Come the end of round 26, all attention turns to the final series, with only the occasional stop to read everyone’s team of the year.
Below are the 13 I believe have performed above and beyond in 2016. I have not taken into account the side players usually play on, and have just chosen the best performers in each position and placed them in the side where they fit.
Fullback: Ben Barba (Sharks)
Despite a quite last month-or-so, the Sharks number one has stood above the likes of Tedesco and Munster in 2016. He was the spark in almost everything the Sharks did during their record-breaking winning streak. A genuine match winner in the Shire, Barba is his side’s number one weapon heading into the finals. If he can re-find the form he showed throughout the mid rounds of 2016, the porch light may just continue to flicker.
Wing: Jordan Rapana (Raiders)
Jordan Rapana has gone from a serviceable winger to arguably the most destructive outside back in the competition over the past 26 rounds. There may not be a more exciting winger in the competition than Rapana, who has scored tries for fun in 2016. He has improved incredibly across all facets of his game, however, it’s the highlight reel line breaks and tries that will see him claim winger of the year honours at the Dally Ms.
Centre: Joseph Leilua (Raiders)
A certain degree of Rapana’s magnificence can be attributed to his inside man Joey Leilua, who himself has undergone a huge transformation in 2016. Leilua has developed his game beyond belief in the capital, and provided the season’s best try assist last Sunday with a ridiculous around the back pass. His tackle breaks and offload stats were off the charts, and he shapes as the green machine’s ace come finals time.
Centre: Jarrod Croker (Raiders)
The only man who will rival Leilua for centre of the year honours is his fellow Raider centre Jarrod Croker, who himself has also enjoyed a career-best year. If the Origin side was selected tomorrow, you’d have to think Croker would be amongst the first players chosen. I don’t know what is in the water in Canberra these days, but he too has improved out of sight. Another Raiders outside back with his own highlight reel in 2016.
Wing: Suliasi Vunivalu (Storm)
The only non-Raider to make the outside backs, Vunivalu broke all sorts of try-scoring records this season despite not debuting in the top grade until round seven. His ability to turn one try into two, or three, or even four, has made him one of the most dangerous wingers in the game. Almost untouchable in the air, lightning fast, and physically massive, this kid could be anything.
Five-Eighth: James Maloney (Sharks)
Some would argue that Maloney hasn’t had a 2016 to match his 2015, but across the entire season, I can’t think of anyone who contributed more, so consistently, to his team’s success. Much like Barba, his form has dipped slightly, but fans only need to cast their minds back two months to where Maloney and Barba were directing an almost irresistible Sharks side around. If Maloney finds top form, the Sharks are back in the title hunt.
Halfback: Cooper Cronk (Storm)
Despite Nathan Cleary’s late-season brilliance, Cooper Cronk’s efforts across 26 rounds, minus those games missed due to Origin or injury, see him maintain his hold as one of the best two halfbacks in the game (Thurston, of course, being the other). He may very well battle it out with fellow Storm superstar Cam Smith for yet another Dally M medal.
Prop: Jesse Bromwich (Storm)
Bromwich has arguably assumed the mantle of the game’s best front rower after yet another brilliant season. If I were picking a world 13, he’d be the first forward picked. Leading from the front, he has helped lay a platform for the Storm that saw them unmatched across 26 rounds. Although the likes of Cronk, Smith and Munster grab the headlines, Jesse’s efforts are equally important to the Storm’s success.
Hooker: Josh Hodgson (Raiders)
I never thought I’d type anyone else’s name here other than Cameron Smith, but despite the Kangaroo captain’s 9/10 season, Josh Hodgson may have produced a 10/10. He may very well land the Dally M medal on the back of the most consistently brilliant season I can remember from a hooker not named Cameron. He can do it all, but the way he has distributed the early ball, and the way he can quickly read the numbers, has made his side far more dangerous.
Prop: Ryan James (Titans)
Although Hodgson and Cronk are favourites, Ryan James may pip them both for the highest individual honour. He has been nothing short of destructive, busting tackles, defences and opposition forwards all season. How he wasn’t in the frame for Origin is beyond me, however surely that’s not a mistake that will be repeated in 2017 and beyond. James has found the try line consistently but it’s his ability to bend defensive lines and play the ball quickly that make him the game’s form front rower.
Second Row: Bryce Cartwright (Panthers)
Edging out his teammate Trent Merrin, I believe Cartwright is the most natural ball playing back rower in the competition. His move to five-eighth has seen him develop his game further although he played most of the season at, and I see his future in, the back row somewhere. Although his defence is still under the spotlight, his ability to offload, find a gap or even put a kick through, has made him the game’s most dangerous forward.
Second Row: Ethan Lowe (Cowboys)
If the above selection didn’t cause some stir, this one might, but I can’t think of a player more dominant in the back row than Ethan Lowe this season. Even when the Cowboys were in a slump, Lowe was amongst the best forwards, and players, on the park in almost every game. Arguably the most underrated player in the game.
Lock: Jason Taumalolo (Cowboys)
Across all 16 sides, Taumalolo is the player I would least want running at me if I were in a defensive line. This man mountain continues to break tackles with ease and is racking up super human metres-made stats. If he can continue to lift his minutes played, he’ll certainly be next in line to take over the likes of Gallen and Parker as the game’s best number 13, if he hasn’t already. Some, myself included, would argue that he has.