The New Daily’s third annual NRL Team of the Year saw a panel of judges assembled for the first time.
Big League journalist and rugby league author Will Evans, The Guardian journalist and rugby league author Nick Tedeschi, veteran NZ Herald rugby league scribe Michael Burgess, and rugby league historian and Rugby League Project founder Andrew Ferguson sifted through a host of worthy contenders to pick their best 17 of the 2016 regular season.
Their votes were compiled to put together this stellar line-up:
Ben Barba’s brilliant renaissance at Cronulla wasn’t enough to wrest the fullback spot in our Team of the Year from Wests Tigers’ James Tedesco. An unfortunate run of injuries restricted Tedesco to just 17 NRL appearances, but 14 tries and 15 try assists saw the NSW Origin debutant win favour with three judges.
Canberra’s devastating right edge three-quarter pairing of Jordan Rapana and Joey Leilua were two of only four unanimous choices in the composite line-up. The pair have terrorised opposition defences for the rampant Raiders, racking up 31 tries, 36 line-breaks, 16 try assists and 247 tackle breaks between them.
Rapana looms as a near-certainty for the Kiwis’ Four Nations squad, while Leilua is a definite smoky for a Kangaroos debut.
With two votes, Warriors powerhouse Solomone Kata clinched the other centre spot ahead of Raiders captain Jarrod Croker and versatile Shark Jack Bird. Arguably the Warriors’ best player in an ultimately disappointing 2016 campaign for the club, Kata scored 15 tries in a dynamic and ultra-consistent sophomore season in first grade.
Valentine Holmes, one of only two survivors from the 2015 Team of the Year, secured his place on the flank with three votes, though the likes of Tom Trbojevic, David Nofoaluma, Josh Mansour, and rookies Suliasi Vunivalu and Bevan French wouldn’t have looked out of place in a vintage season for wingers.
There was no debate in the halves – Sharks five-eighth James Maloney and Storm halfback Cooper Cronk were selected by all four judges.
No one came close to unseating Maloney in a curiously quiet year for the premiership’s No.6s, while Cronk’s competition-high 23 try assists and peerless direction ousted 2014-15 Dally M medallist Johnathan Thurston and boom Titans rookie Ashley Taylor.
Melbourne’s Jesse Bromwich became the only player to win selection in The New Daily’s Team of the Year three seasons running, taking the first prop berth with three votes. Gold Coast firebrand Ryan James pipped Wests Tigers captain Aaron Woods for the other front-row spot in a tiebreaker after both enforcers received two starting line-up votes and a bench nomination each.
Controversial Shark Andrew Fifita was the only other prop to get a mention.
Englishman Josh Hodgson has been a revelation in the Raiders’ No.9 jumper this season, and claimed the hooker position in the Team of the Year from Cameron Smith and Michael Ennis with three votes.
Second-row was the most contentious position, with seven different players nominated. In-demand Broncos workhorse Matt Gillett was the only second-rower to earn two votes, while another British Raider, Elliot Whitehead, sealed the other spot after also receiving a bench vote from one of the judges.
Josh Jackson, Ethan Lowe, Josh Papalii, Tohu Harris and Tyson Frizell were the other second-rowers to get recognition.
Cowboys bulldozer Jason Taumalolo was a resounding choice at lock, named in the starting pack by three judges and on the bench by the other, who preferred Sea Eagles tyro Jake Trbojevic. In a hot field of No.13s, Trbojevic, Trent Merrin, Simon Mannering and Paul Gallen all picked up bench nominations.
Earning the most votes without snaring a spot in the starting 13, Ryan James, Ben Barba, and Manly brothers Jake and Tom Trbojevic make up the four-man bench in the Team of the Year. Ennis, Canterbury skipper James Graham, and Penrith duo Matt Moylan and Bryce Cartwright also received a solitary bench vote from the panel.
The judges came up with four different nominations for Coach of the Year honours: Parramatta’s Brad Arthur, Cronulla’s Shane Flanagan, Penrith’s Anthony Griffin and Gold Coast’s Neil Henry.
Canberra coach Ricky Stuart will surely go close to collecting the gong at the Dally Ms, but Neil Henry’s efforts at the helm of the massively overachieving Titans earned him the nod for The New Daily’s team after a guest tiebreaker was consulted.
The Raiders were easily the best-represented club with four players in the Team of the Year starting line-up, while the Sharks had three players in the 17, the Tigers, Storm and Sea Eagles had two each, and one player from the Warriors, Titans, Broncos and Cowboys made the cut.
Despite qualifying for the finals, the Panthers and Bulldogs didn’t contribute any players, while there was no acknowledgement for also-rans the Rabbitohs, Dragons, Eels, Roosters or Knights.
Australians unsurprisingly dominated with 10 selections, but there was room for two New Zealand and two England internationals, along with a Test rep from Tonga, the Cook Islands (who are both eligible for the Kiwis) and Samoa (who has pledged his allegiance to the Kangaroos).
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