Who was your NRL Team's Player of the Season?
The 2021 NRL regular season is in the books and half the competition has just left for their holiday.
While there is still plenty of football to be played as we wait to find our premiers, it's a good time to look back on the 25 rounds up to this point and give praise to the best performers in the competition.
How is Stats Insider’s Player of the Season selected for each club?
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, are then added together and the player with the highest overall rating for each team is awarded their player 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 awarded our player of the season, that isn't to say the rating system necessarily regards them as the best player at their club. Only that they have performed consistently well throughout 2021 and that performance has been recognised and rewarded by our Player Rating System.
The Brisbane Broncos have spent most of this season as the second-worst team in the NRL when it comes to yardage. Changes to their pack have bumped them up to 14th at 1,558 running metres per game, and that is what makes Payne Haas so impressive.
To play in a beaten pack and still average 168 running metres per game is a testament to his elite ability to bend the line and get up the field. It's a scary thought for the rest of the competition that he is doing all of this at 21-years-old and barely scratching the surface of his potential too.
He has propped up this Broncos pack all season and become the undisputed physical leader following the departures of Tevita Pangai Jr and Matthew Lodge.
It's fitting that Canberra's Mr. Fix It comes out as the player of the year in a broken season.
Jordan Rapana did everything he could to drag the Raiders into finals contention. Whether it be on the wing, at fullback, in the centres or anywhere in between depending on the injuries around him and the situation of the match, Rapana left everything out on the field in 2021. Deservingly, he has had his time at the club extended through to the end of 2023.
Rapana's numbers are impressive: 12 tries, 5 try assists, 15 line breaks, 138 tackle breaks along with 164 metres per game.
However, his 2021 season will be remembered for his desperate try-saving tackle on Maika Sivo in Round 19, sucking in the big ones during a break in play after busting his ass in both attack and defence, or for popping up out of nowhere to take a strong carry when the Raiders needed it most.
He isn't Canberra's best player overall, but he stood out from the rest in a disappointing season for the Green Machine.
Josh Jackson has won five games of rugby league in the last two years. Still, he turns up every week and sets the tone for the Bulldogs effort. It's all the wooden spooners have most weeks.
Jackson's 46.2 tackles per game this season is the third-most per game in the NRL and most of any forward not wearing a #9 jersey. On the rare occasions the Bulldogs had possession, Jackson still ran for 112 metres per game and registered over 25 touches in nine of his 17 matches. His involvement with the ball came at a similar level to recognised pivot and key Panthers forward, Isaah Yeo.
He isn't flashy nor is he particularly skilful, but Jackson's form shines some light on an otherwise dire Doggies season.
Has William Kennedy already played his way beyond the Most Underrated Player in the NRL conversation?
Unheralded earlier in the year, Kennedy is forcing himself firmly into the second tier of top NRL fullbacks. He has the perfect skill set of the modern-day fullback which is best highlighted in his 14 tries and 14 try assists. Kennedy is active around the ball and is always in position to finish off a shift or provide the final pass. His hands are grossly underrated and a big part of Cronulla's attack. Despite a steady rotation of faces in the halves, Kennedy played all 24 games to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
He doesn't receive the fanfare he deserves, but Kennedy has been Cronulla's best in 2021.
Gold Coast Titans
He might not be the most consistent player in the competition, but the Gold Coast Titans aren't a Top 8 team without David Fifita.
He single-handedly got the Titans through the early stages of the season. As their attack struggled to develop repeatable actions outside of simply handing Fifita the ball, the 21-year-old continued to barge over anything in front of him on his way to the line.
Fifita finished the season with 17 tries (the most in Titans history), 22 line breaks and an NRL-high 150 tackle breaks. Defences schemed to contain the barnstorming backrower, but when he received the ball in space and started to get downhill, nobody stood a chance.
The Titans will need to find ways to better use Fifita if they're to climb the NRL ladder in 2022. In the meantime, they can keep feeding him the ball and hope he is the catalyst to an unlikely upset in Week 1 of the finals.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
You know somebody is playing well when their individual season is talked about in the same sentence with 2009 Jarryd Hayne and 2012 Ben Barba.
