The real NRL team of the year
GETTING angry about the Dally Ms is less of a pastime and more of a passion of mine.
How could Paul Gallen have beaten Jason Taumalolo for lock of the year in 2017? Why the hell didn't Maika Sivo even get nominated for winger of the year on Wednesday night? Why, in the name of all that is good and true, didn't Terry Campese win the whole damn thing in 2008?
There are answers to these questions, but they're as convoluted and as hard to decipher as the award process itself. There's points deducted for suspensions, points that should have been awarded but weren't, points that shouldn't have been awarded but were, it's all a nightmare of red tape that could rival a Tim Sheens playbook.
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Not so here. The Campo's Corner team of the year isn't decided by some points tally - around here, it's Mabo, it's the vibe. Every game a player appears in from the start of the season to now counts in some capacity. Dreams will be made, hearts will be broken.
Without further ado, let's dive into the only column of the week which isn't deep in the tall grass of the grand final and look back at the year that was.
FULLBACK: James Tedesco
There's not much else to say about Tedesco. The pride of Camden was one of the best players in the world last season and has somehow managed to improve, something he said he wanted to do this year but I doubted was possible. Not only was Tedesco the best player in the State of Origin series, scoring the winning try in the final moments of the decider, he led all fullbacks in total run metres, line breaks, tackle busts and tries scored, while also coming in second among regular fullbacks for try assists. They don't make them any better than Tedesco, who is also the Campo's Corner Player Of The Year. Will he value this honour as much as he does his brand new Dally M medal? Impossible to say.
WINGERS: Maika Sivo and Ken Maumalo
The Parramatta faithful have done the job for me in caterwauling about Sivo's exclusion from the team of the year, but fear not - he's made this side easily. Sivo was the season's leading tryscorer and had the second most linebreaks of any players in the competition, but he's far from a simple finisher. As the year went on, Sivo's workrate from his own end and confidence in his own abilities grew with each passing week. His punishing defence was another highlight - only Jorge Taufua put on more big hits out wide.
It wasn't so long ago Ken Maumalo was so bad with his hands and so clueless in defence he was nearly unplayable. What a difference a few years can make! Maumalo improved a great deal in 2018 and kept that same energy in 2019 - he was a constant shining light in yet another dour season for the Warriors. Among the competition's wingers only Sivo scored more tries and nobody had more runs or run metres, with Maumalo's work from his own end a constant highlight in New Zealand's underwhelming season.
CENTRES: Latrell Mitchell and Josh Morris
As we touched on in Campo's Corner on Wednesday, and again earlier this year, Mitchell has posted the best statistical year of his career while somehow going backwards in the public's estimations. Mitchell hasn't changed much as a player - if anything he's gotten a little more potent in attack, and he's certainly improved as a goalkicker. But this year people have become more aware of his shortcomings (namely, the way he can fade in and out of matches) and as such they've soured on the Taree man. Mitchell is neither as good as they said he was at his best, when some dubbed him the best player in the game, nor as bad as they said he was at his worst, but he's been the best centre in the NRL this year.
It's been a funny old year for centres outside of Mitchell. Plenty of players have put together a few good weeks here and there but few have enjoyed consistent form across the full year. Jarrod Croker has finished well but wasn't quite at his best early, Bronson Xerri was good in the back half of the season, as was Kotoni Staggs, but we're going with one of the old fellas - Cronulla's Josh Morris. Just when his career looked to be winding down, Morris enjoyed one of his best seasons in years - his 15 tries was his best total since 2012, his 14 line breaks were his most since 2015 and his defence, amid several positional switches, was as good as ever. Josh Morris is the kind of guy who could still give the Kiama Knights 15 good minutes off the bench when he's in his late 40s.
FIVE-EIGHTH: Luke Keary
This was the toughest position for me to pick because, a bit like centre, there's not been a player who's dominated from five-eighth through the entire season. Cameron Munster was strong without touching his best football before more than a couple of weeks and Cody Walker might have been the best player in the competition full stop until Origin I, but I'm going with Keary, even though he missed several matches due to concussion. Keary accumulated 28 try assists in just 21 matches and he's the spark that helps elevate the Sydney Roosters to greatness.
HALFBACK: Mitchell Moses
This was a two-horse race between Moses and his former Tigers teammate Luke Brooks. Moses was on a much better side and topped the try assist race, helped by the Eels becoming the league's masters of scoring from kicks. Brooks continued to improve from his career-best season last year, and while he may never live up to the insane hype he attracted in his youth (given he was compared to Andrew Johns, who possibly could?) he's become a very good NRL halfback, and the defensive issues which plagued him in the past are long gone. While Brooks did more with less, Moses gets the win here by a nose - yes, he had a better squad at his disposal but he made the most of it.
