The List: The Fourth Annual Top 50 (Part 2)
Here we are again. Another season done and dusted. After 201 games played by 472 players, I list the top 50. There will be arguments, there will be criticisms but this is the list of the top 50 players in the game in 2011.
25. Chris Houston (Newcastle, -)
The Newcastle backrower made a magnificent return after missing 2010 over a drug trafficking charge. Houston was the Knights’ best forward, a hard running threat on the fringes who could bust a line when on song yet a player who was always in the thick of it defensively. Houston averaged 35 tackles and 80 metres a match and was a genuine 80-minute forward who was stiff not to get an Origin call-up this year. He will surely get the nod in 2012.
24. Shaun Fensom (Canberra, -)
The Canberra lock just continues to improve and took his game to the next level in 2011, maintaining his high work-rate in defence but adding more oomph in attack. Despite the Raiders having a year to forget, Fensom proved himself a player Ricky Stuart should look to for Origin next year and beyond, an enthusiastic player always happy to do the dirty work with plenty of energy. Finished second on the average tackle board with 47.29 and added 82 metres a match on top, who was one of only three players (with Corey Parker and Nathan Hindmarsh) to run 80 metres and make 40 tackles a match. Throw in running 12th in offloads, he had an outstanding season for a player in only his second full year of first grade.
23. Josh Hoffman (Brisbane, -)
The young Broncos custodian continues to thrive and in a year where a number of young fullbacks have emerged, Hoffman rates right up with the best. He was electric in his second year, finishing third in metres/game with 158.75 to go with 101 tackle breaks. The Broncos certainly suffered in losing Darren Lockyer for their preliminary final but the situation was exacerbated by having their second best attacking weapon, Hoffman, sidelined. He is starting to look like Matt Bowen in his prime.
22. Kevin Locke (New Zealand, -)
Locke has always shown the potential to be a star but it wasn’t until this year, his third in first grade, that he showed his best. It all came about with a permanent move to fullback, which saw Locke move from a fringe first grader to an integral part of the Warriors line-up. His regular season numbers paint a pretty telling picture: 126 metres per game, 85 tackle breaks, 21 offloads, six tries, eight try assists. He is the perfect fullback for the Warriors’ halves pairing. Has tremendous courage and a real game-winning ability. The biggest compliment you can pay him is that he is viewed as a Billy Slater clone.
21. Michael Gordon (Penrith, 32)
Despite playing only nine matches before a season-ending knee injury in the victory against Brisbane in round 10, Gordon was excellent. Gordon had a breakout year in 2010 and he continued to enhance his reputation in 2011 with a combination of dynamic and reliable that allowed him to excel when given the chance at fullback. In his nine games, he averaged 179 metres per match, scored four tries and set up another six and made 50 tackle breaks (at an average of 5.56, eighth highest for those who played five or more matches). He can do it all and hopefully he will get the chance to play fullback under Ivan Cleary in 2012.
20. Jamie Lyon (Manly, 9)
The Manly skipper never appears to be setting the world on fire but this is his fourth straight year where he has finished top-35 in this list, over the course of which he has won two premierships. Lyon was again outstanding in 2011, playing a key role in Manly’s resurgence. His great value as a centre is that he is equally adept as both a playmaker and a runner. He scored eight tries and set up 14 in the regular season games and scored a try and set one up in the finals. With the addition of his goalkicking, where he knocked them over at an acceptable 73%, Lyon remains one of the top three-quarters in the game. If anything, he is the most consistent.
19. Ben Hannant (Brisbane, -)
After a disappointing, injury-riddled final season with Canterbury, Hannant re-established himself as one of the best props in the game in his return to Brisbane, re-joining the top 30 as was the case in 2008 and 2009. Hannant was excellent for the Broncos. His 34 tackles and 109 metres per match was an excellent workrate for a big man and his footwork ensures he nearly always wins the momentum in the ruck. It is good to see the burly prop back to his best.
18. Aiden Tolman (Canterbury, -)
The Ben Hannant clone was the ideal replacement for the former Bulldog bookend. Tolman joined Canterbury as a hot prospect but one who was struggling for much game time at the Storm. At the Bulldogs, he thrived as the number one prop and leading forward. His taste for hard work was incredible, making 35.82 tackles and 129.27 metres a match, outstanding numbers for a prop. He should have been picked for the Blues this year. He is the kind of prop you can build a premiership contender around.
17. Gareth Ellis (Wests Tigers, 7)
Three seasons in Australia for Ellis have netted the English international three top-35 finishes and two finals campaigns for a team who hadn’t made the playoffs since 2005 before he arrived. Ellis was again the backbone of a team that is more known for its glitz and attack, laying the foundation with rattling defence and bustling running. His numbers – 30 tackles and 99 metres per match – don’t really do his contribution justice. Ellis is one of those players who adds so much value to a team: toughness, leadership, grit, smarts. As long as he is at the Tigers, they will contend.
