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Bickley's NRL team of the year

Josh Mansour was named in the team of the year. (Photo: nrlphotos.com)
Roar Guru
6th September, 2016
23

Welcome to my NRL team of the year where I take a look back at the season and select the best player in every position.

Some quick notes on how I assembled the team. Firstly, position matters, including side of the field. So I’ve picked backs and second rowers according to what side of the field they specialise on.

Secondly durability matters, so you have to play 18 games at your position to qualify. If you aren’t there for three quarters of the season then I can’t put you in a team of the year.

Thirdly this is a club football team of the year, so representative performances don’t count.
Finally to avoid any confusion let me be clear that choosing one player over another does not mean I think the second player is garbage. Some of these decisions are incredibly close and reflect the sorts of things I value in a player.

There is room for reasonable people to disagree.

This year there were several players who had outstanding seasons for their team but did so across multiple positions and thus failed my games test. Curtis Rona, Tom Trbojevic and Tyrone Peachey are all examples of players who might have come into consideration had they played a full season at a single position.

It is also worth acknowledging that there are a lot of Canberra Raiders in this team. On one hand that is to be expected of a team that finished second but on the other hand it begs the questions why there are only two Sharks a single Storm representative and no Broncos. Part of this is down to the extraordinary attack the Raiders displayed in 2016 – it’s easier to quantify attacking contributions compared to defensive ones.

But it’s also down to team stability. The Raiders enjoyed a very good season with respect to injuries with the five players listed from the Green Machine all playing at least 22 games in their favoured position.

Moreover those other top teams all had strong contenders with players such as James Maloney and Jack Bird for the Sharks, Kevin Proctor, Suliasi Vunivalu and Cam Smith for the Sharks and Matt Gillett and Corey Oates for the Broncos all very close to selection. Indeed a second thirteen would be stacked with players from those teams.

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So yes there are a lot of Raiders in the team but each player makes it on merit but there will of course always be room for reasonable disagreements.

Fullback – Ben Barba
So we start our team with an easy one. While I’m sure there will be many out there arguing for James Tedesco this selection was in the end fairly straight forward with Barba eclipsing Tedesco in almost every meaningful category.

Barba had more tries, try assists, line breaks than any other fullback including Tedesco and was only behind Matt Moylan and Lachlan Coote for line break assists. He also averaged a very respectable 100m per game carrying the ball and recorded 26 offloads

Sure Barba had more games in which to accumulate his stats than Tedesco or say Darius Boyd but that just adds to his claim as this team of the year relies on overall value for the entire season not just peak value for a more limited number of games.

While Barba may never again recapture the incendiary form he displayed in winning the Dally M Medal in 2012 his return to elite status has been wonderful to watch unfurl this season.

Right wing – Jordan Rapana
Three very strong contenders for right winger this year with Valentine Holmes, Suliasi Vunivalu and Jordan Rapana all enjoying outstanding seasons. However it is the man with the worst hair cut in rugby league who gets the nod.

After spending 2015 as something of a mr fixit for coach Ricky Stuart, playing centre, wing and fullback at various stages, Rapana entered this season as no certainty to even make the side. With Sisa Waqa at that stage still at the club plus youngster Brenko Lee also pushing for a position Rapana needed a big preseason to secure his spot outside Joey Leilua.

However Rapana has well and truly taken his chance scoring 20 tries over the course of the season as he and Leilua have forged the strongest flank pairing in the competition.

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And speaking of his right side bro…

Right centre – Joey Leilua
With only a handful of games on free-to-air television some fans might be surprised to learn that this was in fact the easiest selection in the team. While Jack Bird was very good for the Sharks it is fair to say he wasn’t even remotely close to Leilua in terms of overall contribution for his team.

The best part about Leilua’s game in 2016, aside from you know, everything, was his selflessness in attack. While he may have recorded 11 tries and 12 line breaks himself he also had nine try assists and an astonishing 17 line break assists as he routinely put his right side teammate Jordan Rapana into space.

Leilua was also second overall in the competition for offloads and fifth for tackle breaks while running the ball 13.6 times per game for close to 130m.

But even those remarkable numbers don’t tell the full story of Leilua’s contribution to this Raiders team because it is the work he (and Rapana) do coming out of their own end that truly sets those two players apart. Not only are both players willing to take early tackle hit ups on their own right edge both players will also routinely go looking for work across the field allowing the team’s forwards to rest.

