The List: The Second Annual Top 50 NRL Players

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

After the rousing success of last year’s list, where Kurt Gidley led the rankings of the top fifty players in the NRL, that saw a steady stream of hate mail arrive in my letter box until Christmas, it has been decided high in the Punting Ace offices that the NRL Top 50 will become an annual tradition at Punting Ace. “It is good for business” said Kirley. “And at any rate, it is always good fun seeing you wage a war on so many fronts”. Indeed.

And it will be war as this is the definitive list. In my mind, there is no debate. This is it. It would seem wishful thinking, however, to believe that every reader will provide the same deference to the list. At any rate, here is the list.

In order, the top 50 players in the NRL in 2009 ranked on impact, value and performance. The number in brackets is where they ranked in the 2008 list.

  1. Jamie Soward (-): Confidence can be a wonderful thing and when Wayne Bennett instilled it in Jamie Soward, the supremely talented five-eighth shot from fringe first-grader to the most complete back in the game. There is no aspect of rugby league attack that Soward doesn’t excel at. He unquestionably has the top kicking game of any player in the NRL. He has the biggest boot, an accurate and effective short kicking game, is the best field goal exponent in the NRL and he can goal kick with the best of them. He is fast as a bullet and is rarely caught when into the backfield. He is a penetrating runner when he takes the line on. His passing game is as pretty as a picture. He can read a game like few players of his age. And he can run the most impressive backline machine in the NRL. Even his heavily maligned defence is not nearly as bad as it is made out to be. Numbers wise, Soward is in a league of his own: tied for 1st in try assists with 27, leads all halves in tries with 12, leads the NRL in kick metres by over 3000, 2nd in point scoring with 232 and ranks top five among halves for tackle breaks and line break assists. He was outstanding throughout the entire season and that consistency has him ranked as the top player in the NRL for 2009.
  2. Jarryd Hayne (-): It was probably during Origin I that Hayne signalled he was ready to start playing to the levels he was capable of. Hayne had been coasting along for the previous eighteen months, getting shot at and contributing little. He started 2009 a different person, by all reports, but when moved to five-eighth he did very little. He was sulking, perhaps. Either way, he wasn’t playing well. And then came Origin and he was the Blues best. By the end of the series, he was arguably the player of the series. He then was the prime figure behind Parramatta’s unlikely finals run. With the club more likely to finish with the wooden spoon than a finals berth, Hayne’s individual brilliance turned the club’s fortunes around. During the back half of the year he was undoubtedly the top player in the competition. He leads the NRL in tackle breaks, had only one match since moving to fullback where he made less than 140 metres (season average of 174 metres) and he scored 13 tries and set up 14 more. He was electrifying and could create something from nothing. He added a long and short kicking game to his repertoire along with a more bruising type of defence. He was rewarded with the Dally M Medal. The try he scored against the Dragons in the qualifying final summed up how talented Hayne is at his best. His challenge now is to display it for an entire season.
  3. Brett Kimmorley (-): Of all the player moves over the last decade, only Johnathan Thurston’s move to the Cowboys in 2005 has had such a large impact and even that is questionable as the Cowboys were a team on the rise who had defeated the Bulldogs in the 2004 finals series. Kimmorley’s arrival at Belmore has been a godsend, a reincarnation of Terry Lamb with his hustle, organisation and leadership. The Bulldogs bought wonderfully well in the off-season and the purchase of Kimmorley was the key. He has helped bring the Bulldogs back to its family club roots. He has led the Bulldogs from the wooden spoon to a preliminary final with aplomb. His kicking game has been top class, his freeing up of Ben Roberts from organisational duties has been critical and his ability to play tough football is second-to-none. His impact can be seen in three ways: Cronulla dropped from 3rd to 15th in their first season without Kimmorley while the Dogs went from 16th to 2nd; New South Wales won their only Origin match when Kimmorley was called in to wear the seven; and the Bulldogs have looked directionless since Kimmorley smashed a cheekbone. Noddy is one of the great leaders and his re-emergence as a dominant halfback has been a pleasure to watch.
