The NRL's 10 best halves combos
10. Terry Campese & Josh McCrone
Poor ol’ Terry Campese – so much talent but such little luck with injuries. Canberra’s captain and five-eighth debuted in 2004 and has looked a sleight-of-hand match-winning magician capable of taking his team to a title. Injuries, however, have limited him to just 103 games in the NRL, forcing the next generation of Raiders halves to deliver in his absence. Last year halfback Josh McCrone stood up as Campo watched on – McCrone drove Canberra’s attack across the season and into the finals, finishing with 23 try assists (equal fifth in the NRL) and 25 line-break assists (fourth). If the highly creative Campese and the electric McCrone play together for most of 2013, Raiders fans will rejoice… and their outside backs will score a stack of tries. Keep those fingers crossed.
9. Thomas Leuluai & Shaun Johnson
You haven’t forgotten the high-stepping, electrifying and scintillating running, passing and short-kicking game of Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson, have you? The man who led the Warriors to the 2011 Grand Final might have had a quiet 2012 by his own lofty standards (Johnson recorded 17 try assists in 22 matches last season – ranked 12th), but this year he’s back, baby! In 2013 there are no excuses as ‘Magic’ is joined by a boosted roster and a new, highly qualified partner in crime. James Maloney might have left for the Roosters but the Warriors are missing nothing following the recruitment of Thomas Leuluai – an eight-season Super League veteran, 2010 Super League Grand Final man of the match and 30-Test Kiwi rep.
8. James Maloney & Mitchell Pearce
Playmaking partners come no more complementary – former Warrior Maloney a direct and incisive runner with an accurate kicking game and Pearce an off-the-cuff and opportunistic creator – and it’s sure to benefit the Roosters this year. Last year Pearce recorded a high 22 try assists (equal seventh in the NRL) and 20 line-break assists (equal sixth), and the opportunities are bound to keep coming alongside Maloney (a creator in his own right, last year orchestrating 17 tries and 10 line-breaks) and a new-look, more dynamic Roosters squad. With Michael Jennings and Sonny Bill Williams on their books, the Roosters’ playmakers could well be posting points – and laying on tries – deep into the Finals Series.
7. Josh Reynolds & Kris Keating
Few expected the Bulldogs’ playmakers to take their team to the finals in 2012 – but Josh Reynolds and Kris Keating proved their critics wrong by guiding the blue and whites to last year’s premiership decider. Brilliant ball-runner Reynolds, in just his second season in the top grade, showed off sublime skills last year – he set up 20 tries, cracked opponents open 11 times and helped his team-mates break the line on 10 occasions in a season that saw him play all his team’s 27 matches. Keating also grew significantly as a player in 2012, albeit with less impressive numbers (11 try assists, six line-break assists and four line-breaks). With such an imposing and skillful forward pack though, it’s their ability to not overplay their hand and push a pass, or try the low-percentage play, that makes them such a perfect fit for Des Hasler’s well-drilled team.
6. Benji Marshall & co
When the Wests Tigers are in a pickle, they holler for a Marshall – and rightly so given his status as the game’s most dynamic and elusive playmaker. Last year Benji ranked No.1 in try assists (35) and line-break assists (32), and you could expect opponents to give him even more room to move this year following the signing of ball-playing five-eighth turned back-rower Braith Anasta. The former Rooster joins a handful of potential playmaking partners for Marshall, including Holden Cup hero Jacob Miller, nippy utility Tim Moltzen and former Australian Schoolboy Curtis Sironen. If first-cab-off-the-rank Miller locks-down a halves position following some dominant performances, opposition teams will find it near impossible to tame the Tigers.
