The List: 2008’s Top 50 Players

Filed in NRL, Other, Top 50 by on December 10, 2010

Rugby league season is over. The depression has set in. We still have a World Cup, which will be grand. It isn’t the same, however, and now is the time to start considering strange adventures to dull the pain. Like a trip along the Amazon where there is every chance you will be kidnapped for your kidneys just for sport and some dinner money by strange moustachioed gentlemen with a taste for cocaine and a severe disdain for personal hygiene.

Before I head for the hills, however, some analysis is required. For personal sanity and nostalgia, if nothing else.

Below are the fifty best players of the 2008 NRL season. They are ranked in order of impact, value and performance this year from opening night all those months ago to the last play of the Grand Final when Manly players raised their arms in triumph and bathed themselves in the glory of victory.

Top Ten

1. Kurt Gidley: Gidley was simply outstanding this year. Most impressive was his ability to fill numerous roles. Gidley is a safe and aggressive fullback whose kick returns are top notch. In attack, Gidley would then step into the halves to become the primary or secondary playmaker while also having a stint at hooker to get the Knights on the front foot. He fulfilled all his roles with great enthusiasm and energy that lifted Newcastle to victory on more than one occasion. Throw in goal-kicking and his on-field leadership and you have the complete package. With his licence to rove, Gidley led the NRL in average metres this season with a mind-boggling 178.2 metres per match. Gidley will be a fixture in representative teams for years to come with his utility value and lithe skill making him the most valuable player in the game.
2. Anthony Laffranchi: Laffranchi rose to become the number one backrower in the game with an amazing season that saw him compliment his immense workrate with an attacking presence rarely seen from backrow forwards. Laffranchi’s numbers speak for themselves: 121.6 metres and 34.8 tackles per game, 12 tries in 20 games, 40-plus offloads and tackle breaks, 11 line breaks and only 6 errors. He is a tireless player who is constantly threatening with his clever and forceful ball running and his bruising defence. An Australian jersey is well deserved.
3. Billy Slater: Slater had an outstanding 2008, usurping Brett Stewart and Karmichael Hunt to become the number one custodian in the sport. He was electric in attack with his kick return the most dangerous in the game and his ball handling top rate. He scored 14 tries and set up another 14 in what was a spectacular output for a fullback. His safety under the high ball and positional play at the back were also faultless, for the most part. Actually polled the most Dally M votes but missed out on the medal due to a one-week suspension.
4. Cameron Smith: Smith is, without doubt, the most multi-dimensional player in the game. He is a tremendous defender who averaged over 37 tackles per game this season. He is a quality playmaker who recorded 10 try assists and 60 tackle breaks. He is a goalkicker who landed 77 two-pointers. He is a fine leader and a quality teammate. Smith is a match-winner and 2008 only further confirmed Smith’s standing as the number one hooker in the competition. His absence in the Grand Final allowed Manly to wrestle the ascendancy early and maintain it for the rest of the match.
5. Matt Orford: Orford was more important to Manly’s success this season than any other individual. Orford got the Manly backline firing consistently while shedding the tag of being a big game failure with exceptional performances against the Warriors and Melbourne in the final two weeks of the season. He finished second in the league in try assists while allowing the Manly forwards to choke opponents out of contests with an astute kicking game. Won the Dally M Medal in what has been his finest and most consistent season in first grade.
6. Paul Gallen: Despite his grubby nature, Gallen led a fairly run-of-the-mill Sharks team to a preliminary final. Gallen became the master of second phase play with a league leading 64 offloads as well as 155.6 metres per match, the leading number for a forward in the NRL this year. His discipline remains a problem but there is no questioning his work ethic or his skill as a ballplayer.
7. Scott Prince: Prince was simply magnificent for the Gold Coast this season showing tremendous skill and inspiring courage to lead the Titans to the precipice of their first finals campaign. Prince finished with 21 try assists and 5 tries in 16 matches and led from the front with a brilliant kicking game. His value to the Titans was highlighted by how poorly the team performed when he was out hurt. His commitment in coming back nearly a month before expected from a broken arm shows how much courage the former Churchill Medal winner has. Had Prince not broken his arm, he would have been a very real chance of claiming the Dally M Medal.
8. Petero Civoniceva: Big Petero maintained his standing as the number one prop forward in the game in his first season at Penrith. Civoniceva led all props in average metres with 142.6 while also racking up 23 tackles a match. His leadership at a difficult club has also been exemplarily while his discipline has again been first class, giving away only 6 penalties all season.
9. Glenn Stewart: Stewart went from a serviceable backrower to an elite player in a brilliant year that saw him average over 100 metres and 29 tackles per game. The most pleasing aspect of Stewart’s game was his play in attack that saw him loom as a constant threat on the edge, resulting in Stewart being the leading forward in try assists.
10. Feleti Mateo: Mateo was a revelation this season with his ability to bulldoze defenders and offload in traffic and was clearly one of the few highlights in an ordinary Parramatta season. Mateo led the league in offloads, made 117.4 metres and 20.4 tackles per game, racked up 17 try assists and 7 tries and had the second most line break assists for the season. 2008 was a breakout year for a player who looks a genuine star.