  4. Billy Slater (3): With another outstanding season that saw Slater win all the rep jerseys ahead of a magnificent class of fullbacks, the Melbourne custodian propelled himself into the role of fullback of the decade. Slater is far from a traditional fullback, however, and is such a uniquely brilliant player that for all the stars the Storm field, he is the one they game plan for most. John Cartwright beat the Storm at Olympic Park by keeping the ball out of Slater’s hands. His impact is that great. No fullback has such an involvement and with such explosiveness. In 24 games thus far, he has a combined 34 try/try assist number along with an amazing 147 tackle breaks. And yet those numbers don’t tell the whole story as his instinctive backing-up, ability to chase down kicks and his effective decoy running aren’t measured by statistics. Slater is the superstar in a team brimming with them.
  5. David Stagg (-): The most underrated player in the NRL, Stagg finally received some recognition of his talents with the Dally M Lock of the Year. Stagg’s first season at the Bulldogs has been simply brilliant. He has been given the thirteen jersey on a permanent basis and he has thrived and was mighty unlucky not to get an Origin call-up this season. Stagg was a tackling machine who averaged 44.2 tackles per match, second in the NRL. It was his play in attack, however, that has propelled his value. Stagg makes 78 metres per game, has 40-plus numbers in offloads and tackle breaks and does all the little things like dive on loose balls and pressure the kicker that never gets accounted for. Without David Stagg, the Bulldogs are not premiership contenders in 2009. Stagg is a tireless workhorse who never stops in defence and who creates plenty in attack. Most pundits won’t rate him so highly but those good judges believe him to be one of the best.
  6. Scott Prince (7): As hard as it is for many to believe, the Gold Coast Titans finished third in the minor premiership and the man who led the team to their most successful season was halfback and skipper Scott Prince. Prince had a second straight season of consistent brilliance with his top quality being his drive to win. The Tigers have not been the same since he left and the Titans would not be in the playoffs if he were not playing. He laid on 24 tries, scored 7 himself, kicked at a very high level and pushed the Titans all over the park but at the end of the day it was his innate ability to make every player around him better that has him ranked so high. Thurston may have more individual tools but Prince is the man you would rather have leading your club.
  7. Greg Inglis (21): Inglis had another wonderful season with a return to the centres seeing a return to the form he exhibited in 2007. Inglis was frightful at times throughout the season. He has the best fend in the game and his combination of speed; strength and skill make him impossible to match up on one-on-one. When firing, there is no more threatening player in rugby league. He can own a match like he did during Origin II before being taken out by a vicious high shot. He had some amazing games for the Storm such as those against the Broncos, Bunnies and Roosters and he can make very good players look like fools. His freakish skills only enhance his reputation. An off-field controversy kept him off the field for a couple of weeks and his absence proved how important he is to the Storm. A gifted once-in-a-generation player who was back at his best in 2009.
  8. Ben Hannant (28): 2009 was Hannant’s breakout season, one that saw him stake his claim as the heir apparent to the crown currently shared by Steve Price and Petero Civoniceva as the best bookends in the game. Hannant promised plenty at Brisbane and delivered a lot but with the responsibility of leading a new pack he has taken his game to the next level. The Polar Bear laid the foundation for the Bulldogs title run this season and had some outstanding numbers with 135.4 metres and 34.1 tackles per game. He bends the line constantly and he plays through pain and exhaustion. At such a young age Hannant stands on the precipice of joining the Webcke/Lazarus/Price/Civoniceva pantheon of all-time great prop forwards. A few more years at his current level and he will be rated among them.
  9. Johnathan Thurston (30): If you went purely on numbers, Thurston had an outstanding year. Second in Dally M voting. A brilliant Test match performance that saw Thurston score two tries. Another sensational Origin series victory. 11 tries, 25 try assists, 78 tackle breaks, 202 points, 24 line break assists. He was the Cowboys best once again and again was revered throughout the league world. There was no doubting his brilliance in 2009, particularly after performances like that against the Dragons in round nine when he played out of his skin even by his own lofty standards. His Cowboys have missed the finals for the second straight season and the third season in the last four; however, a result that is totally unacceptable for a club with one of the world’s best attacking players. Thurston has not been able to propel the Cowboys into a consistent premiership force like Andrew Johns did to Newcastle and he has not been able to get the best out of a team that has a fair degree of talent like a Brett Kimmorley. As an individual Thurston is one of the best but his role as a team player sees him marked down a touch.