5. John Sutton & Adam Reynolds
South Sydney Rabbitohs
The Rabbitohs’ revival in 2012 was largely due to John Sutton and Adam Reynolds – and further progress this season rests on their shoulders, too. Reynolds, the Dally M Rookie of the Year, and Sutton, the George Piggins Medalist as the Rabbitohs’ best and fairest, came of age last season, combining top tactical team guidance with intelligent kicking and precision passing to lead their team the deepest they’ve delved into the finals in 23 years. The combination, with highlights including Sutton’s speculative left-arm offload and Reynolds’ pinpoint cross-field bombs, resulted in 30 try assists, 19 line-breaks and 11 line-break assists. Who knows how far the duo would’ve taken the team had it not been for Reynolds’ hamstring tear during the Finals Week Three clash with Canterbury?
4. Johnathan Thurston & co
North Queensland Cowboys
Anyone simply capable of passing the football could form a lethal partnership with the world’s greatest player… but last season North Queensland halfbacks Ray Thompson and Michael Morgan made names for themselves. Thurston’s dare-to-stop-me form continued – he recorded 26 line-break assists, 24 try assists and 11 line-breaks – but it was the displays of his inside men who shared the No.7 jersey that would have impressed coach Neil Henry the most. Thompson’s run of 41 consecutive NRL matches came to an end in Round 17 when he injured his shoulder, but up stepped Michael Morgan. The Townsville Brothers junior even scored a hat-trick of tries in the Elimination Final. Thurston remains the key for the Cowboys, but with Thompson, Morgan and the now-available Robert Lui, there are plenty of playmaking foils for Henry to utilise. That’s great news for Cowboys fans.
3. Scott Prince & Peter Wallace
The big bolters for 2013 – a new partnership combining two of the competition’s most experienced playmakers. Journeyman Prince returns to the Broncos after starting his career at the Cowboys and visiting the Tigers and Titans. His ‘been there, done that’ all-levels experience (across 278 NRL matches) will prove pivotal to the Broncos’ chances of success in 2013. Coupled with the classy touches of Peter Wallace, who himself has played 135 top-level games, and it’s a combination to be feared by rival clubs… and one that, across both individuals at least, recorded 34 try assists, 24 line-break assists and 12 line-breaks in 2012. They’ll prove a force to be reckoned with in 2013 – don’t bet against them proving the critics wrong and leading their team to success this season.
2. Kieran Foran & Daly Cherry-Evans
Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
They’re the young guns who led Manly to the 2011 NRL premiership and the 2012 Preliminary Final. How good are the precocious young playmakers at the Sea Eagles? Well, chances are they are going to get even better this season, following the appointment of legend Andrew Johns as Manly’s assistant coach. That’s impressive – and shocking for rivals – after a 2012 season that saw the duo clock 26 try assists, 13 line-breaks and 15 line-break assists in a team that also includes noted ball players Jamie Lyon and Brett and Glenn Stewart. The threat from the dynamic duo is all-round, and even when they’re stuck on the defensive they’re a big chance of turning a new leaf, too – Cherry-Evans is ranked second in the league for 40/20s behind Cooper Cronk, with four in 2012.
1. Gareth Widdop & Cooper Cronk
The all-conquering, world-dominating, award-winning duo have nothing to prove… but we reckon they’ll silence any remaining foolhardy critics for good in 2013, anyway. The uber-professional Cronk and the unassuming Widdop form a perfect partnership that’s led the Storm to the Telstra Premiership and World Club Challenge. Could they do it again in 2013? After seasons where both Churchill Medalist Cronk (32 try assists, five 40/20s and 26 line-break assists) and Widdop (15 try assists, 17 line-break assists) sat near the top of several key statistical categories, we can’t see them – or their team – letting it slip this season. Expect to see plenty more of Cronk’s playmaking powers and Widdop’s wondrous running and support play in 2013.
Which of course means…
We couldn’t find a place in the top 10 for the likes of the Titans’ Aidan Sezer & Albert Kelly; the Eels’ Luke Kelly & Chris Sandow; the Dragons’ Jamie Soward & Nathan Fien; the Knights’ Jarrod Mullen and Kurt Gidley (a really tough call); the Panthers’ Lachlan Coote & Luke Walsh; and the Sharks’ Todd Carney & Jeff Robson. (It was limited to 10, after all.)