021, playing in front of a home crowd with plenty of talent in their side.

One such talent is young Jack Welsby, the 21-year-old Super League Player of the Year. The utility back made his first appearance for England recently in the side’s June match against the Combined Nations All Stars and will be looking to unleash at this World Cup to make an impact for England.

In the history of rugby league, England have never won a World Cup as a stand-alone nation. However, with a player like Jack Welsby in their side, and the two strongest teams, New Zealand and Australia, on the same side of the draw, England have an excellent chance this year.