The List: The Fourth Annual Top 50 (Part 1)

Filed in NRL, Other, Top 50 by on October 8, 2011

Here we are again. Another season done and dusted. After 201 games played by 472 players, I list the top 50. There will be arguments, there will be criticisms but this is the list of the top 50 players in the game in 2011.

A quick note: The number in the bracket is where the player finished last year with a * indicating they didn't play in 2010. In part two, I will provide the table of where players have finished in each of the four years.

50. Alex Glenn (Brisbane, -)
The Brisbane backrower had a very nice year and was one of the more improved players in the competition. His stock numbers of 28 tackles and 83 metres per match were solid but it was his threat running on the edge that really impressed. Glenn managed seven tries and set up another and finished 12th among forwards in tackle breaks. A real handful who has quickly become a senior player at Brisbane.

49. Nathan Merritt (South Sydney, -)
It is tough to leave out the top tryscorer in the NRL and by the backend of the season Merritt was brilliant in his ability to find the tryline, crossing 23 times. He was much better when he was moved to fullback but he was generally reliable wherever he played with only 19 errors all year. Perennially underrated.

48. Jarryd Hayne (Parramatta, 49)
His numbers again read reasonably well: 24 try assists, seven tries, 78 tackle breaks, 140 metres per game. But they don’t tell half the tale of another wasted season from Hayne, who this year shuffled between fullback and five-eighth, unsure of either his role in his team or his commitment to the game. He has the talent – see his 2009 form where he ranked No.2 in this list – but he rarely plays anywhere near his best as he did in the final game of the year where he ran for 295 metres and laid on five tries.

47. Feleti Mateo (New Zealand, -)
Mateo’s first season at the Warriors was a fruitful one with the skilful backrower enjoying his best year since 2008. Mateo led the league in offloads with 74 and led all forwards in tackle breaks with 99 but his most improved quality was his ability to show a more discerning nature with the ball, limiting the stupidity of his passing and the looseness of his ball-use. Mateo hasn’t been the Warriors’ most critical player but his signing has added a new dimension to New Zealand’s pack.

46. Simon Mannering (New Zealand, -)
The Warriors skipper continues to get better, playing a key role in his team’s cultural change from enigmatic to hardworking and structured. His numbers of 31 tackles and 82 metres per match don’t do nearly enough justice to Mannering’s contribution. He is a genuine leader and a player who can be relied on to play with discipline.

45. Trent Merrin (St George-Illawarra, -)
Merrin had a breakout year in 2011 with the third-year prop playing in the first two Origin matches and leading the Dragons pack as the new No.1 bookend at the club. The burly prop was very good this year, making 25.8 tackles and 118.9 metres a match. He was tough to tackle and showed some real zeal in his running. He will be one of the three or four best props in the game in three seasons’ time.

44. Fuifui Moimoi (Parramatta, -)
The Ken Thornett Medal winner was fighting a losing battle all season but he gave his all and was without risk the most dangerous Eel in 2011. Ranked second among forwards and led all props in yardage with 133.4 metres a match and was tough to tackle with 57 tackle breaks. Despite his team’s poor showing, he never stopped putting in an A-grade showing.

43. Micheal Luck (New Zealand, -)
To gauge Micheal Luck’s importance to New Zealand, just look at how the Warriors performed without him when he went down with an injury in the middle of the season. The Warriors blew a massive lead against the Tigers after Luck went off, they were hammered by the Cowboys and lost to the Storm. When he returned, New Zealand won four straight. Luck is critical to keeping the middle of the Warriors’ defensive line stable. He doesn’t do much with the ball but his 38.91 tackles per match have been crucial to New Zealand’s fifth-ranked defence.

42. Luke Douglas (Cronulla, -)
Another remarkably consistent season from the Cronulla prop in his last season in The Shire. Despite signing on with the Titans early, Douglas showed his true professionalism, astonishingly recovering from an MCL strain that should have ruled him out for six weeks the very next round to allow his consecutive games streak to continue to what is now 146. In a losing cause, Douglas was again one of Paul Gallen’s most reliable lieutenants by hitting the outstanding 30/100 with 31.92 tackles and 107.17 metres a game. He will be impossible to replace at Cronulla next year.

