What would a team of the year look like if it was picked entirely on this year's form? That's what we tried to answer with our team of the year. Some of the last decade's most prominent players (Smith, Gallen, Cronk) made the cut, alongside some rising talent (Trbojevic, Vunivalu) a handful of players (Vaughan, Keary) who have spectacularly revived seemingly flagging careers.
Fullback - Tom Trbojevic (Manly)
Still only 20 years old, Trbojebic has already comfortably settled amongst the game’s elite outside backs. Blessed with elite speed and, perhaps more valuably, blinding acceleration, he is also one of the best play-making fullbacks, behind only Billy Slater, another serious contender for this team, for try and line break assists amongst fullbacks.
Wings - Jordan Rapana (Canberra), Suliasi Vunivalu (Melbourne)
Despite Canberra’s precipitous drop in form from last year, Rapana has kept his seemingly unsustainable hot streak going, leading all players in tackle breaks (122, 19 ahead of nearest rival, James Tedesco) and line breaks (19), while also rating as the second-highest tryscorer (14) despite playing in a sputtering Canberra backline. Vunivalu, meanwhile, is the very model of the modern winger; he’s an athletic, rubber-limbed finisher (he also has 14 tries) whose primary value to his side may lie in the valuable dummy-half metres he grinds out from his own end every game
Freed of Origin duties, Paul Gallen has remained a thorn in opposition sides and ranks second in total metres run. (Photo: paddynapper)
Centres - Tim Lafai (St. George-Illawarra), Clinton Gutherson (Parramatta)
Two players having breakthrough years just pip Manly’s Dylan Walker, who is relishing a return to his natural position. Lafai has been a low-key wonder, busting tackles, scything through defences and generally reviving an attack which was moribund last year. The irrepressible Gutherson, meanwhile, has been a revelation in the centres, halves and at fullback, where he has 14 line breaks (4th in the NRL).
Five-eighth - Luke Keary (Eastern Suburbs)
Equal third in try assists and equal first in line break assists, Keary has transformed himself into a free-wheeling attacking machine this season. Given a licence to largely ditch responsibility for guiding his side around to focus on his running game, the elusive Keary just shades Cody Walker, another running five-eighth enjoying career best form next to an organising half.
Halfback - Daly Cherry-Evans (Manly)
A contested position with Thurston injured and Cronk slowing down, if only slightly. Cherry-Evans gets the nod; he constantly finds grass with his long-kicks and the in-goal with his short kicks, and has tallied the most try assists (16) and line break assists (15) of any player. You could also make an argument for Cooper Cronk, who remains an elite game manager, Mitchell Pearce, whose Origin struggles belie his consistently excellent club performances or even the supremely talented but frustratingly erratic Shaun Johnson.
Props - Andrew Fifita (Cronulla), Paul Vaughan (St.George-Illawarra)
Paul Vaughan has probably seized the mantle of the hardest-running forward in the competition this year, having consistently used his imposing size to bend the line back, find his front and play the ball quickly. Andrew Fifita has shown a similar mastery of controlled aggression, compiling a series of men-against-boys displays of strength not seen since his 2013 annus miraculous. A narrow third here goes to Taupau, who is consistently delivering on the promise he has previously only shown fleeting glimpses of and is the competition’s leading off-loader (52).
Cameron Smith has retained his position as the clear #1 hooker in the game (Photo: Peter Byrnes)
Hooker - Cameron Smith (Melbourne)
In terms of influencing a game, only the injured Jonathan Thurston can really compete with the evergreen Melbourne captain. His machine-like ability to take the right option form dummy half remains unparalleled, while he is the game’s unquestioned master of the dark arts consistently (and legally) slowing down opposition play-the-balls with his nous as a wrestler and grappler.
Second-rowers - Jason Taumololo (North Queensland), Wade Graham (Cronulla)
Taumololo has lived up to his billing as the game’s most devastating young forward, ranking first in run metres, tenth in tackle breaks (68). The flinty Wade Graham, all hips and shoulders, shades a host of quality backrowers, including representative mainstays Sam Burgess, Matt Gillett, Boyd Cordner and classy rookie Alex Crichton. His bone-jarring tackling and decision-making on the fringes of the ruck remain a major part of Cronulla’s league-leading defence.
Lock - Paul Gallen (Cronulla)
Empires rise and fall, seasons change, but one thing seems a constant in this turbulent world: Paul Gallen rampaging down the middle third, an indefatigable figure of intensity. He ranks second in total metres and is still a central figure in Cronulla’s war of attrition approach.
Reserves - Marty Taupau, Jake Trbojevic, Matt Gillett, Cooper Cronk.