Stats Insider's 2021 NRL Team Of The Season

It's awards season in the NRL.

Arguments over which player should be ranked the best at their position, who has been snubbed and how best these awards should be judged will flood social media through to the Dally M Awards on Monday night. You can set your watch to it every year.

In the meantime, let's take a look at the Stats Insider Team of the Season.

RELATED: Who was your NRL Team's Player of the Season?

How is Stats Insider’s Team of the Season selected?

Using Stats Insider's NRL Player Rating system, players have been allocated a rating for each match they played in the 2021 season.

A player’s game by game ratings, for their 21 highest scoring matches (when named to start in each position), are then added together and the players with the highest overall rating in each position are selected for the Team of the Season.

Because players accumulate rating points in each match they play, this method tends to reward players who have performed consistently over the entire 2021 season. It also makes it difficult for players who have missed a chunk of games (through injury or suspension) to poll highly. 

With that in mind, it's important to remember that just because a player is selected in our Team of the Season, that isn't to say the rating system necessarily regards them as the best player at their position. Only that they have performed consistently well throughout 2021 and that performance has been recognised and rewarded by our Player Rating System.

RELATED: Who's The Wildcard? Examining Every NRL Contender's X-Factor

1. Tom Trbojevic

It's fitting that the best player in the game this season is #1 on the list.

Tom Trbojevic is in a league of his own with the ball at the moment. While the Storm have managed to close him down twice this year, 14 other teams have tried and spectacularly failed. 

He is a threat from try line to try line. Whether it's the Sea Eagles working out of their own end and using Trbojevic to get the ball wide, finding him on second-phase through the centre-third or hitting him one-off the ruck in good ball, the 24-year-old found a way to make his mark on the game in a variety of ways.

It all translated into incredible numbers.

Try Assists
Linebreak Assists
Tackle Breaks
2021 Total
2021 Rank

We've all seen this sort of potential in him since making his debut in 2015. Finally healthy and the perfect player to take advantage of the game the new rules created in 2021, Trbojevic played out one of the best individual seasons in NRL history. 

RELATED: Turbocharging- Why Manly Can Win The NRL Premiership

2. Brian To'o

Running Metres per Game Rank:

1. Brian To'o - 247.7 running metres per game
2. Daylight
3. Daylight
4. Daylight
5. Tom Trbojevic - 216.7 running metres per game

Running for over 200 metres in 16 of his 19 games including three efforts over 295 metres, the 23-year-old Panthers winger destroyed everything in front of him this season. Teams were forced to scheme against him and employ different tactics to their kicking game in an effort to limit the damage. Kicking to him and forcing a carry on first tackle didn't work, but it still worked better than letting him wind up and take the second tackle of an exit set.

Penrith have dominated the yardage and possession game all season and it often started with a To'o strong carry. His 118 tackle breaks and 14 tries helped to keep the scoreboard ticking over, too.

3. Dane Gagai

Playing outside a bloke that has dished out 33 try assists has its benefits.

Dane Gagai scored 10 tries and broke the line 15 times this season playing down South Sydney's left edge. He dished out 12 try assists throughout the year, too - the most of any full-time centre in the NRL.

Running for 130 metres per game and breaking 83 tackles across 21 matches, Gagai made sure to add just as much value to South Sydney's yardage sets as he did to those in good ball.

Excellent defensively while making 14.7 tackles per game at an 87.8% efficiency, Gagai is a big reason behind the Rabbitohs left edge conceding just 24 tries all season - the fourth-fewest in the competition.

4. Justin Olam

The Melbourne Storm have a habit of taking unheralded players and turning them into stars of the game. Already a superstar in Papua New Guinea, Justin Olam is becoming a household name across Australia thanks to his barnstorming season on Melbourne's left edge.

NRL players named him as the best centre in the game earlier in the year. You'd have to imagine the fear he strikes into opposition defences had a lot to do with that vote.