  10. Robbie Farah (24): Aside from a couple of ordinary performances at Origin level, Robbie Farah was a hooker of top class. He was a constant threat in attack with 7 tries and 21 try assists along with 69 tackle breaks, the most for any hooker in the NRL by quite a sum. He also led all hookers in metres gained with 79.2, had three 40/20 kicks and made in excess of 35 tackles per game. His kicking game helped win the Tigers a number of games while he rarely came off second best when challenged. Just ask Anthony Watts. Throw in his leadership qualities and he is a star. The only negative mark against him was his inability to drag the Tigers into the finals yet again.
  11. Anthony Watmough (18): Finished 3rd in the NRL in tackle breaks with 143, a clear 46 ahead of the 2nd best forward in the league. There was no harder forward to tackle. His performance in Origin III was one of the best individual efforts of the season as was his game against the Tigers late in the year. He was tough and aggressive and hard to shut down. Criticisms of his game, however, are that he is prone to bouts of stupidity and his defence is not particularly effective. That being the case, he was the top attacking forward in the NRL this year.
  12. Nathan Hindmarsh (13): It defies belief that Hindmarsh was once again overlooked by Blues selectors when he had yet another traditional stellar season. Hindmarsh remains an eighty minute player who this season finished 3rd in average tackles with 43.5 along with over 100 metres per match. What is often overlooked with Hindmarsh is the quality of his attack: he has 49 offloads and 50 tackle breaks and was a perennial threat to opponents. He is as critical to Parramatta as Hayne and is an ornament to everything that is great about rugby league.
  13. Cameron Smith (4): For the first time since he took the mantle of top hooker from Danny Buderus, Smith has been challenged. While he remains rightfully more highly regarded than Robbie Farah, he has not played to Farah’s heights in 2009. His contribution to the Storm’s attack has been down a little this year but his all-round game remains outstanding. He is a workhorse in defence, dangerous out of dummy half, creative around the ruck, a kicker in play and at goal and the game’s top leader. Anyone who criticises Cameron Smith doesn’t understand rugby league.
  14. Ben Creagh (47): The biggest reason for Creagh’s rise in the rankings and in his status in the game has been his ability to stay on the paddock this season. It was his first full season and he has excelled as a hard running and skilful ball runner who excels on the fringes. 8 tries and 4 try assists is outstanding for a forward. Has developed a great combination with both Hornby and Soward. Deserved rep selections.
  15. Benji Marshall (-): Despite the positional dispute Marshall endured throughout the year, 2009 was his finest season with a return of 24 try assists, 8 tries, 10 line breaks and 26 line break assists. On his day Marshall was a sight for sore eyes and a genuine match winner. See performances such as those against Newcastle in round 7 and Parramatta in round 14. Consistency was a worry though.
  16. Karmichael Hunt (35): Hunt has had a quality season in his final year in the NRL before defecting to the AFL. Hunt has been Brisbane’s best in 2009. He has taken over from both Lockyer and Wallace as the top playmaker. 22 try assists and 9 tries are a solid return for a team who struggled at times.
  17. Zeb Taia (49): Taia can now be considered an elite ball running backrower after a stellar season that marked him as the Knights best. Taia was devastating on the left hand side for the Knights with outstanding numbers: 109.8 metres per match, 12 line breaks, 97 tackle breaks and 40 offloads. He will only get better. Amazing upside and could be a top five player in future.
  18. Michael Ennis (38): Took immediate ownership of the Dogs on his arrival and his niggling style is a perfect fit for the team. The energy he brings to the side has been key to the Dogs revival. He provides speed out of dummy half, starch in defence and a kicking and passing game that offers relief to the halves.
  19. Paul Gallen (6): Was injured for much of 2009 but struggled on in a team that was gutted by both injury and poor form. Gallen led the NRL in metres per game for a forward with 152 while making 31.3 tackles per match. He also became the Sharks top attacking option by running hard solo at the line when Cronulla were in striking distance. He can hold his head high.
