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The Roar’s top 50 NRL players for 2018: 10-1

JT's farewell tour has continued. (AAP Image/Darren England)
Expert
1st March, 2018
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We’ve now come to the top ten and I’m happy to say that only 13 of the 50 rankings our top ten received were 11 and above – and only three were outside the top 20.

So for all of our stoushes about who should be in the top 50, there is a fair bit of harmony when it comes to the top ten.

Further still, there was close to total agreement on the top five.

10: Tom Trbojevic
I had the fortune of being on the sideline for ABC Grandstand during Turbo Tom’s debut game, in Round 5, 2015. The game was at Lavington Sports ground in Albury and the Raiders beat a lacklustre Sea Eagles that day.

However, the tall, skinny streak that is Tom Trbojevic stood out, scoring two tries.

After the match I interviewed the 6’4″ 18-year-old and he was friendly, modest and accommodating. I instantly liked him. He seemed like a lovely young man.

And oh my God, can he play.

He runs like the wind blows and finds holes in defensive lines with amazing regularity. In 2017 he averaged 174 metres a game and 3.6 tackle breaks. Add to that 12 tries, 21 line breaks, 16 try assists and 13 line break assists. He’s already played for Australia and should force his way into sky blue in 2018.

And not only is he a superb footy player, he’s also smart. Trbojevic scored 94.3 per cent on his HSC and is studying a double degree in applied finance and economics.

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Sea Eagles player Tom Trbojevic

AAP Image/Dave Hunt

9: Boyd Cordner
It seems like Boyd Cordner has been around for ages. From Taree, NSW, he lost his mother to cancer when he was just four, so he and older brother Dane were raised by their father, Chris.

His brother and father would be rightly proud of him too.

He debuted for the Roosters off the bench just shy of his 19th birthday, in Round 13, 2011. In the following six seasons he has won a premiership, played 16 games for Australia, nine games for NSW, has an NRL winning percentage of 60 per cent and captains both his club and state.

In 2017, he was the Tricolours’ leading metre-gaining player, with 140 a game from 15 runs – all while averaging 31 tackles.

One of the few NSW players who was not found wanting in the final two games of the 2017 State of Origin series, Cordner leads by example and his example is superb.

Not yet 26 years old, Cordner is a fantastic player and leader.

Boyd Cordner NSW Blues State of Origin NRL Rugby League 2017 tall

AAP Image/Dan Peled

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8: Sam Burgess
The only foot that the big Yorkshireman has set wrong in his sporting career was his flirtation with rugby union, where he was never able to dominate like he has in league.

Debuting for the Bradford Bulls in 2006, he was called Great Britain’s Sonny Bill Williams. While not a precise comparison, Burgess’ impact on the game of rugby league has at least matched – if not well exceeded – that of the code-hopping Kiwi.

At 6’5″ and 116 kilos, the second oldest of the Burgii has attacked the game like a relentless and possessed warrior. Like his fellow Rabbitohs brethren John Sattler, his defining moment to date has been to carry a smashed cheekbone through all 80 minutes of the 2014 NRL grand final. Most of us would have been unconscious and en route to the hospital, but Burgess made 199 metres from 22 runs and 35 tackles. He duly received the Clive Churchill medal for that mammoth effort.

Since his return from his rugby union sojourn, his impact has been a bit down and limited by injury, yet he has still averaged 121 metres a game from 15 runs, while making 34 tackles.

A must in any Supercoach side, Sam Burgess is still a massive force in the NRL.

Sam Burgess hugged by Russell Crowe

AAP Image/Paul Miller

7: James Tedesco
Out of all five judges, I rated Tedesco the highest, but four of us had him in our top ten. How is that possible for a player who has played just 90 NRL games, with a winning percentage of 34 per cent? Mostly because any chance that his former side had to win games rested with the fleet-footed fullback.

The boy from a Camden Farm has the blatant potential to emulate Billy Slater, especially now he’ll be working for Cooper Cronk. Already having scored 50 tries in his career, in 2017 Tedesco averaged 17 runs a game for 165 metres, and 7.7 tackle breaks. That was the best of any player in the NRL.

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Not only is Tedesco incredibly quick, it’s like he’s got spiders on him and now he’s in a side with true premiership credentials and a better draw than the Sundance Kid.