HOOKER: Cameron Smith
Damien Cook had a fantastic start to the season and Josh Hodgson a terrific finish, but the best dummy half in rugby league this year, like most years, was Cameron Smith. All the things we've been saying about Smith for years now - his composure, his ability to control the tempo of a match, his absolute command of his own abilities - once again came to the fore. He is still Melbourne's best player and still one of the best players in the league. If Smith does retire during the offseason, which is seeming more and more likely with each passing day, know that you have seen one of the very best players in rugby league history. There's nobody like him, and there never has been before.
PROPS: Josh Papalii and Payne Haas
The case can be made that Papalii is the best prop in the game. He's second among all props for total run metres, first for all runs and second for line breaks. In some of the biggest games of the year - Origin III and Canberra's two finals victories, he's been among the best players on the field, proving he can rise to the occasion when required and dominate at the games highest level. Papalii's transformation since his move from second row prop has been remarkable.
The numbers defy belief. Haas led all props for run metres by a long way, he led all props for tackle busts by an even longer way and he did this while still being young enough to play Jersey Flegg. He's one of the greatest rookie players the league has ever seen, the future of Brisbane and of NSW and Australia and, without question, the cornerstone of the Broncos ongoing rebuild. There are no limits to what he can achieve in this sport.
SECOND-ROWERS: John Bateman and Kenny Bromwich
There were high expectations for Bateman, who was a Man of Steel runner-up in his last year for Wigan and a regular in the English Test side. He did not just meet the expectations, he surpassed them and Canberra's rise to the top of the ladder and qualifying for their first grand final in 25 years is due, in no small part, to the form of their rugged and skilful backrower. If there are more fellas like this hiding away in Bradford bring them all out here.
One of my favourite stats to dig out is which non-spine player accumulates the most try assists and this year it's Bromwich. The Melbourne back-rower has always been a solid contributor for the Storm, but this year he shifted from the middle to the edge full time and he's blossomed, showing an array of ball skills I never knew he had. K-Brom had 10 try assists - that's as many as Nathan Cleary and only one less than Kalyn Ponga - and in his honour the non-spine player who sets up the most tries will now receive the K-Brom Medal (Warning: Medal is purely metaphorical).
LOCK: Jason Taumalolo
Cameron Murray had a great season, and I do not begrudge him winning the Dally M lock of the year award, it's a perfectly acceptable decision. But check this out: Taumalolo played 18 games compared to Murray's 26 and the North Queensland man had more runs (370 to 279), more run metres (3,694 to 2,377), more tackle busts (91 to 42) and more linebreaks (10 to 9). The Tonga international is a rugby league superman, the best forward I have ever seen, and the type of player who does the extraordinary on a weekly basis. There's nobody else like him.
Interchange player of the year, like the State Championship and diet Coke, is one of those things which works better in theory than in execution. We're just naming a flat out, normal bench - three forwards and a utility - cause for it to be a team of the year it has to be an actual team, you dig?
In that vein, our four reserves are Cameron Murray (I don't think it's a stretch to say he's South Sydney's best forward at this point), David Klemmer (he was a one-man forward pack at Newcastle and did his best to carry a pretty rotten side), Addin Fonua-Blake (a menacing, hard-nosed customer who was already a good player but found another gear under Des Hasler) and Cameron Munster (is it possible to be a top three five-eighth and a top three fullback at the same time?)
ROOKIE: Payne Haas
Remember all those things I said about Payne Haas? They're all still true. He's the rookie of the year by a thousand miles, which is saying something because it's such a strong field, maybe the strongest in years. Any other year Briton Nikora, Reuben Garrick, Ryan Papenhuyzen, Bronson Xerri, Maika Sivo or Corey Horsburgh would be a worthy winner, but they're all playing for second in 2019.
COACH: Des Hasler
With due respect to Craig Bellamy, who deserves every bit of respect he gets, due or otherwise, this should be Hasler's award. With close to an identical roster to last year, Hasler managed to raise Manly from 15th to 6th, and maybe it could have been even higher had Tom Trbojevic not gotten injured. I was one of several pundits who thought Hasler had lost his mojo after his struggles at Canterbury, but he spent all year proving me wrong.
LISTEN! In the season finale, Matty Johns is joined by James Hooper and Paul Kent to go over this Sunday's grand final, plus how the build-up to the NRL's biggest weekend can weigh on the favoured team (and how the Roosters are counteracting it).