The POPE has blessed the 2021 NRL team of the year. Today we look at the most underrated NRL players of 2021.
After looking at the bottom eight teams yesterday, let’s move on to the MVPs for the top eight clubs.
Manly Sea Eagles: Tom Trbojevic
It’s hard to look past his brother Jake, who will be the future Australian Kangaroos captain. But Manly’s MVP has to be Tom Trbojevic. After succumbing to another hamstring injury in Round 6, the Sea Eagles lost three on the trot without their superstar fullback, who at the time was leading the Dally M tally. Arguably the best fullback in the NRL, the electrifying Tommy Turbo in 2020 averages 156 running metres, 1.2 try assists and nearly one try per game, with the freakishly talented 23-year-old shaping as one of the best fullbacks the game has seen. Unfortunately prone to a recurring hamstring injury, if Trbojevic can remain fit and help his team reach a premiership berth then expect big things from this young man. He is a big-game player.
Cronulla Sharks: Wade Graham
Appearing in every game in 2020 so far and churning out 80-minute stints in nearly each of those games, the Cronulla captain plays a physical brand of footy with the incorporation of some silky ball skills making him one of the NRL’s top back rowers. A staple in the Sharks’ squad since 2011, Wade Graham is the adhesive in a line-up that without him would fall apart and they would fall considerably when accounting for the team’s patchy form this year. Cronulla are one of the under-achievers in the competition with a likely seventh or eighth-place finish and I guarantee that they would be going absolutely nowhere without their leader, Graham.
Newcastle Knights: Daniel Saifiti
Your first thought was Kalyn Ponga, right? Well the Newcastle prop’s role this year has been just as consistent and clinical as the injection of their fullback. Although Ponga may have one of the best running games in the competition, it is Daniel Saifiti who has emerged as one of the NRL’s primary prop forwards this year and a staple in the Newcastle squad. With his breakout season in 2019, the Fijian international made his State of Origin debut for the winning NSW team and is slowly developing into a future Kangaroo. With his 55-minute stints averaging 161 running metres as well as 33 tackles per game in only nine matches this year, Daniel Saifiti has not looked back after taking his game to the next level. At only 24 years of age, the prospective Knights captain has provided his side in 2020 with a platform from the front that has greatly assisted in creating opportunities from the back, with this hot-and-cold Newcastle Knights team crossing their fingers their young leader returns and remains fit for possibly their first grand final berth since 2001.
Canberra Raiders: Josh Papalii
Bouncing back drastically from some poor form toward the back end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, Josh Papalii has evolved into a Canberra Raiders leader since debuting for the club way back in 2011. The prop forward has an exemplary work rate on and off the ball in 2020, with an average of 161 running metres in his 60-minute stints per game as well as around 33 tackles in each of them with a near 100 per cent tackle efficiency – these statistics aren’t anything to scoff at. But it isn’t only stats that define Papalii, as his gumption in taking on the line repeatedly for those tough hit-ups in conjunction with his solid and aggressive tackling efforts makes him the primary player the Raiders would need for a shot at the 2020 premiership.
Sydney Roosters: Luke Keary
The man standing out in a starting line-up containing all representative players (minus Kyle Flanagan) is the Roosters’ five-eighth, Luke Keary. Although it’s difficult to look past reigning Dally M player of the year James Tedesco, without the expertise and finesse of the two-time Kangaroo in Keary, then Tedesco wouldn’t be flourishing as high. Luke Keary is the conductor of one of the strongest Roosters sides in history, playing every minute of every game this season, setting up at least one try per game and notching five for himself. He was the maestro in their 2018 and 2019 grand final victories and he is absolutely a must for their likely 2020 premiership defence. In other words: no Luke Keary, no three-peat for the Sydney Roosters.
Parramatta Eels: Dylan Brown
A young halfback that has developed his game tremendously since the restart of the 2020 NRL season, Dylan Brown seems to be in his element with the new rule changes, utilising the up-tempo speed of the game to his advantage with his crafty ball skills and wicked stepping game. An eager commander of the ball, the 20-year-old future New Zealand Test playmaker is already showing he is playing above his years, recording an average of 123 metres per match with his deadly running game from five-eighth, and will no doubt only be getting better. His maturity as a playmaker is evident when he is forcing at least one drop-out per game and displaying healthy try scoring, try assist and line-break assist stats, but also clocking an average of 26 tackles per game with a strike rate of 93 per cent completed tackles. He is slowly proving to be a vital cog in the hopes of Parramatta’s elusive premiership since 1986 and is a player that cannot be replaced if he were to be ruled out of their potential 2020 grand final match – the first they’ll be able to possibly contest since 2009.
Melbourne Storm: Cameron Smith
Not everyone may like him, but they must at least respect him. The NRL’s highest all-time point scorer, the first player to reach 400 NRL matches, the most appearances in State of Origin for Queensland, and the second most capped Australian Kangaroo in history – ladies and gentlemen, I present the greatest ever hooker in rugby league history. Cameron Smith has proven time and time again that he was always the man you revolved your team around. In his 19th season for the same club, Smith has always been the craftiest and most patient player that – luckily for Storm fans – has never been seriously injured, ensuring his ability to churn out 80-minute games each and every week, averaging 23 games per season. His proteges in Brandon Smith and Harry Grant are in great hands for their own development, and to avoid a repeat of the 2008 grand final, the Melbourne Storm will be doing everything they can to pencil in their number nine for their possible 2020 grand final appearance.
Penrith Panthers: Nathan Cleary
The Panthers are red hot in 2020, with their young halfback – and reformed TikTok offender – due much credit for their on-field success as the current ladder leaders of the competition. Owning his role as the primary playmaker of the team, Nathan Cleary has been instrumental in Penrith’s six victories on the trot and is proving to be not only the Panthers’ long-term solution to the number seven jersey, but New South Wales and Australia’s in the not too distant future as well. With nearly 100 metres clocked each game and an average of 518 kicking metres to boot, the commander of the Penrith Panthers is leading the team towards their first grand final berth since 2003, which is seemingly a likely feat with Nathan Cleary steering the way. Come grand final time, hopefully there isn’t a smartphone around with TikTok downloaded on it for him to play with: the Panthers need you.