Tom Trbojevic’s 2021 season was stupendous.
He scored 27 tries and had 28 try assists in 17 games, capped off by being the NRL’s best and fairest, winning the Dally M Medal and he thoroughly deserved it.
He was the main reason why Manly – who started the season 0-4 – managed to make the top four. In addition, he won player of the series in this year’s State of Origin.
Trbojevic truly had one of the great seasons, but some people are suggesting he had one of the best individual seasons ever, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
The greatest season that springs to memory was Peter Sterling in 1986 when he won the Dally M, the Clive Churchill medal, RLW Player of the Year, and the grand final, and was a part of the NSW Origin side that won 3-0. And to top it off he was vice-captain when Australia went 20-0 on tour where they were donned ‘The Unbeatable’.
Or even Darren Lockyer captained his club to a grand final win, won the 2006 Origin series where he won the Wally Lewis medal, he won the Golden Boot and guided the Kangaroos to Tri-Nations glory.
Or even Cameron Smith in 2017 when he captained Melbourne to premiership success in the grand final, plus Queensland won the State of Origin and the Kangaroos won the World Cup.
It is hard to compare Trbojevic’s season with the gentlemen mentioned above but an argument can be made as Trbojevic played in less superior teams to Sterling, Lockyer and Smith and it is unfair to compare plus they played the different positions so you cannot have a direct comparison.
So you want to say Trbojevic had the best run of form by a fullback? The answer is no. Jarryd Hayne’s 2009 season was still better than Trbojevic’s even though at first glance you see Hayne’s stats – 14 tries and 19 try assists – and you think it is not even close that Trbojevic wins.
But upon further inspection and take context into it, you may come to different conclusions.
First of all, the reason is to look at the teams and supporting casts both players had. Trbojevic had premiership-winning halves in Kieran Foran, New Zealand five-eighth, and Daly Cherry-Evans, Australian halfback while Jarryd Hayne had Daniel Mortimer and Jeff Robson, and that was one of the worst halves pairings that year.
Trbojevic had many breaks and tries created by his halves and his brilliance was able to convert his half chances into points but it cannot be understated how much harder it was for Hayne, who didn’t have the luxury of star halves who were able to help Trbojevic.
Hayne was even a primary kicker – something that Trbojevic wasn’t. He even kicked three 40-20s that year – a rarity for a fullback.
The 2009 and 2021 styles of play are so diametrically opposed it must be taken in as a factor. 2009 was one of the prime years of the wrestle, where the rucks were slower, giving a great advantage to the defence.
In 2009 there were also ten interchanges compared to eight now, allowing for more fatigue. While in 2021 new rules like no scrums from kicks into touch, the six-again rule and the crackdown on head-high tackles meant a change in tackle technique once again makes it even harder for the defence.
This has resulted in an attacking bonanza. Reuben Garrick broke the regular-season record for points, being the first person to score 300 points (Trbojevic had something to do with that).
Souths and Manly broke club records for points while Melbourne scored the second most points in NRL history and fell 24 points shy of the record despite playing two fewer games than the record holders, the 2001 Eels.
In fact, 2021 had 900 points scored more than in 2009, so it is easy to see that in 2021 stats are inflated and can’t be compared to pre-2020. Imagine if Hayne played with these relaxed rules.
Tom Trbojevic scored 27 tries, four of them in particular against the Sharks, Titans, Warriors and Cowboys were breathtaking. However, he scored ten tries this year from backing up in support like every great fullback should but the players who put him in a position to score those tries should receive the majority of the credit.
On the other hand, Hayne scored zero tries from backing up from a line break made by his teammates. This once again demonstrates the 2009 Eels lack strike. When you’re relying on hot-and-cold Krisnan Inu and Feleti Mateo, you can see why the Eels were bad before Hayne’s form kicked in.
Even in try assists, Trbojevic had plenty that were the result of the great set plays, in particular the block play with a sweeping fullback. He used his class and pass selection to set up many tries but once again this is more about great coaching and rehearsal of these plays by the team as a collective or more so Trbojevic’s individual brilliance.
My last point and reason why Trbojevic’s season was not as good as Hayne’s is simply in the big games that really mattered against the top teams, Trbojevic won zero games and was kept relatively quiet in those games. Also in the finals Trbojevic was missing against Melbourne, he played well against a depleted Roosters side and again didn’t do much in the preliminary final against Souths.
Hayne beat every team in the top four at least once while in the finals he scored of the greatest finals tries en route to beating the first-placed Dragons in the finals. He starred in his knock-out semi against the third-placed Titans where he was close to scoring another classic try, and he beat the second-placed Bulldogs in the preliminary final.
In the grand final, the Storm did contain him, but when you also remember the Storm were cheating and were over $1 million over the salary cap and had an all-star team, it does kind of give Hayne a pass that it took an illegally assembled team to stop him and prevent one of the greatest runs of form in the game winning a premiership.
Trbojevic was great and I kind of don’t enjoy criticising him as he is such a likeable and humble person and considering Hayne’s latest off-field dramas I am not his biggest fan. But you cannot let that cloud your judgement when assessing on-the-field performance.
Trbojevic’s inability to produce against the top teams when it really mattered, plus current rules, which inflate his stats, knocks his season below Jarryd Hayne’s 2009 season.