Raiders fans aren’t entirely new to having a potent right flank with Blake Ferguson and Sandor Earl once the toast of the town. But if Dorguson was fun, Leipana is something altogether more impressive and will be a key foundation of the team’s finals charge

Left centre – Jarrod Croker
If Joey Leilua at right centre was the easiest selection in the team his captain and fellow centre in green Jarrod Croker was among the more challenging. While Croker has enjoyed an outstanding season in attack it is hard to shake the memory of Darius Boyd toasting the Raiders left edge defence with Croker the man mostly at fault.

Defence has always been the knock on Croker with the Raiders’ left side generally among the leakiest in the competition. However as the season has gone on Croker (and his left side cohort) have improved markedly to the point where in recent games where there has been a problem it has been the right side.

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That is important because if Croker is even at break-even in defence, and I’d argue he’s been better than that recently, his attacking contribution is top shelf. Ignore the goal kicking points because it would be unfair to give him a leg up for a role that none of his competitors share. Instead look at tries (17), line breaks (14) and try assists (7) all categories where he led all comers among left centres. He also made the most tackles of any regular left centre and missed only 28 all season, a very respectable rate.

Left wing – Josh Mansour
On the left wing the contenders included Josh Mansour, Corey Oates Marika Korobeite, Sosaia Feki and Semi Radradra.

Despite Oates’ powerful start to the season (and recent resurgence) and Korobeite’s highlight reel plays it is Mansour who gets the nod on the basis of his overall production. While all of the players listed above recorded fairly similar numbers of tries and line breaks Mansour has the field covered quite comfortably in several other key areas.

His 119 tackle breaks are more than double the next most among all other left wingers with the exception of Semi Radradra who himself has only 67. He also offloads the ball well with 16 in total, although he trails Radradra in this category with the Fijian [please put a strike through Fijian and then put Australian] having recorded 26. Finally though it is in running metres in which he is clearly ahead of the other contenders with 172m per game on 17 carries.

This work rate with the ball coupled with a slightly better try scoring and line breaking record and the prodigious number of tackle breaks is enough for Mansour to take the spot.

The halves – Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk
Oh hey look, it’s the Queenslanders.

While the selection of Cronk and Thurston is well-deserved and is certainly a reflection of the enduring week in, week out consistency of those two players it was also at least a little bit reflective of a lack of obvious alternatives.

Of the top teams the Sharks pair of James Maloney and Chad Townsend were both very good but that team spreads its playmaking all through the spine and even out to the edges so neither shone through to the degree of Cronk and Thurston.

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The Broncos pair of Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt were truly electric in the first third of the season but struggled behind an understrength forward pack throughout the Origin period.

Finally neither of the Raiders pair of Blake Austin or Aidan Sezer was honestly that impressive, with Austin battling injuries all year and Sezer employed mostly as a game manager to activate the bazillion attacking weapons the team has.

That leaves a handful of other contenders such as Shaun Johnson, Adam Reynolds and Mitchell Moses who were all good but whose teammates didn’t give them enough opportunity to thrive.

So we’re left with Cronk and Thurston but that’s not to say they are undeserving. They are tied for most try assists for the season with 23 and are equal first (Thurston) and fourth (Cronk) for line break assists. They both also kicked very well throughout the season and were generally on point pretty much every time they ran out on the field.

Lock – Jason Taumalolo
While Joey Leilua may have been the easiest selection of the season Jason Taumalolo wasn’t far behind. Regular readers of my Thursday Forecast series will know that I refer to Taumalolo as the Destroyer of Worlds but in 2016 it was mostly just opposition middle units Taumalolo destroyed.

Playing in coach Paul Green’s top and tail system whereby his starting middle unit plays the first 20-25 minutes and the last 20-25 while resting in between Taumalolo has been both the tempo setter at the start of games and the tidal wave at the end of games.

Averaging nearly 16 carries per game he was racked up 166.8m per game while also breaking three tackles per game and demonstrating the priceless ability to draw several defenders every time he runs the ball but still get a quick play the ball.

If I was building a team from scratch today Taumalolo would be the first (non-hooker) forward I would try to sign and there is little doubt he will anchor the Cowboys pack for years to come.

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Right second row – Ethan Lowe
This was the hardest selection to make with six legitimate candidates for the award. Starting at the top of the ladder and Kevin Proctor, Elliott Whitehead, Luke Lewis, Ethan Lowe, Matt Gillett and Josh Jackson can all make a case for why they were the best right side second rower in the competition in 2016.