Tom Trbojevic has been that good, though. Maybe even better?
- 25 Tries (2nd)
- 27 Try Assists (2nd)
- 30 Linebreaks (3rd)
- 35 Linebreak Assists (2nd)
- 105 Tackle Breaks (6th)
There is one more important number: 15
It's the number of games Trbojevic played in 2021. It not only makes his outrageous totals look better when you consider he missed nine matches, but it's the most times he has set foot on the field in a season since 2018.
It doesn't matter where you put him in the list of best individual seasons. We've witnessed greatness in 2021.
A late bloomer into first-grade, Jahrome Hughes has become one of the best halfbacks in the competition at 26-years-old.
Doubts over how he would carry his 2020 form into 2021 were justified. Hughes isn't a traditional #7 and doesn't organise the side like a Cooper Cronk, Nathan Cleary or Adam Reynolds. He had the greatest player of all time in Cameron Smith touching the ball 100+ times per game alongside him in 2020. However, even with Smith gone, Hughes has taken his career to another level.
What he lacks in organisation he makes up for in his running game. Averaging 105 running metres per game and at one stage registering a line break 11 times in a span of 12 matches, Hughes is the best running halfback in rugby league right now.
His threat as a ball carrier has opened up opportunities to play others into space in the form of 19 try assists and 13 linebreak assists. Hughes' kicking game has also been a major contributor to Melbourne's dominance with his 13 forced dropouts ranking 8th in the competition.
As players around him have rotated in and out of the squad, Hughes has been one of the constants to be Melbourne's best this season.
Kalyn Ponga has only managed 14 games this season and his Knights are the second-worst attacking team in the NRL heading into the finals.
Still, the superstar fullback has been able to contribute with the ball through eight tries and 12 try assists this season. The Knights are always at their most dangerous when Ponga has the ball in his hands. A massive 53% of their tries this season have come down his favoured left edge despite Newcastle seeming desperate to explore down the right side more often and spread Ponga across the field.
While the Knights may not be using Ponga as effectively as they could, the 23-year-old has still found ways to run for 148 metres per game while breaking 69 tackles along the way.
North Queensland Cowboys
It hasn't been easy for Scott Drinkwater to go about his business this season. A rotation of players in key positions, the lack of cohesion on the edges and the near-weekly failure to win the middle of the field hasn't provided Drinkwater with the platform to do what he does best.
Drinkwater is a creator. A craftsman. He moulds defences into shapes he wants them and comes up with the right play to produce points for himself or others. The 24-year-old has handed out 36 try assists across the last two seasons, 17 of which came in 2021. Both years the Cowboys have struggled overall but Drinkwater has managed to keep their attack ticking over.
There is some uncertainty over where Drinkwater will play next season with Chad Townsend joining the club. The Cowboys would be silly to move their best player in 2021 away from the ball, though. He is a bonafide five-eighth in attack and will benefit from consistently being named at the position moving forward.
While he isn't the most creative fullback running around in the competition, Clint Gutherson's motor so often has him in the right place at the right time to ice a play.
His 18 try assists this season is the most of his career. When Parramatta are at their best and finding success on the edges, it typically involves Gutherson making a key pass.
He touched the ball more than he ever has in 2021. The 42.1 touches per game is Gutherson's highest average across his nine-year NRL career. Scoring a career-high 13 tries, breaking the line a career-high 14 times and running for 166 metres per game, Gutherson made sure to make the most of his touches in 2021.
Nathan Cleary's 70.6 touches per game is the most of any player in the NRL not wearing a #9 jersey.
He is constantly on the ball, playing teammates into position or organising Penrith's next play. With 10 tries, 19 try assists and 114 running metres per game, he is doing a lot more than just tipping players onto the ball from first-receiver. Subtle in his ball playing and a master of deception, Cleary's most undervalued quality is the ruthlessness of his kicking game.
On the rare occasions the Panthers are in trouble, Cleary can kick them out of it with a monster hoof down the field. His 520.9 kicking metres per game this season is the most in the NRL by almost 140 metres. Despite only playing 16 games, Cleary leads the NRL - alongside Jarome Luai - in forced dropouts with 19 for the year.
