Full credit to the boys: Pulp’s 2016 NRL Team Of The Year
We are well and truly into the guts of the NRL finals series. Every captain is promising that if “the boys get up”, he will be poised to give “full credit” to them. But just who were the best players in season 2016? Allow me to present my team of the year.
Fullback: James Tedesco (Wests Tigers)
It was the year that should have happened a long time ago for James Tedesco. He was handed a well-deserved Origin debut, and was finally able to harness his own skill to help guide The Tigers the closest they’ve been to a finals appearance since 2011. Though injury ended his season early, we can certainly expect Tedesco to be rearing for a strong 2017.
Right Wing: Josh Mansour (Penrith Panthers)
Melbourne’s promising rookie Suliasi Vunivalu wowed many fans in his debut season, but it was even more spectacular to see Penrith’s speedster reach new heights in season 2016. His synergy with fullback Matt Moylan has hit another gear, he’s more reliable in defence, and has started to become even more intimidating in his running game. Mr and Mrs Mansour must be very proud.
Right Centre: Jarrod Croker (Canberra Raiders)
Croker’s leadership alone would have been enough to earn him a place on this list; the Raiders’ captain did well to lead his side to an unlikely top 4 finish for the first time since 2003. That he could do that while leading the league in points scored, charting in the top 5 most prolific try scorers and averaging close to 100m a game is a testament to his skill, and also to the fact that rugby league in the national capital is in safe hands.
Left Centre: Joey Leilua (Canberra Raiders)
Croker was perhaps only outdone this season by his barnstorming partner in the centres: Joey Leilua. Leilua strikes that rare balance between power and skill. We need look no further than his tantalising performance against the Storm in Round 23 for an example of Leilua’s sparkling finesse. Big Joey ripped the Storm apart that day, and he’ll be looking to do the same against Penrith on Saturday night.
Left Wing: Jordan Rapana (Canberra Raiders)
One-time also-ran, Jordan Rapana, is no doubt in career best form. Having risen to the top of the NRL Line Breaks rankings and to second place on the Try Scoring ladder, we’re left wondering just what else the former Gold Coast flyer has up his sleeve. His combination with Leilua has been electric, as have his individual efforts at tearing up opposition defensive lines.
Five-Eighth: Jonathan Thurston (North Queensland Cowboys)
This may be a slightly contentious call, seeing as Thurston predominantly plays at halfback these days. It felt unfair, however, to have to choose between Cronk and Thurston for the “best halfback” title when there really hasn't been a five-eighth on either of their levels this season. Though the Cowboys are not the force they were in 2015, they continue to be able to push just about every team in the league, thanks largely to the boot, leadership and intuition of their mastermind, Jonathan Thurston.
Halfback: Cooper Cronk (Melbourne Storm)
With no Billy Slater and more than a few new faces in the Storm line-up this season, the energetic halfback proved once again this season that literally nothing can phase him in. He leads the league in try assists and has been instrumental in guiding his side to the minor premiership, their first since 2011. We’re in for a real treat if he comes up against Queensland halves partner, Jonathan Thurston, in the grand final.
Front Rowers: Jesse Bromwich (Melbourne Storm) and James Graham (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)
I’ll always have a soft spot for these two players. Graham’s undying passion and ability to use every inch of his own skill set (I’ve never seen a prop play so much like a halfback) is impressive. His running game is so cataclysmic that it’s begun to define the team as a whole, whose no-nonsense, essentialised offensive style paid dividends early in the season. Meanwhile, New Zealand international Jesse Bromwich has well and truly left his “quiet achiever” reputation of yore behind, averaging over 30 tackles and nearly 150 metres per game this season.
Hooker: Josh Hodgson (Canberra Raiders)
It’s time for everyone to stop saying that hard-hitting forwards are the only Englishmen who can make it in the NRL. Hodgson proves that size and intensity don’t have to be a combined package, with the Canberra rake contributing huge amounts to get his team into the finals this season. It’s a pity that injury will make it difficult for him to take to the field against Penrith this weekend. (lol not really, up Penriff)
Second Rowers: Josh Jackson (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs) and Trent Merrin (Penrith Panthers)
I must admit, when it was announced that my Penrith Panthers had paid $750,000 a season to sign Trent Merrin, I was a little skeptical. But with his staggering work ethic, menacing hit-ups and leadership across the park, it’s fair to say that he’s been worth every penny. Josh Jackson has been as valuable to his side, continuing to perform immaculately in defence and attack. He was rightly named the NSW Blues player of the series last week, and, in my opinion, would one day make a fantastic captain of that side.
Lock: Jason Taumololo (North Queensland Cowboys)
I remember watching Taumololo in his first few games of professional rugby league and seeing that he would one day be a champion of the NRL. Looks like 14 year old Jasper was right, as Taumololo continues to be arguably the most difficult forward to defend against. His vitality to the Cowboys was proven as he was recently awarded the RLPA’s Player of The Year, marking the first time since 2008 that a forward has received this honour.