Three-time Dally M medal winner Andrew Johns has tipped Wests Tigers superstar Benji Marshall to add yet more silverware to his already glittering trophy cabinet and be named the NRL’s Player of the Year next Tuesday night in what looms as one of the closest Dally M races in years.
Marshall is locked in a multi-way battle for Dally M honours with one round remaining, with up to seven players still in the race to claim rugby league’s highest individual accolade.
They include Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Glenn Stewart, Chris Sandow and Kieran Foran, with Thurston and Slater the two most likely to deny Marshall his maiden Dally M.
But Johns, who won the award in 1998, 1999 and 2002, believes that the Tigers playmaker’s dazzling form over the back half of the season has propelled him to the top of the tree. Another man-of-the-match performance against Cronulla this weekend would almost certainly seal the deal.
“Benji would have to be right up there the way he has come home,” Johns told NRL.com.
“He is playing sensationally and with so much consistency these days. It’s great to see him playing without injury. He went through all of those shoulder and knee injuries so it’s great that he is fit and absolutely killing them.
“Since he has been playing back-to-back games his confidence has really grown. Just being part of the team, training all week – he is just in that groove and it’s brilliant to watch.”
Johns said that Marshall, who has surely claimed maximum points on at least four occasions since voting went behind closed doors after Round 16, held an edge over his main Dally M rivals.
“I would have thought Kieran Foran might be right up there too but he is suspended this week which will hurt his chances. And the Melbourne boys (Slater, Cronk and Cameron Smith) – the problem for them is that they always take points off each other,” he said.
NRL.com’s calculations have Marshall locked in a three-way battle with Thurston and Slater for the Dally M medal, with the Tigers star likely to have stolen the lead following yet another match-winning performance against the Gold Coast on Monday night.
Slater has also been in superb form during the back half of the season, while Thurston’s progress has been slow since picking up a serious knee injury in the State of Origin decider. His main advantage is the six-point lead he held over second-placed Paul Gallen after 16 rounds.
However, a number of players have made moves and could be within striking distance heading into this weekend. South Sydney halfback Chris Sandow has been at the heart of his side’s late surge, while Warriors’ back-rower Feleti Mateo has also picked up points in the run home. It seems certain Manly’s Glenn Stewart has missed his opportunity following last Friday night’s Brookvale flare-up.
Despite the closeness of the battle, most former Dally M winners contacted by NRL.com tipped Marshall to win the award in 2011, with former Balmain captain Wayne Pearce insisting it would be well deserved.
“In my opinion he has got at least three clear-cut man-of-the-match awards (since Round 16) and I think he would have polled in three more, so he will be hard to beat,” Pearce said.
“He has had a really consistent season and it’s been his best season in terms of staying injury-free.
“That’s been his biggest obstacle during his career, his ability to stay on the field week-in, week-out. This year he has been able to play virtually every match and then play so well.
“It’s a really prestigious reward and if he gets it I think it will be thoroughly deserved.”
While the likes of Slater, Marshall and Thurston have their positions sewn up, the race for the other positional awards remains as intense as ever.
Particularly fascinating will be Lock of the Year, with three players mounting challenges. Cronulla captain Paul Gallen sat well clear of his rivals and in second spot overall when voting went behind closed doors but a run of seven consecutive losses has hurt his chances. Conversely, the irresistible form of and Manly’s Glenn Stewart will have seen him mount a challenge, with Brisbane’s Corey Parker also an outside chance.
Up front the likes of Matthew Scott and Aiden Tolman are front-runners for Prop of the Year, with Feleti Mateo’s brilliant form of late likely to see him claim Second-Rower of the Year honours.
St George Illawarra veteran Matt Cooper is hot favourite to be named Centre of the Year with Winger of the Year a battle between the likes of Nathan Merritt, Manu Vatuvei and Akuila Uate. Merritt has been particularly impressive of late with nine tries in three games between Rounds 21-23, including five against Parramatta.
Dally M count after Round 16
24 Johnathan Thurston
18 Paul Gallen
15 Kieran Foran
15 Billy Slater
14 Glenn Stewart
14 Cooper Cronk
14 Cameron Smith
13 Benji Marshall
12 Chris Sandow
11 Corey Parker
10 Feleti Mateo