41. Jason Nightingale (St George-Illawarra, -)
The Dragons flanker has become the most reliable winger in the game in 2011. He is not the most dangerous, but he rarely makes an error and is never afraid to roll his sleeves up to do some hard work. Scored nine tries and set up another three and made 128.91 metres a match. Has surpassed Brett Morris as the Dragons’ top winger.

40.Brett Stewart (Manly, -)
In the Manly fullback’s last three season where he has managed 16 or more games, the Sea Eagles have won two premierships and lost another Grand Final. In the two years that Stewart was sidelined with two separate knee injuries, Manly limped into the finals and were duly eliminated in the first round by substantial hammerings. Stewart took a while to return to his best but by season’s end he was running freely and playing well, scoring a try in the decider and getting selected for Australia. Made 27 handling errors but scored 11 tries and laid on another 13 in a fine return.

39. Ashley Harrison (Gold Coast, 46)
It was an horrific year for the Titans but that was no fault of the hardworking lock, who finished eighth on the tackle list with 40.6 per match and threw in 95 metres a game on top. Only managed 13 games due to injury and Origin duty but was one of the few Titans not to suffer a major drop in form. Held off some strong challengers for the Queensland No.13 jersey, such is the regard he is rightfully held in.

38. Issac Luke (South Sydney, 19)
Despite my disgust at his attitude towards the game by laying down to win penalties, Luke was again one of the most dangerous hookers in the game. His great strength is his ability to run out of dummy half. In 2011, he made 122 metres per match. The next closest hooker was Matt Hilder on 73 and Hilder spent much of the season at lock. Luke’s tackling was poor this year but as an attacking weapon he rated among the elite hookers.

37. Ben Barba (Canterbury, -)
It was very hard to get a grip on Barba’s season. On one level, he was among of the most dangerous players in the game, topping the tryscoring table with 23, setting up a further seven and busting the line 30 times, 11 more than second-placed Matt Cooper. But he was also error-prone and extraordinarily shaky under the high ball, recording 40 errors throughout the year. A gifted attacking player, Barba could win a game off his own back but could be dreadful at times. A move to five-eighth could be on the cards in 2012.

36. Nathan Hindmarsh (Parramatta, 18)
The first time in four years that Hindmarsh has slipped out of the top 20, regardless, Hindmarsh had another typical Nathan Hindmarsh year. Surpassed the 300 game milestone this year but suffered a tough year in his first as skipper of the Eels with Parramatta spending much of the season trying to avoid the wooden spoon. With little playmaking quality at the Eels, Hindmarsh’s attacking game slipped but his defence was near-perfect as always, leading the tackle count with 49.92 a match. Parramatta certainly would have won the spoon without Hindmarsh.

35. Shaun Johnson (New Zealand, *)
You are doing something right if in your debut season you lead your team to the Grand Final, get selected in the Kiwis squad and elicit comparisons with Benji Marshall. And that is just what happened to Shaun Johnson, who also managed to score the most remarkable individual try of the year. Electric and smart, Johnson is a triple-pronged threat with an ability to pass, kick and run. Even at this stage of his 16-game career, he may be the best running halfback in the NRL. Didn’t debut until round 13 but scored six tries and set up another 12 in 12 regular season matches and produced seven of the Warriors’ nine finals try assists. A talent who will be much higher next year.

34. Chris Heighington (Wests Tigers, 43)
The Wests Tigers locked again slipped under the radar and was again one of the top forwards in the game. His workrate was again outstanding, racking up 109 metres and 28 tackles a match. He was also incredibly dangerous with the ball, recording 90 tackle breaks, third among all forwards in the NRL and giving off 39 offloads. Heighington was also well disciplined, making only 10 errors and giving up only 14 penalties. Shamefully overlooked for Origin again, Heighington has defected to England where he will get a well-deserved shot at international football.

