It’s been a long season but an exciting one as new stars have emerged, whilst others have cemented their spots among the game’s elite with some barnstorming displays and consistency to put the NRL on notice. With so many players performing at such a high level, we thought we would cast our eye over the 17 that we believe were the best 17 in the game this year.
So rather than keep you all waiting, let us get right into it!
Our 2016 NRL Team of the Year is:
Fullback – James Tedesco: His career started out slower than he and Wests Tigers fans would have wanted because of injury but it is safe to say that Tedesco has bounced back. In what was arguably his career best season in 2016, Tedesco was the glue of the Tigers side and the glue that held them together to either win close games or to be in the contest. Blessed with a natural ability not seen in many modern rugby league players, Tedesco can break the line on his own and create an opportunity or he can lay off a pass to a team-mate to set them up for a try or break. A speedster in his own right, Tedesco can and will only get better, particularly after making his Origin debut earlier this year where he showed that he can go toe-to-toe on the international arena. A crucial part of the Tigers team and system moving forward, fans have much to smile about when it comes to the man nicknamed Teddy who will be a staple of their team for years to come.
Winger – Suliasi Vunivalu: Rarely does a winger gain such notoriety and fanfare like Vunivalu has received. A relative unknown when he burst onto the scene earlier this year because of injuries in the Storm’s back-line, he blew everyone out of the water and took the NRL world by surprise, seemingly scoring tries for fun. Much like his Fijian counterpart, Marika Koroibete, Vunivalu is quick, elusive and knows how to score tries. A relative unknown to the game of rugby league just two years ago, Vunivalu worked hard on his all-round game to put himself in the best position and the best shape to play regularly. Playing earlier this year for the Sunshine Coast Falcons and previously the Easts Tigers, both Storm feeder teams, when Rd 7 came around, few could expect what they were about to see. Remarkably, he didn’t just score 1 try in games. There was a string of games where he was scoring two tries and even hat-tricks, as he showcased his ability to the game and its fans. Not bad for a player with a union background and minimal rugby league exposure.
Centre – Joey Leilua: The talent was always there for Leilua as we saw over the years but in 2016, his form and his general play have gone to a whole new level. Incredibly consistent over the course of the season, very few teams have been able to nullify the attack and go-forward of Leilua as he both runs hard at the defensive line or weaves his way in and out. Creating the perfect foil and partnership with Jordan Rapana on their side, Leilua’s offloading ability, uncanny skill and newfound work-rate has seen him emerge as a truly elite centre of the game. Still young by NRL standards, if he maintains this sort of consistency, not only will he remain a crucial part of the Raiders side in years to come but he can start searching for higher representative honours.
Centre – Jarrod Croker: Leilua’s centre partner in crime also joins the team of the year, in what has been an incredible season for him. Breaking several club records this season, Croker’s game continues to go from strength to strength. A nifty, crafty and smart player in his position, he has also heavily contributed to the success of the Canberra Raiders in 2016. An accurate goal-kicker, Croker is yet to experience the accolades of higher honours but with his form and the way he carries himself as a club leader and the captain, they should not be too far away. Not to mention he is well and truly a fan favourite of the club not only for the way he plays but for his leadership and direction on the field.
Winger – Jordan Rapana: No team of the year is complete without Jordan Rapana, the man with the most tackle breaks in the NRL in 2016 and the man who plays outside fellow recipient Joey Leilua every week. Whilst his haircut may not be one that appeals to many, his play on the field does and just like his Raiders counterparts in this team of the year, he has also heavily contributed to their success. Making the most of opportunities thrown his way, he and Leilua have developed what appears to be some sort of telepathic connection. They just know where the other is and have been involved a large number of Raiders tries this season. Just like Whare/Simmons and other centre/winger pairigns of the past, Leilua/Rapana were this year’s best centre/wing pairing.
Five-Eighth – James Maloney: The Sharks always had a talented side but lacked a dynamic, unpredictable presence to guide them around the park in recent years. Enter Maloney, a play-as-you-see-it half who takes the line on regularly with success but a player who can also create a play with some brilliant passing or kicking himself. A crucial core player for the Sharks, Maloney has performed at a high level in 2016 and is a big reason as to why the Sharks finished as high as they did. The small one percenters are also what makes Maloney such a valuable player, as he always works hard, chases hard and tackles hard, adding to his impressive repertoire as a quality player.
Halfback – Johnathan Thurston: It’s a no-brainer when you think about this one. For several years now, Johnathan Thurston has set the benchmark for all halves in the competition and 2016 was no different. Whether he carves up a defence with an array of short and long passing, or whether he tries to catch you off-guard with a deft short kicking game, you never know what the veteran has up his sleeve to help his Cowboys side score points and win games. Still keen to go around for several more years to come, it is likely that Thurston continues to make lists like these over those subsequent years. A natural play-maker, his ability is unparalleled in the sport and in the NRL, and he is always a player that rugby league fans enjoy watching (maybe not against their own side, though).
Prop – Jesse Bromwich – When you think of hard-working props, Bromwich is right at the very top of that list. The Kiwi might seem like a gentle giant off the field but on it, he works tremendously hard in both attack and defence and is capable of performing at a high, consistent level for 80 minutes, even if he does not play 80 minutes every week. A hulking forward, he rarely puts a foot wrong and has always led from the front for the Storm forward pack whether it is through running hard, second phase play via offloads or just in his defence. His efforts galvanise his team-mates in the forward pack and having captained both the New Zealand side and the Storm in the past, it is likely that that mantle be handed down to him once current captain Cam Smith opts to retire, a role that Bromwich is a natural fit for.
