This is it: the top 10 players in the game, according to the staff writers at NRL.com. The debates have been had, the votes have been tallied, and these are the players we rate the best of the best.
We haven't rated players purely on their 2014 performances – this isn't our version of the Dally M awards – but simply asked ourselves the question of who were the best players in the game right now. It was hardly unanimous, with five individuals getting nominations as the game's best player, but after the votes were counted this was our collective top 10.
10. Billy Slater (Storm)
In an era of great fullbacks, Slater has held the No.1 jerseys for the Storm, Maroons and Kangaroos for years, and was one of Australia's standout players yet again in last year's World Cup. His positional play at the back is second to none, and that – coupled with an almost telepathic connection with playmaking duo Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk – has made Slater a guaranteed selection at club, state and international level. Even in a relatively quiet season Slate still produced a dozen tries, 13 line breaks, 23 offloads, 12 try assists, 13 line-break assists and six try saves for Melbourne in 2014, but it's his knack for being in the right place at the right time that really highlights Slater's class.
9. Daly Cherry-Evans (Sea Eagles)
His rise may have forced one or two club legends out of Manly, but on what we've seen so far from Daly Cherry-Evans it'll be worth it. The baby-faced Manly playmaker has only played four seasons in the top grade but he's already played his way into the Kangaroos squad, taken out the Clive Churchill Medal in last year's grand final and missed the 2013 Dally M Medal by just two points. He's the dominant kicker at the Sea Eagles and possesses an unusually strong running and defensive game for a halfback, making him an invaluable weapon off the bench at Origin and international levels as well as a marquee man in the NRL. The 25-year-old ranked first among NRL halfbacks this year for offloads (33), second for 40/20 kicks, third for run metres and fifth for kick metres, while also producing nine line breaks, 15 try assists, and 20 tackles a game.
8. Paul Gallen (Sharks)
It has been a year Paul Gallen would rather forget, despite a stellar performance in a long-awaited NSW State of Origin series win. But even with just nine games for the Sharks to his name in 2014 the Cronulla skipper still managed to make an impact – he averaged three offloads (equal first), four tackle breaks (equal second among forwards), 160 run metres (equal second among forwards) and 32 tackles a game, while also bagging a couple of tries and six line-break assists. With an engine and a competitive spirit that's the match of anyone in the NRL, the Blues captain remains one of rugby league's best players.
7. James Graham (Bulldogs)
To think, Graham once wondered whether he'd ever find his feet in the NRL. The Englishman has been a sensational signing for the Bulldogs in the past three years, becoming the most dominant front-rower in the competition and carrying his side into the 2014 Grand Final. With a terrific passing game that keeps opposition defences on the back foot, coupled with a superb work ethic in both attack and defence, Graham has had more touches of the ball than any other prop in the NRL this year and ranks first among front rowers for tackles and passes, second for line-break assists, and fourth for tries and try assists. He was a deserving winner of this year's Dally M Prop of the Year title and will be the Bulldogs' most important player in Sunday's premiership decider.
6. Cooper Cronk (Storm)
It's no coincidence that Queensland's dominance of State of Origin finally came to an end in a series in which Cronk left the field with a broken arm early in Game One and missed Game Two. The 2013 Dally M Medal winner returned for the Maroons in Game Three, and Queensland promptly smashed the Blues 32-8. One of the game's most dedicated perfectionists, Cronk is the most organised playmaker in the game and despite the rise of Dally Cherry-Evans looks set to own the Kangaroos No.7 jersey for a few more years yet.
5. Greg Inglis (Rabbitohs)
Is there anything Inglis can't do? The biggest fullback in history has not only led his South Sydney Rabbitohs into a long-awaited NRL Grand Final this year, he's also produced two of the greatest tries in recent memory (see the top two entries in NRL.com's Plays of the Year). GI is simply a natural – remarkably quick for someone of his six-foot-five, 105kg stature, with great footwork, a strong passing game and raw power that few in the NRL can match.
4. Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys)
Now a three-time Dally M Medal winner – an achievement only Andrew Johns has matched – Thurston is simply a rugby league playmaking genius. As competitive as they come and a superb ambassador to the game, JT was largely responsible for the Cowboys' late-season revival as a finals force and took out Dally M awards for Five-Eighth of the Year, Top Point-Scorer, Provan Summons Medal winner and joint Player of the Year. His 32 try assists this season were seven clear of the next best in the competition, also easily topping the NRL's line-break assists charts with 28.
3. Sam Burgess (Rabbitohs)
Already an NRL superstar, Burgess took his game to a new level in 2014 as his South Sydney side finally ended their 43-year grand final drought. The driving force behind the Rabbitohs' bulldozing forward pack, Burgess racked up more carries and run metres than any other player in the NRL this season, and ranked first among forwards for tries (10) and second for line breaks (13) and offloads (55). The rugby-bound Burgess will be a huge loss for Souths next year, but he has the chance to end his time at Redfern on the highest of highs this Sunday.
2. Jarryd Hayne (Eels)
For the past few seasons, Parramatta fans looking for positives had little option but to reminisce about their team's golden run in 2009, when Jarryd Hayne led a plucky team of underdogs all the way to the grand final. They didn't get that far this year, but Hayne rediscovered that Dally M Medal-winning 2009 form – and then some. The first clues he was back to his best came during Australia's triumphant World Cup campaign at the end of 2013, when Hayne was given a run in the centres and scored nine tries in five games. Then came a starring role for NSW in State of Origin I, and a string of performances for the Eels that few other players – past or present – could match. He finished 2014 as the league's top tryscorer and joint Dally M Medal winner, ranking first among fullbacks for tackle breaks and third for try assists and try saves. His high-scoring exploits in NRL Fantasy also earned him the privilege of being the first fullback in the history of NRL Fantasy or NRL Dream Team to become the most expensive player in the game.
1. Cameron Smith (Storm)
He's already a Dally M Medal winner, a five-time Dally M Hooker of the Year, a three-time Representative Player of the Year, a premiership-winning and State of Origin-winning captain and the leader of the Australian Kangaroos, so it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that we've also handed Cameron Smith the honour of being the best player in the NRL. Arguably the best dummy-half in history, Smith is a master of controlling the tempo of a game, finishing with the most line-break assists, kicks and kick metres of any hooker this season. His tireless defensive efforts have made him a Fantasy superstar for years and his record as captain is unmatched in the current game, with a knack for sweet-talking referees that the likes of Jarryd Hayne could learn from. He may not have the raw power of Sam Burgess or the explosive speed and flair of Hayne, but for consistency and pure class it's hard to go past Cameron Smith.
*Statistics: Champion Data