Olam hits a defensive line as though he is trying to break through a concrete wall. He left 86 defenders in chalk throughout the year while running for 123 metres per game. The 12 times he crossed the line is a new career high but it's his newfound ability to send teammates over that has developed this year. Olam recorded four try assists throughout the first 38 games of his career but has ten already in 2021.

5. Josh Addo-Carr

There isn't a winger in the game that can score 23 tries in a season and have it labelled as a bit of a "quiet" one, but that is where Josh Addo-Carr stands at the moment.

He is a top tier winger in the prime years of his career and playing on the end of one of the best attacking teams in NRL history.

While Addo-Carr didn't finish up with the most tries this season (Alex Johnston scored 27 and did average more rating points than Addo-Carr but played three fewer games) he contributed across the park.

He's a strong carrier of the football in yardage sets for his 127 running metres per game. His speed and running style makes him difficult to handle and resulted in 74 tackle breaks across 21 games. Melbourne's style of play also saw Addo-Carr hand out a career-high seven try assists, often a result of him darting down the edge and turning the ball in to a teammate pushing up in support.

Perhaps it is down to the ease at which Addo-Carr and the Storm make it look at times, but the 26-year-old's 2021 season has been anything but quiet.

6. Cody Walker

If not for Trbojevic setting the rugby league world on fire this year, Cody Walker would be talked about a lot more at the moment. Similar to Trbojevic, his numbers do a lot of the talking.

Try Assists
Linebreak Assists
Line Engagements
2021 Total
2021 Rank
23rd (1st of all halves)

Walker has commanded South Sydney's incredible left edge which has scored 74 tries this season. No team in the competition has scored more tries anywhere on the field than the Rabbitohs left edge. Despite 54% of their total tries coming down one side of the field and the opposition spending all week training to defend it, Walker has continued to produce the goods.

A triple threat in good ball and executing better than anybody else in the competition right now, Walker has produced one of the best statistical seasons of any half in NRL history. 

7. Nathan Cleary

Tempo. Deception. Smarts.

Nathan Cleary is close to the perfect rugby league halfback at the moment.

He touches the ball more than any other player in the NRL (excluding hookers) but is never accused of over-playing his hand. Unlike other high-touch players that try to make a mark every other touch, Cleary pushes and pulls the defensive line by passing players into spots on the field he wants them.

A pass to a big prop on the right post soon turns into a try down the left edge after Cleary runs across the field, changing his tempo and weaving in and away from defenders, and shaping to pass one way before sending it another.

Defences so often stand back on their heels and wait for him to do something knowing that trying to anticipate his move will more than likely end badly.

Cleary does it all. He takes the line on for his 113 running metres per game and forces the defence to consider him a running threat in the process. From there, he has handed out 20 try assists, 14 line break assists and scored 10 tries himself in 18 matches.

If things aren't going to plan in the Panthers attack, Cleary has the best kicking game in the competition. 

The 23-year-old can kick the Panthers out of trouble when they need him. Closer to the line, no player has forced more dropouts than Cleary's 21.

The complete package, Cleary is the best halfback in the game and in the conversation for best player in the world following another excellent season.

8. James Fisher-Harris

Motors don't come much bigger than that of James Fisher-Harris.

Despite his huge stature and big minutes, the Kiwi international is one of the most active middle forwards in the competition both with the ball and without it.

His 158 running metres per game is impressive enough. He ranks fourth of all forwards in running metres per game while his 3,480 total metres is good for 14th in the NRL overall. Fisher-Harris pushes through tackles for 57.4 running metres and over one offload per game. Off the ball, only Toby Rudolf has run more decoys than the Panthers prop's 180 this season. He doesn't need to receive the ball to have an impact on Penrith's yardage game given the gravity he holds over a defensive line.

Averaging 31.4 tackles per game at 94.4%, Fisher-Harris' numbers don't measure the impact of his brutal shots. Players stop at the point of contact when he is in front of them. 

A quiet achiever and not one for the spotlight, Fisher-Harris can't avoid it here. He's one of the best middle forwards in the game at the moment. 

RELATED: Is Penrith's Defence The Best In NRL History?

