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NRL Player Poll 2021

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The prince of Penrith, Nathan Cleary, is now the king of the NRL after dethroning James Tedesco as the best player in the game.

In a survey the Rugby League Players’ Association forbade their members from answering, the Herald polled 100 players from across the NRL to get their responses about a range of topics.

In part one of the two-day reveal, the players anoint the game’s best in each position, the leading coach, the premier player, the best buy, who will win the competition, which team they would join if they had to leave their club and more.

Part two, to be released on Monday evening, will delve into the biggest talking points in the game, including the success of the rule changes, the performance of head office, whether Israel Folau should be welcomed back into the sport and whether players are disguising concussion symptoms to return to play.

The verdict: James Tedesco’s reign as the best player in the game lasted just one season. There was a changing of the guard last year when Tedesco took over top spot from Cameron Smith with almost half of the votes. But Penrith’s record-breaking run has catapulted Cleary into the No.1 position, with Tedesco dropping two spots to allow for the rise of Tom Trbojevic.

The surprise: Jason Taumalolo has featured in the top five each year since the Poll’s inception in 2018. He dropped out without a single vote in 2021.

Best player​

Cleary 33, Turbo 24, Teddy 18
2020 votes: James Tedesco (49%), Jason Taumalolo (21%), Cameron Smith (9%), Tom Trbojevic (5%), Mitchell Moses (3%)
2019 votes: Cameron Smith (31%), James Tedesco (19%), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (12%), Latrell Mitchell (10%), Jason Taumalolo (8%)
2018 votes: Cameron Smith (45%), Johnathan Thurston (12%), Jason Taumalolo (6%), Billy Slater (6%), James Maloney (5%)

The verdict: Craig Bellamy has returned to the top after a brief stint in Trent Robinson’s shadow. Back-to-back premierships saw the Roosters coach claim victory in this category last year, but Bellamy edged out Ivan Cleary to win his third coach of the year award in four years. Wayne Bennett also secured his fourth consecutive top three finish.
The surprise: Robinson only received seven per cent of the votes.

Best coach​

Bellamy 30, cleary 26, Bennett 13
2020 votes: Trent Robinson (24%), Craig Bellamy (17%), Wayne Bennett (10%), Ivan Cleary (8%), Adam O’Brien (8%)
2019 votes: Craig Bellamy (31%), Wayne Bennett (19%), Trent Robinson (13%), Stephen Kearney (6%), Ricky Stuart/Brad Arthur (5%)
2018 votes: Craig Bellamy (48%), Ivan Cleary (17%), Wayne Bennett (8%), Paul Green (4%), Stephen Kearney (4%)


 

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Best fullback

Turbo 32, Teddy 23, Roger 15

2020 votes: James Tedesco (51%), Tom Trbojevic (21%), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (10%) Kalyn Ponga (6%), Dylan Edwards (3%)

2019 votes: James Tedesco (55%), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (23%), Kalyn Ponga (9%), Clint Gutherson (5%), Tom Trbojevic (3%)

2018 votes: Billy Slater (60%), Kalyn Ponga (11%), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (10%), Tom Trbojevic (6%), James Tedesco (5%)



The verdict: There has been a changing of the guard when it comes to the No.1’s, with State of Origin I hero Trbojevic knocking off Tedesco as the game’s best fullback. Tedesco won this category the last two years, however Trbojevic’s blistering two months has seen him leapfrog the NSW and Australian No.1 to claim top spot. It was the fourth consecutive year Roger Tuivasa-Sheck finished in the top three.

The surprise: Latrell Mitchell missing out on a spot in the top five.




The verdict: Brian To’o’s dynamic start to 2021, picking up where he left off last year, hasn’t been lost on his peers. The Panthers winger received almost half the votes, comfortably accounting for his NSW wing partner Josh Addo-Carr. Despite votes opening after he suffered a season-ending injury, veteran winger Brett Morris still polled enough votes to finish in third.

The surprise: Sydney Roosters winger Daniel Tupou dropped from first to fourth.

Best winger

To'o 49, Fox 27, BMoz 11

2020 votes: Daniel Tupou (22%), Brett Morris (17%), David Nofoaluma (11%), Blake Ferguson (10%), Kyle Feldt/Maika Sivo (7%)

2019 votes: Blake Ferguson (33%), Josh Addo-Carr (24%), Corey Oates (10%), Ken Maumalo (8%), Jordan Rapana (7%)

2018 votes: Josh Addo-Carr (27%), David Fusitu’a (21%), Jordan Rapana (12%), Valentine Holmes (10%), Corey Oates/Blake Ferguson (8%)



The verdict: The Sydney Roosters’ Joseph Manu holds on to the best centre tag for the second year in a row, however his grip of top spot has loosened thanks to the emergence of Penrith young gun Stephen Crichton. Crichton rose from 4 per cent in 2020 to 21 per cent this year. Justin Olam hasn’t previously polled in the top five centres. He is one of the most underrated players in the game.