  20. Josh Morris (-): A revelation in his first season at the Bulldogs. Told he was the starting left centre, his favourite position, Morris excelled. He scored 21 tries and set up 6 more and was a danger from anywhere on the field. His handling has improved significantly as has his positional play. Has given the Bulldogs the speed they needed.
  21. Anthony Laffranchi (2): Was somewhat maligned this year for reasons unknown to this author. He didn’t live up to the lofty standards he set last year but he didn’t deserve to be dropped from the Blues team. He led the Titans in offloads and was always a threat with the ball. He was tireless in both attack and defence and added some fire to the belly of the Titans.
  22. Michael Jennings (-): A genuine speedster who took his game to another level this season and was rewarded with a New South Wales jersey. He is a real creator in the Hayne mould who can make something out of nothing with his blistering speed and mesmerising footwork. There are few genuine game winners but he is one. Imagine if he ever got the ball early.
  23. Kurt Gidley (1): Gidley dropped off significantly from 2008 when he was ranked the top player in the NRL in this column. That is not to say Gidley had a bad year. To the contrary he was one of Newcastle’s best and did an admiral job as Blues skipper. A top returner who averages 158.7 metres per game due to his heavy involvement. Attack dropped slightly. May have been suffering from niggling injuries. Still a class act who never gives up.
  24. Luke Douglas (42): Has seemingly killed or raped a family member of a NSW selector. Is the most consistent and durable prop in the game. Has not missed a match since his debut. Averages 116.4 metres and 35.4 tackles per match on an awful team. Is a top quality player who does not receive the credit he deserves.
  25. Corey Parker (-): Parker was one of the few consistent Broncos in 2009 and was the right man to lead the team in the absence of Lockyer. He contributed in every facet from try scoring and goal kicking to tackling and running hard. Would rank as one of the most underrated players in the game.
  26. Glenn Stewart (9): Glenn Stewart had a solid year but it certainly wasn’t of the quality of 2008. His workload was the same and defensively he did little wrong but his attacking prowess slipped this year which certainly hurt Manly. Remains a key Manly figure. Loss in attack has a lot to do with Orford’s failures as a halfback.
  27. Luke Patten (-): The spiritual leader of the Bulldogs had an outstanding comeback year after an injury shortened 2008. He was safe at the back and was constantly chiming into the attack as either a ball player or hard runner. Unfortunate to not get an Origin jersey.
  28. Taniela Tuiaki (-): The Tank was an absolute beast this year. Was certainly the most feared and destructive winger in the NRL with 21 tries, 113 tackle breaks and 130 metres per game. He has always had the potential but he got his act together this year.
  29. Luke Lewis (-): Injury cost Lewis probably a career year. He was brilliant until he was struck down with injury after round 13 and was right in the mix for the Dally M. He was a threat with the ball, he was penetrating with his ball running and he would get his elbows dirty. His best season ever.
  30. Brett Morris (-): Developed into the top tryscorer in the NRL under Wayne Bennett from an inconsistent outside back with bad hands under Nathan Brown. Footwork is brilliant and his try scoring sense has been a key to the Dragons success.
  31. Jamie Lyon (25): Started off 2009 as probably the best back in the comp in the opening weeks. He won the match against Brisbane single-handedly. Kicking game has improved and at centre he has been free to unleash his bullocking running game. Faded a little late in the year.
  32. Luke Bailey (-): Big Bull made it through most of 2009 sans injury. He was fearless with his hit-ups and he never shirked the task in defence. His on-field performances have been critical to the Titans success this year. If they are to win the premiership Bailey will need to be at his best.
  33. John Sutton (29): Had a similar season to that of 2008. Was the man Souths relied on most. Came through often but not often enough. Having said that he led the NRL in try assists with 27. Owned a number of games such as the Bunnies touch-up of Brisbane but went missing too often. Probably needs to play outside a more orthodox halfback.
  34. Gareth Ellis (-): Came to Australia from the UK to test himself and he has passed with flying colours. His work ethic is top notch and surprisingly he is quite effective as an attacking weapon, leading the Tigers forwards in tackle breaks and placing second in offloads. A cult figure that will only get better in 2010.
  35. Justin Poore (-): Developed into an enforcer this season, his last for the Dragons. He averages 110.8 metres and nearly 30 tackles per match. Made his Origin debut but seemed a bit out of his depth there. At club level, however, he is the top prop for a minor premier who based their success on go forward.