Eleven through Twenty

11. Terry Campese: No player had a better backend of the season than Campese. The bulky five-eighth took complete ownership of the Raiders when Todd Carney was sacked and did a spectacular job. He led the league in line break assists, finished fourth in try assists, scored 10 tries and kicked 40 goals all while bringing to the Raiders a flair and brilliance enjoyed by all fans. In the last seven games of the regular season Campese had 15 try assists and 6 tries. His Australian jersey is well deserved.
12. Cooper Cronk: Cronk again proved his standing as one of the game’s elite halfbacks with a season that saw him lead the NRL in try assists with an amazing 37 in 28 games. He has a tremendous passing game, a wonderful kicking game and is a smart ball runner that always keeps defensive lines on their heels. His leadership of the Storm is also worthy of note as he plays a key role in maintaining the winning culture at the club.
13. Nathan Hindmarsh: Shabbily treated by representative selectors this year and offered little support by his Eels teammates, Hindmarsh again turned in a typically honest performance that saw him finish second in average tackles with 39.5 per match as well as showing some deft skills to score 6 tries. He was again an eighty minute player who left nothing on the pitch and still ranks among the best forwards in the game.
14. Chris Heighington: On a terrible team, Heighington was a shining light. He was the only player in the NRL to average over 130 metres and 30 tackles per game, highlighting how hard the bullocking backrower works. He coupled that strong work ethic with 93 tackle breaks and 6 tries proving Heighington to not only be a hard worker but a penetrating attacking force. Should be an Origin certainty in 2009.
15. Israel Folau: Folau confirmed his standing as the number one three-quarter in the game with another outstanding season. Folau scored 15 tries, led the NRL in tackle breaks with 146, finished tied for fourth in line breaks with 17 and made 115.4 metres per game. While his contemporaries like Hayne and Inu suffered significant drop-offs, Folau enhanced his reputation as a fast and strong outside back with no equal in the air.
16. Dallas Johnson: A workhorse of the highest order, Johnson does the grunt work for the team that has been the benchmark for the last three seasons. He again put in the hard yards in 2008 without fuss or fanfare in his typically courageous style. Desperately unlucky to miss selection in Australia’s World Cup squad.
17. Brett Stewart: Many viewed 2008 as a downturn in Stewart’s exceptional career despite the fact Stewart played in all three Origin matches and still topped the tryscoring list for the first time in his career with 22 tries from 24 games. His ability as a playmaker also improved out of sight with Stewart laying on a further 14 tries as well as recording 14 line-break assists. It was only the form of Slater that bought Stewart’s form into question as the Manly fullback again had an exceptional year.
18. Anthony Watmough: Atoned for an ordinary finish to the 2007 season with a barnstorming 2008 season that saw him lead all forwards in tackle breaks and finish eighth in offloads. His ability to score tries as well as hit hard in defence saw Watmough mature into a multi-dimensional player whose physicality was a major asset for Manly. Discipline and so-so hands were his major weaknesses.
19. Craig Fitzgibbon: Fitzgibbon was reborn as a champion player this season after a number of quiet years, returning to representative football on the back of some exceptional and selfless work with the Roosters. He clearly led the Roosters in average tackles while ranking second in average metres. A sensational year for the Roosters stalwart.
20. Mark Minichiello: Without doubt the superior footballer of the Minichiello boys these days after Anthony has spent much of the last three seasons sidelined or hampered by injury. Mark formed a wonderful backrow partnership with Laffranchi, suiting the team style with his dangerous ball-carrying and hard defence. Injury cruelled what could have been an Australian berth.