The surprise: How well Matt Burton polled after just a handful of games in the centres. Zac Lomax appears to have suffered from being out of sight, out of mind.

Best centre

Manu 29, Crichton 21, Olam 10

2020 votes: Joseph Manu (44%), Josh Morris (13%), Michael Jennings (9%), Bradman Best (5%), Kotoni Stagg/Waqa Blake/Stephen Crichton (4%)

2019 votes: Latrell Mitchell (80%), Jarrod Croker (4%), Joseph Manu (3%), Michael Jennings (3%), Dane Gagai (2%)

2018 votes: Will Chambers (31%), Greg Inglis (21%), Euan Aitken (13%), Latrell Mitchell (11%), Josh Dugan (4%)



The verdict: Jarome Luai finished in fifth spot with just three per cent of votes last year. His meteoric rise saw him rewarded with his maiden NSW jersey in Origin I this year. Cameron Munster has never been voted the best No.6 in the game since the Player Poll’s inception in 2018. He finished second to Luke Keary the past two years and was beaten this year by a single vote.

The surprise: Despite limited football to start the year, Shaun Johnson’s feats of 2020 are still fresh in the minds of those who voted for the off-contract Kiwi playmaker, picking him ahead of Luke Keary and Cody Walker.

Best five-eighth

Luai 34, Munster 33, Johnson 10

2020 votes: Luke Keary (43%), Cameron Munster (34%), Dylan Brown (5%), Jack Wighton (4%) Jarome Luai (3%)

2019 votes: Luke Keary (41%), Cameron Munster (32%), Cody Walker (18%), Shaun Johnson (3%), Anthony Milford/James Maloney (2%)

2018 votes: James Maloney (36%), Gareth Widdop (20%), Cameron Munster (13%), Blake Green (11%), Anthony Milford (9%)



The verdict: No surprise to see Nathan Cleary voted the best halfback in the game. He finished second behind Mitchell Pearce last year, but there’s no denying his status as the game’s premier No.7. Hughes is regarded as one of the most improved players in the NRL after leading Melbourne to a premiership in 2020. It’s the first time Hughes has finished in the top five of voting. Reynolds missed out on the top five last year but knocked off the likes of Daly Cherry-Evans and Mitchell Moses to finish in the top three.

The surprise: Daly Cherry-Evans only received two votes.

Best halfback

Cleary 74, Hughes 8, Reynolds 7

2020 votes: Mitchell Pearce (27%), Nathan Cleary (22%), Daly Cherry-Evans (22%), Mitchell Moses (13%), Ben Hunt (3%)

2019 votes: Cooper Cronk (39%), Mitchell Pearce (14%), Daly Cherry-Evans (11%), Adam Reynolds (7%), Chad Townsend (6%)

2018 votes: Johnathan Thurston (35%), Ben Hunt (19%), Nathan Cleary (11%), Shaun Johnson (11%), Cooper Cronk (9%)





The verdict: There’s no denying James Fisher-Harris’ emergence as the best prop in the game. He has leapfrogged Warriors recruit Addin Fonua-Blake with half of the votes in 2021. He finished fifth last year with just nine per cent of votes. Brisbane’s Payne Haas secured his first top three finish in his young career.

The surprise: Canberra enforcer Josh Papalii dropped out of the top five.

Best prop

JFH 50, Haas 13, AFB 13

2020 votes: Addin Fonua-Blake (18%), Josh Papalii (13%), Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (12%), Payne Haas (11%), James Fisher-Harris (9%)

2019 votes: Siosiua Taukeiaho (26%), Jesse Bromwich (18%), Andrew Fifita (7%), Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (6%), David Klemmer (5%)

2018 votes for best middle forward: Jason Taumalolo (34%), Sam Burgess (23%), Jake Trbojevic (10%), Reagan Campbell-Gillard (5%), Jesse Bromwich and Andrew Fifita (4%)



The verdict: It’s only fitting that after three years of Cameron Smith dominance, his Melbourne Storm successor Harry Grant takes over as the best hooker in the game. Grant finished with 43 per cent of votes, well ahead of Australian hooker Damien Cook with just 12 per cent.