  36. Petero Civoniceva (8): Petero had put the Panthers in the improbable position of a finals berth before going down hurt. His absence reflected his importance with Penrith winning only one of their last six. He only played 12 games for Penrith but had the second highest average metreage for props with 139/game. Still one of the top props in the NRL.
  37. Sam Thaiday (41): 100 metres and 30 tackles per game meant he was a solid contributor. He became somewhat of a barometer for the Broncos performances. When he was in form, Brisbane were winning. Found his form at the right time.
  38. Israel Folau (15): Certainly didn’t make the impact his $400k/year pay cheque suggested he would in his first season with the Broncos but he did score 16 tries in 17 games while making 64 tackle breaks and 106 metres per match. Being played on the wing stifled his involvement though it meant his questionable defence was not exploited.
  39. Andrew Ryan (46): Dally M Captain of the Year who turned in a traditional Andrew Ryan performance where he did plenty in defence and was a threat on the fringes. He is the prototype modern day backrower and he rarely lets anyone at the Bulldogs down.
  40. Nathan Friend (32): Revered for his defence that saw him make 40.4 tackles per match for the Titans in 2009, he has been a handy compliment to Prince and the Gold Coast backline with 9 try assists and 41 tackle breaks (tie for 5th among NRL hookers). Underrated but leads the rest of the rakes after the big three.
  41. Terry Campese (11): Copped a bucketing from the media for his lack of involvement in some matches but he ranked 3rd in the NRL in try assists with only 4 matches all season where he didn’t have a try or try assist. Stiff to get dropped from Blues. Carried the Raiders on his back for most of 2009.
  42. Cooper Cronk (12): Cronk’s numbers are down significantly from 2008 but that was to be expected with Folau going to Brisbane and Finch joining the Storm. He remains the spiritual leader of Melbourne and his kicking game is critical to their success. He is probably the top defensive halfback in the NRL.
  43. Daniel Mortimer (-): Hayne gets all the credit for Parramatta’s revival but it was the emergence of Mortimer at five-eighth that deserves some recognition. The Eels came good when he was given a run. He has scored 9 tries and has 7 try assists in 15 games. His maturity and cool head is exactly what the Eels need.
  44. Dallas Johnson (16): DJ was at his workhorse best in 2009 and was rewarded with three Origin jerseys. Johnson’s average tackle count of 41.4 ranked him 4th in the NRL. Didn’t provide a lot in attack which is his only knock.
  45. Craig Fitzgibbon (19): The old raw boned warrior was one of only a few players who could hold his head up high after the Roosters humiliating season. Didn’t let poor coaching, inept teammates or loss of captaincy get him down. It is doubtful the Roosters would have won a game without Fitzy. The Roosters are foolish for letting him go to England when he wants to stay.
  46. Jarrod Mullen (37): Tough to gauge. Could look brilliant but also went missing. There is no doubting that Newcastle are a far better team with him playing. He could win a game off his own back like he did against the Cowboys late in the year. A half the Blues should focus on for the future.
  47. Josh Dugan (-): Simply brilliant debut season. Dugan’s courage and smarts have him poised to become an elite fullback over the next few seasons. Shows shades of Brett Hodgson. Led the NRL in average metres with 191.5 per match. Also had 110 tackle breaks in 16 games. His elusiveness and football IQ were critical in the Raiders late season success.
  48. Manu Vatuvei (-): Slipped under the radar a little in 2009 due to the Warriors shocking season but big Manu scored 13 tries and made 81 tackle breaks in 19 matches. Failed to make 100 metres only twice all season. Consistency has made him one of the best wingers in the NRL.
  49. Luke Stuart (-): Clearly the Rabbitohs number one forward. He did nothing exceptional but his workrate was outstanding with 111.3 metres and 30.4 tackles per game. When many of his teammates threw the towel in, Stuart was leading from the front.
  50. Darren Lockyer (31): Nearing the end of his career but his organisation and leadership remain critical to the Broncos success. Kicking game still very good. Had a direct hand in 17 tries in 21 games. His performance against Penrith in round 23 when he had four try assists showed that his class is permanent.

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