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Time to step up: The eight players who can confirm their greatness in the intensity of NRL finals

7th September, 2023
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7th September, 2023
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The chasm that exists between home and away football and the brand of rugby league we see in finals in considerable.

Sure, the game remains essentially the same, however the official’s whistles are traditionally blown a little less eagerly, the contests become more of an intense grind and the margins for error when it comes to completing sets and making tackles narrows.

Within that environment, it is the games biggest names that step up and stamp themselves on finals football. As an excellent week to week footballer who never played or starred in a finals campaign, you are simply not a member of the top class.

In recent times we have Nathan Cleary, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston do exactly that. Earlier, it was Greg Inglis, Darren Lockyer, Andrew Johns and Brett Kimmorley who did the business and led their teams through tough finals campaigns.

As far back as the 1980’s and 90s, the men most able to produce when things really mattered were names like Ray Price, Steve Mortimer, Mal Meninga, Terry Lamb, Laurie Daley and Allan Langer.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 27: Cooper Cronk warms up during the Melbourne Storm NRL training session at Gosch's Paddock on February 27, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Robert Prezioso/Getty Images)

Cooper Cronk is one of the modern greats who forged his reputation in the NRL finals. (Photo by Robert Prezioso/Getty Images)

Week 1 of the NRL finals presents the opportunity for key players to stamp their greatness on the competition and begin a month of inspiring play that could ultimately lead to a premiership.

For the Broncos, it is Adam Reynolds. One of the finest organisational halves in the history of the game, Reynolds excels in the big moments, when the fundamentals of rugby league are most tested and most important.

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The 33-year-old does not need a second premiership to confirm his status in the game, yet guiding the Broncos to the title across the next month would be arguably his greatest achievement in rugby league .

Melbourne’s Cameron Munster already has Origin representation, two premierships and a Wally Lewis Medal to his name. However, should his freakish ability with ball in hand steer the Storm to yet another premiership, there will be little more for him to achieve in the game.

This time around, it would be an achievement without any of the legendary supporting cast that formed the nucleus of the Storm spine for so many years. Munster was very rough around the edges early in his career, yet has now matured into a player of rare quality.

For Melbourne to win, his performances over the coming weeks will need to be nothing short of stunning.

Whilst Nathan Cleary is undoubtedly the best half-back of his generation, Isaah Yeo continues to play an equally important role for the back-to-back premiership wining Penrith machine.

A gifted five-eighth trapped in a back-rower’s body, Yeo’s ability to organise, compose the attack and send others into gaps with dexterous offloads is sublime. Another Penrith premiership off the back of his performances would end any doubt around who is the greatest ball-playing forward of the current era.

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Whilst one of the most gifted players in the NRL, Shaun Johnson remains unfulfilled in terms of finals success and representation. After a long stint with the Warriors, and three years with the Sharks from 2019-21, his return to New Zealand has coincided with the emergence of coach Andrew Webster and a 16-win season.

At 32, Johnson is potentially in the best form of his life and running out of chances to take a finals series by the scruff of the neck and present an elusive premiership to the shaky isles. That possible scenario is perhaps one of the most romantic heading into the next month.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 26: Shaun Johnson of the Warriors celebrates his try during the round four NRL match between New Zealand Warriors and Canterbury Bulldogs at Mt Smart Stadium on March 26, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Few have been better in 2023 than Shaun Johnson. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Nicho Hynes has a Dally M Medal to show for his class, professionalism and composure, yet plays for a club that fails often against the top sides. Insulted time and time again at Origin level, the justice of a glittering finals performance from one of the most poplar players in the game is an appealing one.

If anyone does still doubt his rightful place alongside the greats of the current competition, a Sharks charge with Hynes at the helm might finally convince them of his quality.

It has been a mixed season for James Tedesco, yet the late run of the Roosters has seen him return to better form; as the team rose from the ashes after looking cooked by Round 12 and remaining out of the top eight until the final week of the season.

Calls for his head at the selection table were pre-emptive, yet at 30 and with a metre or two of speed having been scrubbed from his legs, questions around his future were potentially fair.

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Another player with nothing to prove, a third premiership from seventh position on the ladder with Tedesco instrumental, would simply hush many who overstated the looming end of the road.

A far less dramatic season without major concerns around concussions and head knocks has seen Kalyn Ponga find consistency and poise in his play that has never previously been possible in a hit and miss Newcastle team.

Now, on a winning run that sees the Knights as one of the form teams entering the finals, Ponga has the opportunity to win his first title and escape the historical group of great players who achieved glittering careers without ever scaling the mountain.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - JULY 29: Kalyn Ponga of the Knights in action during the round 22 NRL match between Canberra Raiders and Newcastle Knights at GIO Stadium on July 29, 2023 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Much of Newcastle’s hope rests with Kalyn Ponga. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Newcastle simply cannot do it without him, and the pressure to perform will be immense. Should he rise to it and take the Knights all the way it will be well worth watching.

When Jack Wighton announced that he would be leaving the Raiders to join South Sydney back in April, the utility copped plenty of undeserved flak. Canberra coach Ricky Stuart stood by one of the club’s favourite sons amid the furore and the 30-year-old has put together another impressive season.

His 241 games for the Green Machine had many fans emotionally torn, yet there would be no better way to end his time in the nation’s capital than with a vintage finals campaign. A premiership added to Wighton achieving everything possible in term of representative football, would cap a career set to be completed in Sydney.

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It is all there to play for and the eight men above have opportunity to confirm their rugby league greatness, starting in Week 1 of the finals.

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