The surprise: Penrith hooker and Blues 18th man Api Koroisau finished well ahead of Damien Cook, who narrowly held on to his NSW No.9 jersey for game one.

Best hooker

Harry 43, Api 29, Cook 12

2020 votes: Cameron Smith (35%), Api Koroisau (23%), Harry Grant (12%), Damien Cook (8%), Josh Hodgson (7%)

2019 votes: Cameron Smith (44%), Damien Cook (36%), Josh Hodgson (5%), Reed Mahoney (3%), Jayden Brailey/Robbie Farah (2%)

2018 votes: Cameron Smith (66%), Issac Luke (11%), Damien Cook (8%), Apisai Koroisau (4%), Cameron McInnes (3%)



The verdict: The Penrith dominance in the players’ team of the year continued in the backrow with Villiame Kikau winning the category for the second year in a row. Last year he received 28 per cent of votes, but that increased to 39 per cent this year. Gold coast marquee man David Fifita moved from third to second, increasing his votes from 10 per cent to 24 per cent in 12 months.

The surprise: Eels recruit Isaiah Papali’i has been sensational in 2021, but very few at the start of the year would have imagined he would keep Angus Crichton out of the top three backrowers. No room for Felise Kaufusi.

Best back-rower

Kikau 39, fifita 24, Papali'i 12

2020 vote: Villiame Kikau (28%), Boyd Cordner (17%), David Fifita (10%), Wade Graham (9%), Tyson Frizell (6%)

2019 votes: Sam Burgess (54%), Viliame Kikau (10%), Boyd Cordner (9%), John Bateman (7%), Tohu Harris (7%)

2018 votes: Tyson Frizell (22%), Matt Gillett (21%), Boyd Cordner (15%), Tohu Harris (13%), Wade Graham (9%)



The verdict: Penrith No.13 Isaah Yeo has ended Jason Taumalolo’s three-year supremacy, knocking off the Cowboys captain to win the best lock in the game. It caps off an incredible 12 months, which has included a grand final and his State of Origin debut. Manly’s Jake Trbojevic finished in the top three for the fourth consecutive year.

The surprise: Jason Taumalolo’s standing in the game dropping so quickly. He received half the votes just last year. Also, no Cameron Murray in top five.

Best lock

Yeo 30, JT 20, Jake 16

2020 votes: Jason Taumalolo (49%), Jake Trbojevic (21%), Victor Radley (10%), Isaah Yeo (7%), Cameron Murray/Brandon Smith (3%)

2019 votes: Jason Taumalolo (45%), Jake Trbojevic (20%), Cameron Murray (15%), Dale Finucane (8%), Jai Arrow (5%)

2018 votes for best middle forward: Jason Taumalolo (34%), Sam Burgess (23%), Jake Trbojevic (10%), Reagan Campbell-Gillard (5%), Jesse Bromwich and Andrew Fifita (4%)
 

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Best captain

Roger 38, Cleary 17

2020 votes: Cameron Smith (38%), Boyd Cordner (16%), James Tamou (6%), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (5%), Mitchell Pearce/Daly Cherry-Evans (5%)

2019 votes: Cameron Smith (51%), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (12%), Sam Burgess (8%), Boyd Cordner (8%), Paul Gallen (5%)

The verdict: In the battle of the whiz-kids, it was the Roosters’ Sam Walker who staved off a late fight from Reece Walsh to claim rookie of the year. The 18-year-old Walker has been sublime in his first season in the NRL, keeping the Roosters in touch with the top four despite a huge injury toll. When polling opened in round 10, Walsh had only played three NRL games and may have collected more votes if polling was later in the season.

The surprise: The large discrepancy in the voting between Walker and Walsh.

Best rookie

Sam Walker 53, Reece Walsh 21

2020 votes: Harry Grant (43%), Bradman Best (26%), Eliesa Katoa (7%), Matt Burton (6%), Stephen Crichton (5%)

2019 votes (asked as most impressive debutant): Briton Nikora (36%), Maika Sivo (16%), Bronson Xerri (13%), Chanel Harris-Tevita (10%), Thomas Flegler (7%)

The verdict: It hasn’t taken Will Chambers long to come back to the NRL and reclaim the mantle as the biggest sledger/niggler in the game. Josh McGuire held on to the title for 12 months, but Chambers has won it back despite a mid-season return. Luai’s chirpy ways has seen him finish in second spot.