If he stays injury free, he’ll score over 20 tries in 2018 and just maybe even play in a winning State of Origin team.

Tedesco-Origin

James Tedesco (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

6: Michael Morgan
Canberra nights get cold. Really cold. When the Cowboys rode into town on July 1, 2017, the nation’s capital put on one of its special efforts – the apparent temperature went down to minus 11.

On the sideline for ABC Grandstand, I was wearing so many layers that I looked like a parody of the Michelin Man – and I was still freezing. Surely the boys from North Queensland would seize up in that brutal, unfamiliar cold. Right?

Wrong.

Michael Morgan, taking charge of the Cowboys in the absence of the injured Johnathan Thurston, put on a masterclass. He scored two tries, put on two more and treated us to a sublime kicking and passing display that put the Raiders away.

It became clear that, far from throwing in the towel with the injury to their talismanic leader, Paul Green’s men still believed they could go all the way –
and that Michael Morgan could take them there.

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I asked him in the post-match interview if he actually believed that he could lead the side to glory. Refreshingly, instead of deflecting the question and mumbling clichés like “all credit to the boys” or “I just concentrate on my job,” Morgan said yes.

Standing there, in minus 11 degrees, in sweat-soaked shorts and jersey – and with a big smile and those dreamy blue eyes – Morgan made it clear that he was up for the challenge. That he relished it. He had me at yes.

And how close did he come… While the Storm cruelled the fairy tale on grand final day, there was no doubt that in 2017 Morgan had arrived as a giant of the game.

Michael Morgan NRL Finals North Queensland Cowboys Rugby League 2017

Michael Morgan really stepped up for the Cowboys. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

5: Billy Slater
My wife hates rugby league. She barely knows anything about the game and can barely name a player.

But she loves Billy Slater. She knows who he is and knows he is a great player. Why? Because Billy Slater is such an exciting and dynamic player that even people who don’t like the game know him. He transcends the game. He’s won everything that a league player can win.

While such things as his studs-out sliding haven’t endeared him to some, there is no question that the former track worker from Innisfail has been a superstar for the Storm, Australia and Queensland. He can sniff out a gap and a try, and he runs like a whippet. The amount of times he has made the crucial play is beyond count.

It was no coincidence that the return of Slater to the Maroons in Game 2 of 2017 saw them retake the ascendency. He knows how to win. He expects to win. And he is also tough as an old boot.

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I thought his shoulder injuries were going to end his stellar career – or at least dampen his genius – but his 2017 season was as good as ever. His return of 11 tries, 15 line breaks, 16 line break assists and 17 try assists were superb. Add to that match averages of 13 runs for 120 metres and 4.1 tackle breaks.

All that at the age of 34.

‘Billy The Kid’ has played 30 games for Australia, 29 for Queensland and 299 for the Storm. He has won 257 of those 358 games for a 72 per cent win rate, while scoring 222 tries. His 183 tries in the NRL see him second only to Ken Irvine.

When he runs out for his 300th game in Round 1, against the Bulldogs (just the tenth player to play 300 games for one club) in Perth, he’ll be three months off his 35th birthday but no one will be stupid enough to think his star has waned.

And what a star he is.

Billy Slater runs the ball for the Maroons in State of Origin

Billy Slater (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

4: Cooper Cronk
Unlike his long-term teammate Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk is not a freak talent. So how does a player without freak talent get into the top ten NRL players, let alone the top four?

Because he is the last word in dedication to the cause.

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Everything he has got has been earned through discipline, hard work, and a fanatical application to gameplans and preparation. His teammate Will Chambers was interviewed before Australia’s World Cup game in Darwin and he attributed his own rise to the top echelons of the game to his time living with Cronk:

“He got me to eat the same things, at the same times. Go to sleep at the same time, wake up at the same time. It drives my missus mad.”

That’s Cooper Patrick Cronk to a tee. He’ll drive you mad with his obsessive discipline. He’ll grind you down with his relentless precision and pressure. And he won’t relent. He is the NRL’s version of the Terminator. And just like Kyle Reese told Sarah Connor, “[he] can’t be bargained with. [he] can’t be reasoned with. [he] doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And [he] absolutely will not stop, ever.”

The best defensive halfback in the competition, his whole game is based around controlling the game and he does it better than anyone. His chase down of a flying James Tedesco in Game 3 of the 2016 State of Origin series demonstrated not just his great speed but also his sheer will to win – even in a dead rubber. A superb player.