16. Luke Bailey (Gold Coast, 26)
Bailey has again finished among the top props in the competition after an outstanding season in what shaped as a hopeless cause very early on. Managing to avoid injury for the most part and without the spectre of rep football hanging over his head, Bailey led the way for the Titans with 33 tackles and 123 metres a match. He also was the spiritual leader for much of the year. He is such a hard-runner, heavy tackler and inspirational figure that it is fair to say there was no player who deserved the wooden spoon less this year.
15. Darren Lockyer (Brisbane, 27)
What an incredible farewell season it was for Lockyer, his best year as a footballer since arguably the 2006 premiership season. Lockyer was the key figure behind Brisbane’s preliminary final run and Queensland’s historic sixth-straight series win. To look at Lockyer’s value to the Broncos, just look at the last two weeks of Brisbane’s season: he kicks the winning extra-time field goal with a fractured cheekbone before the Broncos look like a directionless rabble without him in the preliminary final loss. Lockyer led the NRL in regular season try assists with 24 (tied with Benji Marshall and Jarryd Hayne), was one of the premier kickers in the game and was critical to giving the Broncos both direction and inspiration. The Broncos have an almighty task trying to find his replacement next season.
14. Daly Cherry-Evans (Manly, *)
Debut seasons don’t come much better it did for the Manly halfback, who quickly cemented his spot in the starting team before playing a key role in the run to the premiership and winning a spot in the Australian Four Nations squad. In the Grand Final, he was arguably the best afield, showing the maturity of a far more senior player and the zip of a quality footballer. He has shown it all this year: smarts, pace, an ability to kick both long and short, a super pass and real toughness. Scored six tries and set up another 14 and broke 95 tackles, to lead all halves in the category including Benji Marshall. He has a bright, bright future.
13. Darius Boyd (St George-Illawarra, 6)
Found himself a top-15 player for the second straight season after another very good year as the Dragons custodian. Boyd again didn’t seem to be doing a lot but his contribution was immense, owning that left side, scoring eight tries and setting up another 11. Combined with 99 tackle breaks and an average yardage of 135 metres made him an extraordinarily dangerous player in attack. The Dragons are certainly going to feel his absence in 2012.
12. Gareth Widdop (Melbourne, -)
Gareth Widdop had an outstanding first full season in the top grade, made even more impressive by the fact he spent it out of position with the usual fullback forced to play five-eighth with Billy Slater at the back. Widdop slotted straight into the Storm team, playing a significant role in the club’s run to the minor premiership. On the left side in attack, Widdop devastated defences with a brilliant step, underrated strength and a wonderful ability to ball-play. Finished sixth in the NRL in line breaks, leading all halves, and set up 15 tries with his ability to bust a hole and play short. The Storm have a new Big Four.
11. Akuila Uate (Newcastle, 23)
Wingers simply don’t have the impact on a football game that Akuila Uate does. He is a legitimate match-winner with his speed and strength but it is his kick return and his ability to get into the middle and bend the line that makes him such a good player. He again finished near the top of all the important wing indicators: 19 tries (3rd), 18 line breaks (3rd), 148 tackle breaks (1st) and 143.5 average metres (6th). Such was his threat, coaches had to specifically plan to stop him. Uate is just a beast who always gives his all and will thrive under Wayne Bennett next year.
10. Matthew Scott (North Queensland, 42)
The Queensland prop had a breakout season in 2011 and is now widely viewed as the best prop in the game after being the best afield in Queensland’s loss to New South Wales in Origin I. Scott’s numbers don’t hold up against some props, his 25 tackles and 116 metres a game being above average but not outstanding. But his discipline is something to behold, spilling the ball only six times and conceding a penalty only eight in an outstanding effort from a prop. A genuine leader and a line-bender in attack, Scott deserves to lauded as the top prop in the code.
9. Kieran Foran (Manly, -)
While Cherry-Evans finished off the season for Manly, it was Kieran Foran who got everything rolling early. As Cherry-Evans found his feet, Foran took control of the Manly backline and did an outstanding job. He ran hard, was always putting on shots in defence, loved giving a short ball and has a very good short kicking game. He was a little quiet towards the backend of the year but for two-thirds of the season he was arguably the best No.6 in the game. He scored seven tries and set up 16 and his 24 handling errors were acceptable for a player who handles the ball as much as Foran.