9. Brandon Smith

Brandon Smith had started only 12 times before Round 1 this season. Parked behind Cameron Smith at dummy half, the 25-year-old played 50 games off the bench throughout the first four years of his career.

With 23 starts under his belt and consistent reps in the #9 jersey, Brandon Smith has confirmed his stature as a top tier hooker in the game.

He's different to Cameron Smith and different to the rest. He has employed a lot of his predecessor's approaches in good ball, but instead of sending a teammate over the line (he still registered 10 try assists), Brandon has crashed over himself.

If the defence parks a small body close to the ruck on the line, Smith will spot him. Most of his 11 tries this season have come by darting towards a small defender out of dummy half. 

It took Smith a couple of weeks to get going to start the season. Playing everywhere but your natural position for four years will do that to a footy player. However, he has quickly risen up the list of hookers this year.

10. Payne Haas

Payne Haas is a cheat code.

He's 194 cm tall and 117 kg, but moves like somebody half his size. His footwork is outrageous, his motor isn't human, and he is approaching Jason Taumalolo levels of strength in his carries of the football.

Haas's 168 running metres per game is the most of any forward in the NRL. And it's the lowest average of his career!

Playing in a side that is 14th in yardage with only 1,558 running metres per game, Haas still manages to generate incredible numbers himself. Put him in a good team and he will soon put up 200+ metres per game across a full season. It feels like a matter of time before the 21-year-old starts setting records for most metres in a season by prop forwards.

Add 33.3 tackles per game at a 97.5% success rate and you've got the best prop in the world.

You wouldn't bet against him ending his career as the best prop of all time either.

11. David Fifita

David Fifita has piled up some massive numbers for a player most consider lazy.

His 17 tries is the most ever scored by a Titans player in a single season. 

His 22 line breaks is the most by any forward in the competition and it isn't even close. Fifita ranks 6th in the NRL overall while Sitili Tupouniua is the next forward on the list way down at 30th with 14 line breaks.

With 155 tackle breaks across 22 games, no player has shrugged off more would-be defenders than Fifita.

The Titans over-relied on him in attack at times this season, but it's an understandable approach when you have a one-man wrecking ball causing havoc on the edge. If Fifita can work on conserving energy and timing his moments to insert himself into the game and become an 80-minute player, he will begin to make his $1 million a season look like a bargain. 

12. Isaiah Papali'i

The Warrior-turned-Eel wrapped up the Buy of the Season Award before the Origin break. Now, he is a worthy member of the Stats Insider Team of the Season.

He only needed two games off the bench to start the year before he was able to convince Brad Arthur that he needed to start. From there, he averaged 150 running metres per game - a career-high and almost double his 2020 output. Papali'i broke 109 tackles throughout the year after breaking just 72 across his previous three seasons. 

Whether he played on the edge or in the middle, Papali'i has consistently provided Parramatta with destructive carries of the ball and set up a lot of their best attacking actions.

He is still only 23-years-old and just moved into his preferred position at prop. Don't be surprised to see him back here wearing a different number in the coming years.

13. Isaah Yeo

Consistency is the key for Isaah Yeo. 

Other locks around the NRL record better big game numbers and feature on more highlights reels, but few produce week-in week-out quite like Yeo.

He plays the full 80 minutes whenever it is required. It isn't a coincidence that the five times he has played 80 minutes this season have been against the Storm, Sea Eagles, Roosters and Week 1 and 2 of the finals. 

While his time on the field changes depending on the situation, his output is always there.

Again, his 120 running metres and 34 tackles don't jump off the page, but his involvement goes beyond those areas. He averages 25 touches per game and uses them in a pivot role to play teammates onto the ball. When he isn't in possession himself, Yeo averages 5.6 decoys per game which forces the defence to consider him as a potential ball carrier.

Silky on his feet and a versatile ball player for his size, Yeo is the third halfback of this Panthers side. 

He's the sort of player that flies under the radar and goes forgotten throughout 'best lock in the game' discussions. Not here, though. Yeo has been fantastic and is a big reason behind Penrith's regular season success.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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