Honestly you could pick any of these players and know that your right side was well looked after. Some offered more defence and others offered more offence but they were all outstanding so this comes down to personal preference in what you’re looking for in a player.

In the end I have landed on Ethan Lowe but it is only by the slimmest of margins. After playing virtually every minute of every game in the Cowboys title run in 2015 Lowe has improved significantly in 2016 and is now a key contributor on that edge for North Queensland and a vital safety blanket for Michael Morgan who plies his trade on that side for the Cowboys.

Left second row – Josh Papalii
After spending his entire career at right second row (aside from the occasional game in the middle unit, a role he also plays for Queensland) Papalii was this year switched to the left edge to accommodate the arrival of Englishman Elliott Whitehead. Papalii has responded to the move by enjoying his best season to date and edges other strong contenders such as Tohu Harris and Gavin Cooper for the spot.

While regular readers of my Thursday Forecast series will know that I typically like to establish a firm evidence base in the stats, Papalii is one player whose contribution must be considered beyond the raw numbers.

That being said his numbers are still very good. In 2016 Papalii averaged a little under 120m per game on just over 13 carries per game while also making 22 tackles per game.

Surprisingly Papalii also recorded the most try assists of any contender for this spot with his eight try assists dwarfing Wade Graham’s three despite the latter being well regarded for his playmaking.

But as any Raiders fan can tell you it has been the timeliness and quality of Papalii’s contributions that has been so effective in 2016. At 24 years old Papalii has now cultivated the maturity to not only play 80 minutes on a regular basis despite tipping the scales at well over 110kgs, but has been able to save his best contributions for late and close situations.

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While his versatility has seen him used as a bench middle for Queensland in Origin there is no doubt that Papalii is one of the premier edge backrowers in the game

Front row forwards – James Graham and Andrew Fifita
I had five key candidates for prop of the year with Andrew Fifita, Jesse Bromwich, Matt Scott, Ryan James and James Graham all worthy candidates. Beyond those four other contenders included Junior Paulo, Aaron Woods and Aidan Tolman

In the end I have landed on Graham and Fifita but all of the players listed had a good case as the league continues to enjoy a strong presence from multi-skilled big men.

While many have questioned whether Graham’s insistence on playing a distributor role inside the opposition 20m might be hurting his team, his overall contribution is impossible to overlook. Not only does Graham average over 61 minutes per game in doing so he averaged over 20 runs per game for a little over 170m.

Add to this his outstanding defensive contribution of nearly 40 tackles per game with only one missed per game and you have a truly extraordinary work horse of a player.

Andrew Fifita who gets the other prop spot is at first blush a very different sort of player. The common conception of Fifita is of a high impact rocks and diamonds player. Plenty of broken tackles and line breaks but also plenty of errors and penalties conceded. Certainly his tackle break record is phenomenal with nearly five per game, far and away the best record for a front rower.

However his error rate and penalties conceded, while not great, are not quite as bad as his reputation might indicate. His error rate in particular is very reasonable with dozens of players recording more errors than the Sharks big man.

Moreover Fifita’s work rate is actually on par with other front line props with 18.5 runs per game netting 168m per game to go with just under 30 tackles.

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Hooker and player of the season – Josh Hodgson
As usual hooker was one of the hardest decisions of all this season with several strong candidates.

Michael Ennis may not have been quite the outstanding playmaker that he was in 2015 recording only ten try assists compared to 18 last season but he was still an obvious on-field leader for the Sharks. Ennis was a critical part of a team that racked up 16 straight victories.

Meanwhile, in the deep south Cameron Smith continues a level of sustained excellence that it is hard to imagine can ever be replicated. Smith is not only the team’s defensive anchor he orchestrates the team’s attack by making the correct decision on who to pass to or whether to run or kick on virtually every one of his 2500 plus touches a season

But the winner this year is the Englishman Josh Hodgson who built off a strong 2015 debut campaign in the NRL and became inarguably the Raiders’ most important player as the team leapt from 10th on the ladder in 2015 to second

Start with the raw statistics where Hodgson had 16 try assists and 15 linebreak assists to lead all hookers. He also ran the ball well with a tick under 70 metres per game and was a useful option kicker for the Raiders averaging nearly three kicks per game.

But Hodgson’s contribution was about more than numbers as his professional temperament and consistency provided a strong foundation for the Raiders electric coterie of attacking weapons to thrive.

There was no player more singularly important for his team in 2016 and while he may not win the Dally M due to his suspension in Round 24 he was my player of the season.