33. Sam Thaiday (Brisbane, 17)
The new Broncos captain makes the top-50 for the fourth straight season. Thaiday again played well, presumably off the darts and the turtle meat, and was again one of the first picked for Queensland this year. He topped the 30/100 mark again with 30.4 tackles and 109.5 metres a match, also managing three tries and three try assists. But his great quality – aggression – is unquantifiable. Was one of the primary reasons the Broncos had such a stellar year.

32. Jake Friend (Sydney Roosters, -)
It has been a year of total redemption for Jake Friend who, unlike teammate Todd Carney, didn’t go off the rails, rather working hard and giving the Tricolours his all. After a stellar season where Friend made 45 tackles per match and was again the backbone of the Roosters’ often flimsy defence, the hooker was awarded the Jack Gibson Medal. But it was his attack which improved out of sight, scoring three tries and setting up another nine. He plays 80 minutes and works his butt off and rates atop the second level of hookers after Cameron Smith and Robbie Farah.

31. Jamie Soward (St George-Illawarra, 9)
Soward’s season was up-and-down but for the most part he was again one of the top playmakers in the NRL. Unquestionably the best kicker in the game in terms of length and accuracy, Soward finally won a deserved Origin call-up, wearing the No.6 jersey on three occasions and getting better with each run. He laid on 17 tries and scored four himself and for the most part played in good nick. He could have run the ball a little more and he went through a month where he played abhorrently while injured but remained one of the most effective five-eighths in the NRL.

30. Robbie Farah (Wests Tigers, 4)
He started off the season slowly and definitely took a step backwards from his career-year in 2010 but come July and August, Farah was once again in above average form. He finished the regular season with 17 try assists and six tries and was once again involved in everything, providing action out of dummy-half, a helpful kicking game and a secondary playmaking option for Marshall. His workrate was down a little and his error rate up but Farah again played an important role in the Tigers’ run to the finals.

29. James Maloney (New Zealand, -)
2011 was a breakout year for the young Warriors five-eighth, who is now seen to be in a neck-and-neck race with Jamie Soward for the Blues No.6 jersey next season. From a fringe first grader to a poised and reliable five-eighth, Maloney had an outstanding year. He gets a tick for every aspect of his game: his passing, his kicking, his direction, his running, his goalkicking, his leadership.  Missed a key conversion in the Grand Final but scored two tries in the finals and carried the Warriors against the Storm. The Orange boy has done good.

28. Matt Bowen (North Queensland, -)
Bowen has thrown back the clock and had a rejuvenated season where he was once again an integral part of the Cowboys team. After three injury-hampered seasons, Bowen seems to have rediscovered his old form, a shock for those of us who thought he was gone. Playing as the secondary playmaker and return specialist, Bowen scored eight tries and set up 17. Perhaps the best indication of his return to form though was his tackle break count: his 124 ranked behind on Akuila Uate and Billy Slater. It was good to see the livewire fullback return to his best.

27. Chris Sandow (South Sydney, -)
A year on from winning the Willie M Medal, Sandow became South Sydney's match-winner. He ran well, kicked even better, minimised his liability in defence and was always the go-to player when the game was on the line. He endeared himself to me with his seven field goals but it was his ice-cool nerves and ability to organise South Sydney’s often directionless attack that was most impressive. He cashed in with a big-money deal at Parramatta, much to the chagrin of the South Sydney faithful,  

26. Kurt Gidley (Newcastle, 13)
Gidley was again Newcastle’s most important player and was again the club’s Mr Fix-It, shuffling between fullback, halfback and five-eighth. His numbers were again excellent: 14 tries/try assists, 101.7 metres a game, 60 tackle break, all from just 17 matches. He can do everything at an elite level and he was the key reason the Knights snuck into eighth spot.

Check back soon for players 25 to 1


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