Ahead of the release of the NRL 2021 Annual, historian David Middleton has picked his top five players of the year and there are some significant changes from the previous season.
Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary is the sole survivor from the 2020 top five after steering the Panthers to the premiership and NSW to a State of Origin series win.
Panthers and Blues team-mate Brian To'o also makes the top five, along with South Sydney five-eighth Cody Walker, Manly and NSW superstar Tom Trbojevic and Melbourne halfback Jahrome Hughes.
Middleton's top five players of 2020 were Cleary and two players each from Melbourne and Canberra - Storm five-eighth Cameron Munster and fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen, and Raiders five-eighth Jack Wighton and prop Josh Papali'i.
Notably, no forwards were included among the top five players this season.
A grand final loss and a State of Origin series defeat cast a dark shadow across an otherwise brilliant season for Nathan Cleary in 2020. They were boxes he worked obsessively to tick in 2021.
The best of Nathan Cleary in 2021
The first was marked off without too much fuss in June when he helped steer the Blues to crushing back-to-back defeats of the Maroons; the second was done under far more challenging circumstances.
A shoulder injury suffered in the second Origin game threatened to end his season there and then and, in all likelihood, the Panthers’ chances of taking out the title would have gone with him.
But thanks to a positive diagnosis, Cleary was given the option of delaying surgery until the end of the season by undergoing a program to strengthen the muscles around the shoulder which would allow him to return to playing after a few weeks.
There were risks attached - if he reinjured the shoulder, he would require immediate surgery and his season would be over.
Fortunately for Cleary and his team the shoulder held together (despite one or two scares) and he helped the Panthers end their 18-year premiership drought with their grand final victory over South Sydney. He played no small role.
Nathan Cleary awarded Clive Churchill Medal
His kicking game had developed into the most accurate and deadly in the competition. In the preliminary final against Melbourne, he created a try for winger Stephen Crichton with a perfectly executed kick.
It was a set play stored away since Sam Walker and Matt Ikuvalu combined for a similar play for the Roosters in April.
Under the pressure of a preliminary final, Cleary had the presence of mind to call the play and the perfect execution to pull it off as the Panthers took a major step towards victory.
In the grand final, it was five forced drop-outs that piled the pressure on South Sydney and emptied their tanks and a perfect goalkicking performance that proved the ultimate difference on the scoreboard.
Cleary terrorised teams with his high kicks, most notably in the round 23 win against the Rabbitohs when he bombed Latrell Mitchell and former team-mate Josh Mansour into submission.
Cleary’s kicks led directly to 14 Panthers’ tries in 2021; indirectly they rarely failed to place his opponents on the back foot. He forced 26 goal-line drop-outs across the season; more than any other player and his 21 try assists was the most by a halfback.
In a season in which the Storm equalled the all-time premiership record of 19 consecutive victories on their way to another minor premiership title, it would not have been hard to imagine that six or seven of their players would have rated highly among selections for the leading players of the season.
The best of Jahrome Hughes in 2021
It is a tribute to the teamwork of the Storm that they could achieve so much without more than a couple of superstar performers across the season.
Ryan Papenhuyzen was in dynamic form early before he was knocked out in Magic Round and he didn’t recapture his best form until the finals. Winger Josh Addo-Carr had some magic moments, Nicho Hynes was superb for three-quarters of the season and forwards Felise Kaufusi, Dale Finucane, Jesse and Kenny Bromwich and Christian Welch were all solid contributors.
But when it came to consistent performance from start to finish, the two standouts were halfback Jahrome Hughes and hooker Brandon Smith. And while Smith won the hooking berth in our team of the year, we couldn’t go past Hughes as one of our top five players for the way he ignited the Storm’s attack in 2021.
Hughes’ running game surprised many who were unaware that he possessed the pace off the mark to be able to pull through tackles as often as he did and, combined with his kicking skills and creativity in attack, he proved one of the most important components in the Storm’s successes.
He was acknowledged as such in December when he carried off the club’s player of the year award for the first time.
Hughes’ season statistics compared favourably with any playmaker in the game. He came up with 19 try assists and 20 line breaks and forced 13 goal-line drop-outs. He also crossed for nine tries and finished as the highest ranked Storm player in voting for the Dally M Medal, finishing seventh overall.
Jahrome Hughes wins Storm player of the year
Not bad for a player in only his third full season as halfback. Hughes took on the role in 2019 following the departure of Cooper Cronk. Like Hughes, Cronk was a made to order halfback at the Storm, defying the convention that halves are born and not made.
Hughes’ rise to stardom is a remarkable one. He made a single appearance as fullback for the Titans in 2013, waited until 2016 for another single appearance for the Cowboys before joining the Storm in 2017, where his career took off.
When he debuted with the Panthers in 2019, early impressions suggested Brian To’o might struggle to survive as an NRL winger given the lofty advantage possessed by many of his opponents.
The best of Brian To'o in 2021
The 182cm To’o gives away 15cm or more to opponents like Daniel Tupou from the Roosters, Ken Maumalo from Wests Tigers or Manly’s Jason Saab. But as he has demonstrated over the past two-and-a-half seasons, To’o can compensate for a dearth of centimetres by building strength in the gym.
The St Marys junior has developed into the most valuable pocket rocket in the competition through his ability to initiate his team’s attacking drive from the back field through an intoxicating combination of leg power and grim determination.