The surprise: Josh McGuire dropped from 30 per cent to eight per cent of votes. Playing in a losing side for most of the past 12 months might have toned down his verbal game.

Biggest niggler/sledger

Chambers 30, Luai 17

2020 votes: Josh McGuire (30%), Josh Reynolds (6%), Jarome Luai (6%), Cameron Smith/David Klemmer/Nathan Peats (5%)

2019 votes: Will Chambers (41%), James Maloney (15%), Josh Dugan (3%), Latrell Mitchell (3%), Tariq Sims (3%)

The verdict: Hardly a surprise that Nathan Cleary is the favourite to win the game’s top individual honour. Ryan Papenhuyzen finished in second but has missed a few games since the poll opened to votes in Magic Round. Last year’s Dally M winner, Jack Wighton, didn’t poll in the top six last year when results were released with 11 rounds remaining.

The surprise: Tom Trbojevic would have likely polled higher had he played a few more games at that point.

Dally M winner

Cleary 51, Paps 14

2020 votes: Jason Taumalolo (52%), James Tedesco (18%), Harry Grant (14%), Nathan Cleary (6%), Cameron Smith/Clint Gutherson (5%)

2019 votes: Cameron Munster (29%), James Tedesco (20%), Cody Walker (16%), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (11%), Cameron Smith (3%)

The verdict: The best player, the best halfback, the Dally M favourite and now also the first player people would want to sign if they were starting up a new team. Unfortunately for the prospective Brisbane expansion bid, there’s almost no chance Cleary is leaving the foot of the mountains any time soon. The same goes for Manly’s Tom Trbojevic. The man who finished third, Tuivasa-Sheck, is bound for rugby next year. James Tedesco and Kalyn Ponga were the last two winners.

The surprise: Cameron Munster only receiving eight per cent of votes.

First signing at new club

Cleary 38, turbo 22, Roger 11

2020 votes: James Tedesco (19%), Tom Trbojevic (16%), Kalyn Ponga (13%), Jason Taumalolo (13%), Nathan Cleary (7%)

The verdict: At the start of the year many thought it would be a back-rower who would claim the best buy of the year honours, however most would have thought that would have been Titans recruit David Fifita. Isaiah Papali’i joined the Eels on a bargain deal and has been one of the best players in the competition, let alone best buys.

The surprise: Daine Laurie finishing equal second (16%) with David Fifita. He’s been a great pick-up for the Wests Tigers.

Best buy

Papali'i 58, Laurie 16, Fifita 16

2020 votes: Harry Grant (43%), Api Koroisau (24%), Josh Morris (16%), Ryan Matterson (6%), George Williams/Latrell Mitchell (3%)

The verdict: The Melbourne Storm are about to go back-to-back, according to the players. However the same players also last year predicted the Sydney Roosters would claim a three-peat. While South Sydney received 10 per cent of votes, most think we’re heading for another Storm-Panthers grand final.

The surprise: The players aren’t really giving South Sydney much hope of winning the competition in 2021.

Previous results: Premiers

Storm 42, Panthers 40, Bunnies 10

2020 votes: Roosters (46%), Eels (30%), Panthers (9%), Storm (6%), Knights (4%)

2019 votes: Roosters (49%), Rabbitohs (30%), Storm (10%), Wests Tigers (4%), Sharks (2%)

The verdict: After a one year break, the Storm are once again the team most others love to beat. The Broncos won this category last year but have slipped to third. The Parramatta Eels have finished second for the second consecutive year.

The surprise: The Panthers hardly rated a mention last year but racked up 12 per cent of votes in 2021 to finish fourth behind the Broncos.

Most love to beat

Storm 31, Eels 16, Broncos 16

2020 votes: Broncos (24%), Roosters (15%), Eels (15%), Storm (15%), Rabbitohs (6%)

The verdict: The Melbourne Storm have taken over arch-rivals the Sydney Roosters as the most desired destination in the NRL. The Roosters have won this category the past two years, but the Storm dominated voting in 2021, potentially on the back of a premiership, to claim top spot. The top three spots have been taken by the same teams the past three years, just in different orders.

The surprise: The Broncos remain one of the destination clubs despite their woes for the past two years.

If you had to leave your club

Storm 33, Roosters 17, Broncos 16

2020 votes: Roosters (23%), Broncos (17%), Storm (14%), Knights (12%), Sea Eagles (6%)

2019 votes: Roosters (27%), Storm (15%), Broncos (15%), Rabbitohs (9%), Titans (8%)
 
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