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Ahead of the release of the NRL 2021 Annual, historian David Middleton explains how he settled on the 2021 Team of the Year.

©Sam McIntosh/NRL Graphics

CONSIDERING the negative points differential of the bottom 10 clubs in the NRL competition in 2021, it was difficult to justify the selection of any player from those outfits in our NRL Team of the Year.

But there is one notable exception. Broncos prop Payne Haas was a remarkable performer for the club, conspicuous for his incredible work-rate in possession and in defence as he strived to lift his team out of the mire.

The bare statistics on his season tell only part of the story. He averaged 16 runs for 167 m and 33 tackles per game. He had one of the highest averages for post contact metres (74 per game) and he missed only 17 tackles for the season (less than one per game).

Payne Haas is beyond superlatives

That was in a team that won just seven games for the season. Identified as the single most important player to retain on the Broncos’ roster, the club has commenced discussions on a deal that would make the 22-year-old a Bronco for life.

Haas takes one front-rower’s position in our Team of the Year, with premiership winner James Fisher-Harris the other.

A mainstay in the Panthers’ pack since his debut in 2016, Fisher-Harris, like Haas, wins selection in our Team of the Year for the first time.

The Panthers’ middle man was one of four players from the premiers to make the line-up, joining centre Matt Burton, winger Brian To’o and halfback Nathan Cleary, but they could easily have been joined by lock Isaah Yeo.

Matt Burton's breakout season

We found it almost impossible to split Yeo and Rabbitohs lock Cameron Murray but leaned marginally towards the South Sydney man.

The Melbourne Storm, who won 19 consecutive games on the way to another minor premiership title, are entitled to wonder why they have only a single selection in this year’s team.

We named Jahrome Hughes as one of our Top Five Players of the Year but couldn’t choose him in the team ahead of Nathan Cleary and, despite the claims of Nicho Hynes, Josh Addo-Carr, Kenny and Jesse Bromwich and Christian Welch, we could only find room for hooker Brandon Smith.

Addo-Carr and Manly’s Reuben Garrick were strong candidates for the wing position but we felt Alex Johnston’s back-to-back Ken Irvine Medals and To’o’s powerful contribution to the Panthers’ attacking game were impossible to overlook.

Alex Johnston's 30 tries in season 2021

Johnston was often required to do a lot more than plant the ball in the in-goal; his skills often led to tries that few others could have scored.

Parramatta second-rower Isaiah Papali’i wins a place in our Team of the Year for the first time after he proved to be the buy of the season for the Eels and he lines up with Roosters forward Angus Crichton, who retains his position from 2020.

Isaiah Papali'i was arguably the buy of the year

Tom Trbojevic appears in the Team of the Year for only the second time and the first time at fullback (but probably not the last), while Roosters centre Joseph Manu appears for the fourth consecutive year.

Players in Team of the Year for the first time:

Brian To'o (Panthers)
Matt Burton (Panthers)
Cody Walker (Rabbitohs)
Payne Haas (Broncos)
Brandon Smith (Storm)
James Fisher-Harris (Panthers)
Isaiah Papali’i (Eels)

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.


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