Top five five-eighths in the NRL
Five-eighths can come in many different shapes and sizes but in the modern game it's the runners testing the opposition's edge defence that are having the greatest influence on the fortunes of their respective teams.
The NRL.com staff writers have each individually ranked who we believe are the form five-eighths heading into the 2017 season and the result is four who went deep into September and another who was responsible for his own premature end to the year.
5. Corey Norman (Eels)
2016 stats: 15 try assists; 6 line-break assists; 5 line breaks; 1 try
If not for some wayward off-field behaviour midway through the season Corey Norman could have in fact completed one of the most astonishing Dally M Medal victories in the award's history. Such was Norman's influence on the Eels that prior to receiving an eight-game ban he was sitting on 17 Dally M points, just one behind eventual winners Cooper Cronk and Jason Taumalolo. Given the turmoil surrounding the club in 2016 and the loss of Kieran Foran to a shoulder injury Norman remained Parramatta's lone beacon of hope until he too was forcibly removed from the 17. Despite his indiscretion the club had no hesitation in re-signing him to a rich three-year deal; don't be surprised if he begins to make good on that investment in 2017.
4. Blake Austin (Raiders)
2016 stats: 3 try assists; 2 line-break assists; 10 line breaks; 8 tries
You can't quantify Blake Austin's contribution to the Raiders each week purely on numbers (as the above season stats from 19 games suggests). Three try assists ranked him third among all Blakes in the NRL in 2016 and two line-break assists are not the kind of numbers you would expect from a top-shelf half but often it is Austin's energy that ignites the scintillating Raiders into action. Everything he does is at a break-neck speed and while he scored a very respectable eight tries himself, the four-pointers that came off the back of an Austin attack would provide a compelling case for his inclusion on this list.
3. Michael Morgan (Cowboys)
2016 stats: 20 try assists; 20 line-break assists; 11 line breaks; 9 tries
An Origin debut and premiership in 2015 was followed by a Kangaroo call-up and another outstanding season in 2016 for Michael Morgan, who along with Johnathan Thurston was responsible for more try assists than any other halves combination in the NRL (45). What makes Morgan such a dangerous five-eighth is his ability to hit a hole for Thurston (as he did in extra-time in the semi-final win over Brisbane), create a hole for himself with his size and strength or hit one of his speed men on the outside with a perfectly-timed pass. The most intriguing aspect to Morgan's development will be whether he can bust into the representative arena in his preferred position or he is consigned to life as a 'super-sub'.
2. Anthony Milford (Broncos)
2016 stats: 16 try assists; 21 line-break assists; 13 line breaks, 14 tries
There was no more electrifying player in the early rounds of the competition than the Broncos No.6 but as his team struggled through the middle part of the season so too did Milford. Where he played instinctively off the back of a highly-functioning forward pack in 2015, Milford's combination with halves partner Ben Hunt at times seemed forced as he tried to take on more of the responsibility for the running of the team. But simply running is what Milford does best and when he can take on the line with options inside and out, very few defensive lines can keep pace with his fast feet and dynamic acceleration. And remember, the kid's still only 22 years of age.
1. James Maloney (Sharks)
2016 stats: 9 try assists; 10 line-break assists; 10 line breaks; 7 tries
It's rare that a player is given credit for a team's premiership and another's demise but that was the ramifications of James Maloney's move from the Roosters to the Sharks in 2016. In guiding the Sharks to the grand final Maloney became just the seventh player to appear in grand finals for three different clubs because, wherever he goes, teams win. "Maloney is the kind of player who amasses points. He creates tries, scores tries and kicks goals from all angles, under all conditions, in the biggest of moments. His teams win because he provides the skills that win football games," wrote Phil Gould in grand final week. Like all great players, it's not Maloney's numbers that elicit awe but rather those of the players around him.