Kick the ball to To’o and you can guarantee that he will return the ball with interest. For To’o interest is measured in post-contact metres and he was top of the NRL in that category in 2021, averaging 90 metres per game. He also topped the league in running metres, averaging a phenomenal 246 per game with his best effort of 336m against the Newcastle Knights in Round 7.
That consistent contribution from the back field was of huge benefit to the Panthers. If he wasn’t returning the ball from a kick himself, he would take the next run in the set and invariably, he would deliver his team attacking momentum.
He was occasionally caught out under the high ball but he never stopped competing and when the Panthers attacked their opponents’ line, he proved himself the equal of any finisher in the game. To’o achieved his best NRL return in 2021 of 15 tries from 21 games.
And any question that he would struggle to take the next step to representative level was quickly dispelled with two tries on State of Origin debut in Townsville and attacking gains of 233 metres.
Brian To'o proposes to his girlfriend post-match!
The other element he brought to the Panthers was enthusiasm. The sight of To’o bouncing into training, often accompanied by a beat box and always wearing a beaming smile, brought energy to the entire group.
His long playing history through the Panthers juniors with Jarome Luai, Nathan Cleary and Stephen Crichton ensured the Panthers were among the tightest knit groups in the competition and the team’s relocation to the hub on the Sunshine Coast was likely a help rather than a hindrance to the team performance.
The hardest part for Tom Trbojevic might be to live up to the incredible standards he set during a 2021 season that is likely to be the subject of Sea Eagles folklore in years to come.
The best of Tommy Turbo in 2021
Trbojevic will be arguably the most scrutinised player in the NRL when club analysts make their preparations for 2022. Teams put to the sword by ‘Turbo’ in 2021 will redouble their efforts to find a weakness in his game or work out how to double-team him or take time away from him or how to possibly keep him out of the game.
Those who succeeded against him will take nothing for granted and work even harder on neutralising his threat. The “defence expenditure” will be worth every cent after the impact Trbojevic had on the competition in 18 appearances in 2021.
The Sea Eagles’ season was circling the drainpipe before Trbojevic made his comeback from a pre-season hamstring injury. He arrived just in time to resuscitate their flagging hopes.
From a whirlwind return performance against the Titans in round six, Trbojevic went from strength to strength, scoring tries and setting them up as the Sea Eagles climbed from last place and into the top four.
With each starring performance, predictions that Trbojevic would win the Dally M Medal grew louder. And despite the late start and just 15 regular season games, ‘Turbo’ claimed the game’s most prestigious individual award by five points.
The Dally M honour was just part of the rich bounty claimed by Trbojevic in 2021. He was Dally M fullback of the year, he won the Wally Lewis Medal as player of the State of Origin series, the Brad Fittler Medal as the Blues’ players’ player. He won Manly’s player of the year award, the Roy Bull Medal, and was also the Sea Eagles’ players’ player. He won the RLPA Players’ Champion and the RLPA fullback of the year.
Trbojevic finished the NRL season with 28 tries and 28 try assists. He broke the premiership record for most tries in a season by a fullback and overtook Phil Blake’s 1983 club record for most tries in a season for the Sea Eagles.
At Origin level he became the first NSW player to score two hat-tricks (following his effort in Perth in 2019).
By every measure it was one of the greatest individual seasons of them all. His aim in 2022 will be to do even better, a thought to strike fear in every opponent.
Knowing what Cody Walker was going to do was one thing in 2021. Stopping him from doing it was another thing altogether.
The best of Cody Walker in 2021
Walker was the NRL’s master playmaker in 2021, producing a season of creative ball play that verged on sorcery. He ignited the Rabbitohs’ lethal left side attack and repeatedly squeezed the trigger on tryscoring movements even though everyone knew what he was about to do.
It would be disingenuous to say that Walker did all of this on his own because it took quality teamwork to elude the opposition and the secret was having a handful of options for Walker to play to.
Whether it was a decoy runner drawing a defender or centre Dane Gagai running onto a short pass, or Latrell Mitchell combining with winger Alex Johnston, Walker could choose the best fit for the situation. It depended on how the opposition reacted but, invariably, Walker’s skill was in deciding which move would work most profitably for the team.
Walker was the instrumental figure as the Rabbitohs topped the NRL with a left-side attack that realised 75 tries for the season, 23 more than the next best.
He was pivotal to Johnston breaking the Rabbitohs’ season tryscoring record and he also contributed to Souths scoring more tries as a team than in any season in club history.
Walker himself finished the season with 33 try assists – the most in the NRL – and he also crossed for 16 tries for a combined tally that was not all that far behind Tom Trbojevic’s 56 (28 tries, 28 try assists).
Walker beats Cleary and busts the Panthers wide open
Walker’s try tally included an extraordinary individual effort in the grand final. The Panthers hung off long enough for him to decide that running was the best option. He pushed off Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary on a 30-metre run to the line to put his team back on even terms after the Panthers had dominated possession for the first 20 minutes.
A Casino junior, Walker was late to the NRL party, making his debut at 26, but in six seasons he has made 141 appearances and remains at the top of his game.
The departure of Adam Reynolds to the Broncos will increase his responsibility as chief playmaker, especially if he is partnered with a rookie. But there is little question that Walker is up to the task. He will create the familiar attacking formation; his team-mates will play their roles and Walker will squeeze the trigger.
The Official NRL 2021 Annual includes a full preview of the Men's and Women's World Cup; Introducing the Dolphins; Tribute to retiring players; Queensland RL's near-death experience; Every 2021 game covered in detail.