Cooper Cronk

Cooper Cronk (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

3: Jason Taumololo
What do you say about this bloke… He’s like a bull running on its hind legs. But a bull with incredible speed, step and a capacity for massive collisions that Mal Meninga circa 1989 would admire. He is a behemoth.

And he’s not a flash in the pan either. Named the Dally M lock of the year in 2015 and 2016, he also tied for the Dally M player of the year with Cooper Cronk in ’16. Rightly so.

His 2017 statistics were even better than both those seasons. Last year he averaged 18 runs for 192 metres a match. Throw in 4.7 tackle breaks and 29 tackles and you have the best forward in the game.

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Every side knows that to beat the Cowboys you need to control Taumololo but no side really has been able to do it.

His inclusion for the Mate Ma’a Tonga – along with that of Andrew Fifita – injected some real excitement into the World Cup, because Taumololo is a world beater. The minnow nation’s journey to the semi-final was the story of the World Cup and at the forefront of that drive was the huge Cowboy. It was exciting and exhilarating.

Just shy of his 25th birthday – and with Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston back on deck – Taumololo is set for even greater things in 2018 as the Cowboys make a serious tilt at their second premiership. And you can bet that there will be scores of defenders left sprawled in the wake of Jason Taumololo.

Jason Taumalolo runs the ball

Jason Taumalolo (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

2: Cameron Smith
There’s a lot of talk about who will be named the next Immortal. Norm Provan and Mal Meninga feature heavily in this debate. Both are worthy.

One thing is virtually certain though: Cam Smith will one day be named an Immortal.

Queensland legend Billy Moore told me that when Smith was first called up into the Maroons team in 2003 he had little idea who he was. Further, he thought he was too small to make a fist of hooker in the fiercest contest that exists in rugby league. He thought that Smith would be a liability.

Moore is now first to admit just how wrong he was and that it only took two matches for him to know that Smith was a very special player.

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Cam Smith has played more games of first grade rugby league in Australia than any other player, with 358. He has played more games for Queensland than any other player, with 42. His 56 games for Australia are only three shy of Darren Lockyer’s record. He has a winning percentage of 71 per cent when playing with the Storm. Since 2004 the only time he has not played in the NRL finals was in 2010, when his side was stripped points for breaking the salary cap.

He has played in six grand finals, winning four of them. The only prize that has alluded him in the game of rugby league is the Clive Churchill Medal – something his 70 tackles in the 2016 grand final would certainly have earned him had Andrew Fifita not had the game of his life, even if it was Luke Lewis who took home the medal.

But he’s not done yet. The Storm are genuine contenders again this year – even without Cronk – because Smith is the captain.

Sure, his record has some blemishes. Head grapples, two contracts and such thing as targeting an opponent’s injury off the ball show that he will do whatever it takes. He is no saint.

However, I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I’d have him in my team given the chance. And so would you.

The best game manager rugby league has ever seen.

cameron-smith-australia-kangaroos-rugby-league-four-nations-2016-tall

Simon Cooper/PA via AP

1: Johnathan Thurston
So why does Thurston get the nod in front of Smith when he hasn’t had the same degree of club success? Because Johnathan Thurston is a freak.

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Smith relies lots on game management, something the powers that be have allowed in this era. Thurston would be a great in any era.

There have been two moments when I have simply been in awe of the great JT.

The Cowboys’ semi-final against the Roosters in 2014 saw the boys from North Queensland down by 30 points to the premiers. The game was surely gone. But no one told JT. He put on a show of brilliant and audacious footy like I’ve rarely seen to lead his side back to 30-all.

Similarly, his orchestration of the 24-point run-down of Parramatta in Round 13, 2015, again showed him to be the most dangerous player in the competition.

Like Shane Warne at his peak, Thurston can send panic and disorder into teams who are in positions where they should win easily. And he can do that because his teammates believe in his abilities and totally buy in.

He is a freak and it has been a privilege to watch him – even when he is beating my boys.

Further, he has developed into a great man.

After the State of Origin match when he looked into the camera and told the kids in Arakun to stay in school and that it was vital they did, he used his influence to short-circuit a massive problem in that community for everyone’s benefit.

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Not just the best in the game right now but possibly the best player I’ve ever seen.