Hooker – Josh Hodgson: The English hooker had a bevvy of doubters before the start of the 2015 season about just how successful he was going to be. After a slow but steady start in 2015, it has been this season where Hodgson has truly come into his own. Perhaps the most important player in the entire Raiders team, Hodgson sets the momentum in both attack and defence for the Canberra club with his tenacity, desire and hard work. At the central position of hooker in a game, he dictates the attack and has some of the best game awareness that you will ever see. Whether it is running the ball himself, passing it or finding the best possible option available at the time, Hodgson’s uncanny ability to find and discover those opportunities have put both he and the Raiders on the map.
Prop – Ryan James: Rarely does a prop have such a dominant season for his side like James has had at the Titans. Always touted for bigger things in rugby league, 2016 has been a break-out career-best year for the prop. On top of his usual high meterage rate and work-rate, James equalled a long-standing record in 2016. The most tries by a prop in a season with 11, which is a tremendous feat, given props are not often the beneficiaries of attacking moves to score so many tries. With many believing he should be playing Origin, perhaps that time will come for him soon. Though if he can continue his 2016 form into 2017, he will be equally potent and yet again set the benchmark for his team.
Back-Row – Tohu Harris: One of the unsung heroes of the Melbourne Storm side, Harris is one of the hardest workers not only in the Storm team but the entire NRL. Roaming from left to right to do what is required for the team, he is a true workhorse of the game but also offers plenty of go forward in attack, often on the end of a short ball from half Cooper Cronk to make a break or score. A tremendously talented player, Harris has made a back-row spot his own and has the engine and the tenacity to play 80 minutes at a high level every week both for the Storm and for New Zealand.
Back-Row – Wade Graham: A prestigiously talented back-rower, Graham is a cut above many other back-rowers given his skills as a ball-player and a play-maker. Equally adept in the halves, Graham has shown the game awareness to create plays on the edge through either deft passing or smart kicking that etiher results in points or forces another set. Cementing his spot as a key player on the Sharks edge, Graham can make something happen out of nothing and shapes as a crucial player in their finals campaign. Highly rated by Sharks fans, his representative opportunity came this year when he played for NSW and if his club form continues, you would expect to see him in the team once more in 2017.
Lock – Jason Taumalolo: Many folks would agree when we say that Jason Taumalolo is currently the most destructive player in the game. A literal wrecking ball when he runs the ball up, opposition defences have been left utterly and woefully bamboozled by Taumalolo this year. For almost the entire season, the hulking Kiwi forward has laid the platform for the Cowboys and has gradually increased his overall minutes in the process. Barging into the defensive line like a locomotion, he has single-handedly dashed teams hopes of a win, such is the bruising nature to which he runs. He should be an automatic selection for New Zealand’s Four Nations side.
Bench – Josh Papalii: Yet another Raiders player in the team of the year and deservedly so. One of the most dynamic forwards at the club, Papalii’s work-rate is also up there among the best. Consistently playing 80 minutes, Papalii has also recently added some increased ball skills to his repertoire as his increased try assists tally suggests. A hard-runner at the line, stopping him is no easy feat, nor is stopping his offloads which can often lead to tries or breaks. A QLD and Australian back-rower, Papalii has not hurt his chances of making the Four Nations squad later this year. If anything, he has only strengthened his chances, such has been the consistency in his performances this season.
Bench – Tyson Frizell: A jack of all trades across the forward pack, Frizell also made a NSW debut this season and did not look out of place. A powerful runner of the ball with an unorthodox style, his impact has been seen for the Dragons all season and at the Origin level. With many impressed by the way he carries himself and with his performances this season, he shapes as a very important player across the board in years to come. Rated highly by Dragons fans, they know how crucial it is for them to keep Frizell long-term and have very little bad things to say about the way he plays, as he has been one of their more consistent players in 2016.
Bench – Trent Merrin: Already a handy player for the Dragons during his time there, the move West to Penrith has only seen Trent Merrin’s game move to a whole new level. Perhaps unlucky to have not played Origin this year, Merrin has been a consistent performer for the Panthers across the forward pack but most notably at lock, where he has led from the front consistently and helped set the tone for their charge to the finals. A hard ball-runner with a smart offload, Merrin’s work-rate is through the roof and even after just one year at the Panthers, he is already a fan favourite of many fans for that very reason. He shapes as perhaps the club’s most important forward in their finals campaign.
Bench – Anthony Milford: One of the most exciting players in the game at present, the array of talent and skill that Milford has is enough to please any rugby league fan. Deceptively strong and elusively quick, he started the season on fire as he scored tries, set up tries and did basically everything else as he led from the front for his Broncos side with their attack. Although his form wiltered somewhat in middle parts of the season, he is slowly finding his feet again and getting back to his very best form. On the start to his season alone, his selection is warranted, such was the brilliance and excellence to which he played and led the Broncos towards numerous successive wins.
Do you agree with our team of the year or would you make changes? Let us know what your thoughts are and discuss with us what you would change.