Twenty-one through Fifty

21. Greg Inglis: There are still doubts over whether Inglis is a genuine number six or whether he would be better suited in the centres. Regardless, he is still one of the most electric runners in the game and can turn a match with his own brilliance. 2008 was an inconsistent year for Inglis but he was still a match-winner and one of the best attacking players in the NRL.
22. Brent Kite: Missing Origin was the best thing that happened to Brent Kite. He knuckled down and played the back end of the season like a man possessed. His go forward was critical in Manly’s premiership success and he now ranks as one of the game’s elite props. He was a deserving Clive Churchill Medal winner and has earned his Australian World Cup position.
23. Ray Cashmere: Cashmere was a lonely figure at the Cowboys as he was their only forward to run hard and run often. He bent defensive lines often with his 116.1 metres per match and did not shirk the task on the other side of the ball with nearly 30 tackles a match. He was the one shining light in North Queensland’s dismal season. He was rewarded with a City Origin jersey.
24. Robbie Farah: Farah was one of the two Tigers players to perform this season. His effectiveness was hampered by being thrown into the halves by Tim Sheens but there is no questioning his work ethic in defence, his zip out of dummy half and his importance in the Tigers high octane attack. Injuries, however, saw Farah’s performance dip somewhat this season.
25. Jamie Lyon: Lyon seems to have settled into the five-eighth role after some initial teething problems and has proved a fine compliment to Matt Orford. Lyon played a key role in Manly’s premiership win with some fine second-receiver play and the most solid defence of any legitimate half.
26. Steve Price: The value of Price was no better exemplified than the performance of the Warriors when Price was missing. They languished at the bottom of the ladder with another season seemingly wasted. Price returns and the team made a great finals run that included an upset of the Storm in Melbourne. He is an outstanding leader and remains one of the premier props in the game despite his age.
27. Jeff Lima: Lima laid the platform for the Melbourne backs with an outstanding year that saw him average 128.7 metres (third in the NRL for props) and 21.5 tackles per game. His hands were also much better this year. The Storm would not have won the minor premiership without Lima.
28. Ben Hannant: Hannant stepped up to be a leader of the young Broncos pack and did an outstanding job with courageous running and back-breaking defence. He was rightfully rewarded with an Origin jersey.
29. John Sutton: Sutton was the Bunnies best this year with the powerful backrower dangerous in attack when hitting the fringes hard. He can offload, kick or run straight over the top of defenders and that multi-pronged threat saw him lead the team in try assists. He finished fourth in the league in offloads while recording 74 tackle breaks.
30. Johnathan Thurston: Thurston had a tough task behind a pack that had only one player doing anything while battling injuries after missing much of the pre-season. His defence was again a concern but there is no doubting his ability with the ball and his deft kicking game. 2008, however, won’t be a year he will wish to remember.
31. Darren Lockyer: When Lockyer was on the field, he was a match winner. Brisbane was just much better when he was on the park. There are no better examples than his game winning kick against Parramatta and his skilful play to down the Titans in golden point. Had he of remained fit all season, he would have been ranked much higher.
32. Nathan Friend: A tackling machine who averaged 42.2 tackles per game (number one in the NRL); Friend has proven his worth as an eighty minute player in 2008. His work ethic is immense and he adds plenty out of dummy-half. 2008 was a super year for the Titans rake.
33. Alan Tongue: The ever-consistent Tongue was again a vestibule of courage and will this season in leading the Raiders to the finals series. Tongue’s defence was again tireless despite playing much of the season injured. He was also vital to the Raiders as a fill-in at hooker and halfback throughout the year.
34. Roy Asotasi: Asotasi was heavily maligned this season but despite his drop-off from the high standards he has set previously, he continued to perform as a quality front rower. His hands let him down a little this season and he was apt to go missing in early season games but there is no doubting that when he hit form at the halfway mark of the year he was very good.
