Over the last few days, the Sydney Morning Herald‘s player poll has been slowly rolled out, with the results stemming from accolades such as “Who is the best second-rower in the comp”, or more notably, “Who is the best player in the NRL”.
Roosters fullback and overall weapon James Tedesco took out this year’s nod by a whopping 28 per cent over the runner up, Cowboys lock Jason Taumalolo. Coming in third, notably, was the last two years’ winner, Cameron Smith.
As an added note, I don’t believe the top three should be any different. Those three players are head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the competition.
Once I saw the margin Tedesco won by, I was surprised. I do not hate on Tedesco’s talent, I do not hate on his success, but I can’t help but think that Cam Smith still reigns supreme.
Coming into his 19th season, the all-time games record holder is 37 years old. There were questions raised after a sloppy showing against the Raiders (post-COVID return), asking if his style could cope with the faster style of play. Not only has he adapted, he has sounded the alarm bells to the whole competition, to show he is still the best player in the competition. Not only is he influential (cue the ref jokes, sigh), but he seems to be in the moment for the big moments.
My biggest comparison for Tedesco versus Smith (sorry, Taumalolo) was in their recent blockbuster clash. Tedesco was relatively quiet. His run metres look appeasing to the stat watchers, but in the big moments, Tedesco didn’t take the game by the horns and will his team home.
Not only was Smith playing out of position, he was as influential as anyone else. He was able to sink a huge kick with minutes to go to put the Storm ahead by two. He then fooled the Roosters’ defence prior to dishing to Ryan Papenhuyzen for the field goal and sink the game-winning penalty off a smart option to hit Dale Finucane on a run in which they were heavily hitting their strides.
The game turned on its head when Smith went into hooker, as the Storm hit their strides to storm home and beat the Roosters – all done on the back of Smith’s brilliance. Head to head, Smith outshone Tedesco in a huge way (as did his fullback opposite, Ryan Papenhuyzen).
Tedesco is only an attack-first player. His positional play is getting much better in defence, but I still think there are better fullbacks defensively than him.
Does Tedesco hate the bright lights? I think so. Before the hate can come my way in the comments, yes, he scored the winning try in Origin last year and yes, he scored the winning try in the grand final last year, but is no one giving their due respect to Blake Ferguson or Latrell Mitchell or Daniel Tupou for creating those moments?
When it has mattered, Tedesco has disappeared in big moments and allowed his teammates such as Cooper Cronk or Luke Keary or Latrell Mitchell do the hard yards, then back up on the inside for the finishing touch – the touch everyone seems to only remember.
Do I think Tedesco isn’t the second best player in the comp? Hell no! He is still arguably the best. His peers think so. Who am I to doubt that?
But from my perspective, I still think there is a whistle in the woods that people will always think Smith reigns as long as he plays.
Smith, Tedesco or Taumalolo. However you have them ranked, it is not wrong. They’re out and out the best three players in the competition, bar none.
And for the doubters, yes, a referee can still be considered a great player.
Hate him or love him, Smith is just that good.