Goal kicking decided the 2021 NRL premiership.
A commonly overlooked, yet enormously critical difference-maker to any close game in the NRL is goal kicking, and that was proven on grand final day this year.
You only have to go back to Week 2 of the finals before that to find out when it was last a difference-maker in a match result, with Cleary’s penalty goal proving the eventual difference in a low-scoring slogfest against the Parramatta Eels.
It often gets mentioned that refereeing could one day decide a grand final and the NRL premiership, and this year, it did.
But just who were the competition’s top goal-kickers in 2021, and who did it best under pressure.
For the purpose of this analysis, we have called 50 attempts at goal as the minimum cut off for the season.
10. Nicho Hynes (Melbourne Storm)
78 attempts, 58 goals, 74.4%
Hynes was hardly put under the pump all that often taking shots at goal in the 2021 season, due to Melbourne's extreme dominance in every aspect of the competition.
When you have a team averaging close to 40 points per game though, it's hard to say the goal kicking was poor. Hynes kicked at a tick under 75 per cent and sneaks onto the end of this list.
He had some excellent days with the boot, including kicking nine goals in a Round 15 thumping of the Tigers, and eight in a Round 18 pasting of the Knights.
Expect Hynes to be the first-choice kicking option when he arrives in the Shire next season.
9. Mitchell Moses (Parramatta Eels)
88 attempts, 66 goals, 75.0%
Moses kicked at exactly three out of four goals this season, and it certainly made a difference at times for the Eels.
As early as Round 2 in a win over the Melbourne, his boot had a say, but he also kicked four goals in an eight-point win over the Newcastle Knights during the elimination final, critically putting pressure on the men from the Hunter at the most important of times.
Given he had only just returned to kicking duties after coming back from injury, the performance against Newcastle was all the better.
He's not the player you'd want kicking for your life, but he certainly has the ability to make a positive impact for the blue and gold.
8. Jamal Fogarty (Gold Coast Titans)
Fogarty kicked 70 goals from 90 attempts, despite coming into the season as anything but the first-choice option when aiming the ball at the sticks.
Cool under pressure at the worst of times, the 27-year-old kicked a perfect four from four in the elimination final against the Sydney Roosters as he attempted to keep his team in it, while he also helped put the sword to the Warriors the week before with six goals as the Gold Coast confirmed their spot in the finals.
Likely on his way to the Raiders, he could be an excellent replacement for Jarrod Croker with the boot.
7. Adam Reynolds (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
149 attempts, 118 goals, 79.2%
Reynolds kicked the second most goals in this year's competition with 118, just three behind the leader.
While it could be argued his kicking cost the Rabbitohs the grand final, a sideline conversion under the pump is never simple - just ask Johnathan Thurston.
But he had six or more goals on 11 occasions this season, and was perfect plenty of times as he helped the Bunnies put their opposition to the sword on a regular basis. Given he had an off-day against the Warriors in Round 19, kicking eight from 11, his record is all the more impressive.
6. Adam Doueihi (Wests Tigers)
87 attempts, 69 goals, 79.3%
The Tigers' half and centre was one of the struggling club's best this season. Despite the Tigers at times woeful attack, he managed to kick 69 goals in 20 games, and went on a run through the middle of the season where he just couldn't miss as the Tigers won three from four.
At just under 80 per cent, Doueihi was outstanding for the Tigers with the boot, and while it wouldn't influence their ladder season, a team struggling at the bottom of the season needs every advantage it can get.
They will need more of the same in 2022.
5. Jamayne Isaako (Brisbane Broncos)
63 attempts, 50 goals, 79.4%
Isaako is one player who was in and out of the Broncos' team this season. A struggling outfit who finished in the bottom four, the young outside back kicked 50 goals in 18 appearances.
He played in five of the Broncos' seven wins, and was close to perfect against the North Queensland Cowboys, Gold Coast Titans and Sydney Roosters, potentially the biggest boilover of any game this season.
The 25-year-old barely had an off-day with the boot, and it shows in the end of season wrap up.
If he can fight his way into the Brisbane 17 next year, he will almost certainly be the first choice kicker.
4. Kodi Nikorima (New Zealand Warriors)
52 attempts, 42 goals, 80.8%
Nikorima barely scratched past 50 attempts at goal during the season, but given each attempt cost him nearly two percent, kicking at a tick over 80 per cent on limited opportunity shows exactly how accurate he was.
He couldn't help the Warriors into the top eight, and barely kicked in the second half of the season, but his kicking played important parts in a couple of mid-season wins, including over the North Queensland Cowboys in Round 8.
Losing the kicking may have come as a surprise given how well he was doing, and while speculation surrounds his future at the club, there is a chance he could well contribute to the goal kicking next season alongside Shaun Johnson.
3. Reuben Garrick (Manly Sea Eagles)
148 attempts, 121 goals, 81.8%
Garrick finished the season with the most goals of any player, and a record number of points in NRL history, eclipsing the former record held by Hasem El Masri.
It was a special season for the tall outside back, who just went from strength to strength every time he was asked the question.
His goal-kicking was a part of that, landing six or more goals in a match on 11 occasions, including kicking a perfect 11 from 11 in a 66-0 rout of the Canterbury Bulldogs in Round 11.
2. Nathan Cleary (Penrith Panthers)
He won the Clive Churchill Medal for his excellent game, but also kicked the ultimately match-winning goal after Stephen Crichton secured an offload to race away with the try which sent Penrith into the lead.
Cleary has kicked phenomenally all year, and potentially would have wound up with more goals than even Garrick, who kicked the most in the competition, had he not spend a large chunk after Origin Game 2 out injured.
The Penrith half has impressed with his coolness under pressure throughout 2021, and that was on display in the decider.
1. Ryan Papenhuyzen (Melbourne Storm)
57 attempts, 49 goals, 86.0%
At the top of the tree is Ryan Papenhuyzen. He kicked at a staggering 86 per cent this season, the highest of all those who took over 50 attempts.
Papenhuyzen himself spent much of the season on the sidelines and had to battle Nicho Hynes for the goal kicking duties when he returned to the side.
While Melbourne won plenty of games in what could only be described as easy circumstances, he was certainly Melbourne's number one kicker by the end of the season.
Their eventual knockout at the hands of the Panthers saw him kick the only goal for the club, but had they scored a second try, he may have been the difference between a grand final and their ultimate preliminary final exit.