8. Johnathan Thurston (North Queensland, -)
Returns to the top-10 after a disappointing 2010 where his form was well down before his season was ended prematurely with injury. Started 2011 with a bang and continued his quality form right up to the point he was injured in Origin III. Led the Dally M Medal count when voting went behind closed doors and deservedly so, having helped the Cowboys lift from wooden spooners to a top-four team for much of the year. In 18 games, scored 10 tries and set up another 22 and was as brilliant as any player in the comp for the first two-thirds of the year. Rushed back from injury and wasn’t the same but regardless, he had a major impact on season 2011.
7. Glenn Stewart (Manly, -)
Returned to form, this top-30 and rep football after a very disappointing 2010 where he seemed to lose his way. Had he not been involved in the Brookvale Brawl, he could well have been Dally M medallist while he did win the Clive Churchill Medal after an outstanding show in the Grand Final. He has a great set of skills that make him such a danger. He hits hard and runs with intent but has the soft touch of a halfback as well and leads the way in the Ben Kennedy mould. He is a player of absolute quality.
6. Corey Parker (Brisbane, 29)
Parker had another outstanding season, racking up the big numbers, a testament to the amount of quality work he gets through. Finished seventh in average tackles with 41.2 per match and 13th in metres with 135.2 a game. Those numbers are utterly astonishing. To throw in the fact he had 87 tackle breaks and 56 offloads and booted 74 goals, it is clear Parker has become an elite player. The Broncos need Corey Parker, who has a hand in everything the club does. Continues to be highly underrated.
5. Cooper Cronk (Melbourne, 34)
The ever-consistent Cronk had another magnificent season for Melbourne, playing a key role in the Storm’s run to the minor premiership. Ultra-competitive, a wonderful kicker and one of the premier organisers in the game, Cronk rarely turned in a poor game. He certainly never turned in a poor effort. In arguably his most dominant season, Cronk scored a career-high 12 tries and set up another 16. In a year when the Storm needed the Big Three to step up, Cronk certainly stepped up to the mark … again, as he always does.
4. Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers, 14)
Marshall was again brilliant for the Tigers in 2011, very nearly pinching the Dally M Medal after an outstanding attacking year that netted him 24 try assists and 11 tries of his own. The Tigers No.6 had some magnificent games this year and overcame the spectre of a court case to guide the Tigers to a top-four position that seemed highly unlikely two months out from the finals. Marshall sets the benchmark in all areas of attack with his creativity, brilliant passing, electric running and magnificent kick. There is arguably no more valuable player to his team in the competition.
3. Cameron Smith (Melbourne, 39)
For the third time in four years, Smith has finished in the top-15 with the two-time premiership winning captain, new Queensland skipper and soon-to-be Australian leader having another wonderful year. It took a wonderful leader to help drag the Storm back into contention after the disaster of 2010 and Smith is just that. He does everything at an elite level and is arguably now the greatest hooker to ever play the game. He just doesn’t make a mistake, just doesn’t take the wrong option. He is an elite defender with a high workrate, a creative runner and playmaker out of dummy half, a top-level kicker and a footballer unmatched in on-field smarts. Astonishingly, Smith made five errors, remarkable for a player who touches the ball more than anyone else in the game. No player has mastered the fundamentals like Smith.
2. Paul Gallen (Cronulla, 5)
For the fourth straight season, Paul Gallen has finished as a top-20 player and for the third time in four years he has finished in the top-six. Gallen has always had a great taste for work. He has carried the Sharks on his back for a half-decade now, consistently showing up with few others by his side. As such he has been forced to play a combo prop/backrow/five-eighth role. The result has been some astounding numbers: 183.5 metres per match (highest in the NRL and 50.3 metres a game ahead of the second-ranked forward), 25.8 tackles a match, six tries, six try assists, 76 tackle breaks and 48 offloads, all in 20 games. It is perhaps his improved discipline which is the most notable part of his game. Once a renowned grub, he has shown much better self-control this year, giving away only 11 penalties. His display in Origin I was one of the great Origin showings and he did so at the unfamiliar position of prop. Gallen is the best forward of his generation.
1. Billy Slater (Melbourne, 12)
The Melbourne, Queensland and Australian fullback won his first Dally M Medal this year and he tops this list for the first time as well after finishing third in 2008, fourth in 2009 and 12th last year. In an era of wonderful fullback play, Slater is unquestionably the best. His kick return is outstanding, his ability to inject himself into a playmaking role is magnificent and his understanding of the game is immense. Slater is a real student of the fundamentals and his relationship with both Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk has resulted in some spectacular football. Slater scored 12 tries and set up another 14, usually bobbing up as a second five-eighth option, while busting 131 tackles, second in the NRL. Throw in 143.5 metres per game and you get a picture of Slater’s magnificent year.
Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images AsiaPac
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