35. Karmichael Hunt: Despite having his worst season in first grade, Hunt was still very good at the back for Brisbane. His return game was less effective than in previous seasons but his ballplaying improved markedly. His courage was again top class and his safety under the high ball makes him the most secure fullback in the NRL.
36. Braith Anasta: Anasta started off the season as the top playmaker in the game but his season fizzled after missing Origin selection. He finished the season third in try assists but the nature of most of those-kicks for the corner-made the Roosters predictable.
37. Jarrod Mullen: Despite having played Origin in ’07, Mullen continues to be an underrated player. The talented Newcastle half finished the season seventh in try assists with 20 while his long kicking game was one of the best in the league.
38. Michael Ennis: Ennis stepped up in fine style this year with some dummy-half work that will see him challenge for an Origin jersey next season. With Wallace hot and cold at halfback and Lockyer spending time on the sidelines injured, Ennis played a critical role in Brisbane’s attack and came up trumps.
39. Colin Best: Colin Best had his finest ever season which netted 14 tries, 8 try assists and 130.2 metres per game. He was a threat from anywhere on the field and played a key role in the Raiders attack that propelled the Green Machine into the finals. Few outside backs had the impact Best did this season.
40. Danny Buderus: Even in his final year, Buderus played in the class of elite hookers. He was again a lynchpin for the Knights when fit with his solid defence and his creativity and dash from dummy-half. His game no doubt slipped from his halcyon days but he still had a very good year.
41. Sam Thaiday: Thaiday at his best is a brutal ball-carrier who could rumble through defensive lines with his thrashing arms and legs. In some games he was unstoppable. Fitness, or a lack thereof, hurt him in the back half of the year but there is little doubting he is one of the most threatening forwards in the game with the ball in his hands.
42. Luke Douglas: Douglas was the Sharks quiet achiever but after Gallen there is little doubt he was the Sharks best. He was tireless in both attack and defence and became renowned for a sound pair of hands (that unfortunately let him down in the Sharks final against Melbourne). A fine player with rep footy awaiting him.
43. Joel Monaghan: Monaghan’s return to Canberra proved a masterstroke for both parties with Monaghan contributing significantly to a successful Raiders campaign. Monaghan was a dangerous ball runner and a considerable aerial threat this year but it was his improved defence that was most pleasing to watch.
44. Michael Crocker: Crocker’s numbers, as always, weren’t spectacular but there seems to be little doubt that Melbourne are a stronger and fiercer team with Crocker on the park. It is the intangibles that make Crocker so valuable and the fact he stayed fit for 21 games meant plenty to the Storm in 2008.
45. Nathan Cayless: Cayless was one of the few Parramatta players to play with consistency this season. His go-forward was classy, his game was mistake-free and his defence was solid in a team that let in plenty of tries. The big prop even kicked a field goal that sent the Eels to an overtime win.
46. Andrew Ryan: The only Bulldog to turn in a decent effort all season. Ryan’s attack suffered due to the team’s inept halves but his defence was top notch (ranking eighth in average tackles in the NRL) and his leadership in a very tough season exceptional.
47. Ben Creagh: Despite having his season hampered by injury, Creagh made a habit of bending the line in attack and bending his back in defence with 25.7 tackles and 111.4 metres per game. The Dragons struggled when Creagh was missing.
48. Simon Mannering: Mannering was outstanding for the Warriors all season with an unquenchable work ethic. The hallmark of his game was his consistency that saw him improve into one of the most solid all-round backrowers in the game.
49. Zeb Taia: Taia proved himself a dangerous ball runner and hard working defender this season before a knee injury cut his year short. His threatening running on the fringes and ability to offload the ball was a key to the Knights improvement in 2008.
50. Brett Finch: Finch had one of his better years in 2008 and really stepped up once Tim Smith went walkabout. His 24 try assists placed top five in the NRL while he was fairly sound defensively for a half. Consistency saw him marked down.

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