Top five halfbacks in the NRL
It's the position that has long been regarded as the blue-chip stock in rugby league, and a quick glance at Dally M history tells you that halfbacks are considered the most important players in the game.
Here's a look at which halfbacks the writers at NRL.com rate most highly heading into 2017.
5. Mitchell Pearce (Roosters)
2016 stats: 11 try assists; 12 line-break assists; 344 kick metres per game
Something tells me 2017 is going to be a big year for Mitchell Pearce. After missing the first eight weeks of the 2016 season for disciplinary reasons, the Roosters halfback made an impressive return to rugby league; one that would have been even better had he not been hampered by a niggling calf complaint. The arrival of Luke Keary at Bondi will take some pressure off him in the halves and should allow him to play his natural game. Blessed with plenty of talent – but weighed down by expectation – Pearce is off-contract at the end of 2017 and will be keen to shine with his name already being thrown around for State of Origin.
4. Daly Cherry-Evans (Sea Eagles)
2016 stats: 16 try assists; 12 line-break assists; 282 kick metres per game
Manly's recruitment of rock-steady five-eighth Blake Green will provide the stability Daly Cherry-Evans needs to play his natural game. The Sea Eagles were never able to settle on their halves combination in 2016, with DCE sharing playmaking duties with Jamie Lyon, Dylan Walker, Apisai Koroisau and Matt Wright at different stages of the year. That's a lot to ask of any halfback, and the constant chopping and changing took its toll on Cherry-Evans. The 2013 Clive Churchill Medallist will need to rediscover his famed running game if the Sea Eagles want to return to the top eight next year.
3. Shaun Johnson (Warriors)
2016 stats: 18 try assists; 24 line-break assists; 254 kick metres per game
Perhaps the most dynamic player the game has ever seen, Shaun Johnson is the sort of guy who keeps opposition edge forwards awake at night as they try to think up ways of how to stop him. Blessed with incredible speed and unparalleled footwork, Johnson has the ability to tear a game apart in the space of five minutes. That's the Johnson we all love and wish to see every week. However, like the Warriors, the prodigiously talented playmaker can drift in and out of games, and it's that sort of inconsistency that has seen them miss the finals for the past five seasons. But with Kieran Foran set to join him in the halves next season, is Johnson's best still to come?
2. Cooper Cronk (Storm)
2016 stats: 23 try assists; 19 line-break assists; 282 kick metres per game
Just when you thought Cooper Cronk couldn't get any better, the maestro churns out one of his best seasons to secure his second Dally M award. The Storm are a well-oiled machine with Cronk their conductor, and the 33-year-old shows no signs of slowing down as he enters his 14th season in Melbourne. To make matters worse for opposition defences, Cronk will be reunited with his partner-in-crime, Billy Slater, with the pair set to wreak havoc on the rest of the NRL in 2017.
1. Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys)
2016 stats: 25 try assists; 24 line-break assists; 280 kick metres per game
In the relentless battle for rugby league supremacy, there are no two ways about it: Johnathan Thurston is the king in the north. The Cowboys halfback has long carried his team on his back, but now has support in key positions that has allowed him to play his own game. There isn't a player in the NRL who steps up in the key moments like JT does – just ask the Broncos – and as he's gotten older, Thurston has remoulded his style to keep him two steps ahead of the game.