Cleary is the dictionary definition of a triple threat in rugby league. He can beat you with his running game, passing game and kicking game. His influence on the Panthers side only becomes more clear in the games he misses.
In a team full of stars, Cleary is the conductor and key component to their success.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Perhaps he wouldn't be mentioned alongside Hayne and Barba as Trbojevic has been, but the Manly fullback has overshadowed what has been an outstanding season for Cody Walker.
Walker has dished out 33 try assists in 22 games this season. One more and he beats Johnathan Thurston's premiership-winning 2015 season - the most by any player since at least 2013. His 43 line break assists is also the most since at least 2013 and already ten more than the previous record set by Thurston in 2015.
Walker's ruthlessness has contributed to the Rabbitohs scoring 72 tries down the left side of the field this season. He hasn't just parked himself on one side of the field, though. Walker explores down the right side and pops up when the defence least expects it.
With 12 tries also to his name this year, Walker has been South Sydney's best and produced one of the best attacking seasons in recent memory.
St. George-Illawarra Dragons
The Dragons have produced a forgettable season and while they did spend a lot of time nestled in the Top 8, they never really looked like a finals-bound team. Although Ben Hunt did keep them in contention across the 15 games he played this season.
He is one of the most unfairly scrutinised players in recent years but Hunt didn't give people the chance in 2021. Often playing through injury and behind a beaten pack, Hunt scored five tries, handed out 13 try assists and broke the line seven times. His 102 running metres per game is the most of his career and almost double his output from last season (53m per game).
The Dragons won only two of the ten games he missed this year. The most important thing for the Dragons in 2022 is that Hunt makes a full recovery from his latest injury and hits the ground running into Round 1 next season.
He has been the undisputed best fullback in the game over the last couple of years but James Tedesco has had some competition in 2021. It's not unfair to say that he is playing second-fiddle to Trbojevic in the fullback power rankings, but he has still been the Roosters' best this season.
As players fall to the ground around him, Tedesco heaps more responsibility onto his shoulders.
He is touching the ball more than he ever has as the season goes on. Unsurprisingly, somebody of his quality repeatedly getting his hands on the ball has translated into some handy numbers:
- 8 Tries
- 20 Try Assists
- 15 Linebreaks
- 21 Linebreak Assists
- 136 Tackle Breaks
Tedesco's 20 try assists is the most of his career as he assumes a more on-ball role in the absence of Luke Keary. It might be something he looks to continue even when Keary returns, such is the success he has had as a ballplayer.
The Roosters have impressed in their ability to overcome so many injuries and suspensions to still finish 5th on the ladder. A lot of that comes down to Tedesco's performances on the field.
New Zealand Warriors
He is only 19-years-old and didn't arrive at the club until Round 7, but Reece Walsh has been the only consistent source of attacking actions for the Warriors since his debut.
Defensive issues aside, Walsh has finished most of his games as a net-positive player through his nine tries and 11 try assists.
His try and three linebreaks in 46 minutes off the bench in Round 10 forced Nathan Brown's hand and Walsh started the remainder of the season at fullback. He scored a try and handed out three try assists in Round 11 and scored six tries in eight games as the Warriors battled through a poor portion of the season.
As opposition defences began to cater for the young fullback, the Warriors attack suffered overall. Walsh could only do so much with the try assists drying up across his last seven matches.
Still, the youngster is a star of the future and one of the few lights to shine on a disappointing 2021 season for the club.
Michael Maguire's decision to move Adam Doueihi into the centres for six games is something that will work against him as the board assesses his future at the club. It still beggars belief that Wests' best player would be moved out of his best position on purpose and for so long.
Fittingly, Doueihi dished out five of his 17 try assists upon his return to the halves in Round 18 and continued to stand out from the pack through to when he limped off the field in Round 23.
He scored nine himself throughout the year while running for 105 metres per game across a variety of positions. His ball playing is promising and will open up a lethal running game if he is provided with the consistency to perfect his craft in the halves next season.
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