All 12 of my regular readers may remember that last year I ranked the NRL’s top 25 Most Important Players in deciding where the Premiership ended up in 2013. It is a tradition that I am going to continue this year, so before I get into it, I want to run over the ground rules again.
I’m looking for the Most Important Player (MIP) in the league in terms of deciding where the Premiership for 2014 ends up.
This of course means that a players value is heavily weighted towards how well his team is doing and how much of a chance they have of actually taking home the title.
So, a player like Jake Friend might not be the player that Jarryd Hayne is, but given that the Roosters will be fighting for the Minor Premiership this weekend and the Eels will be extremely lucky to sneak into the Top Eight. Friend would be the more IMPORTANT player.
I’m officially using the following criteria to judge –
- How much involvement does he have in his team’s fortunes? Meaning, is he influential within the team? Does all of the attacking play go through him? Does he score a lot of tries? Does he do the hard work in the forwards? Is he the teams tackling machine? (Involvement Value)
- How replaceable is he? If he was to cop a 5 week suspension, or injure his hamstring this weekend, just how much trouble is his team in? How much of a drop in quality is his replacement? (Injury Value)
- How likely is his team to win the premiership with him in good form? How likely are they to win the premiership if he is in poor to average form? (Title Value)
So with just a little adieu in the form of an honourable mention list – Alex Johnston, Jarryd Hayne, James Graham and Sisa Waqa – here are my 25 Most Important Players in deciding the 2014 NRL title
25. Jake Friend – Last Year – N/A
The running example in my explanation from the last 2 seasons has cracked into the top 25 this year with his strongest season to date. His injury and possibility of missing the final round match against the Rabbitohs has the potential to take the wind out of the sails of a team that is coming home faster than any other at this time of the year. His Injury Value is important here as the Roosters simply don’t have a replacement for him that is ready to take this role
24. Josh Reynolds – Last Year – N/A
The man that they call Grub* might be the only thing that can stop the Bulldogs’ rapid slide down the NRL ladder. With only 2 wins from their last 7 games, the team that was on top of the ladder half way through the season finds themselves clinging to a top 8 spot with no “points differential” to fall back on. If Reynolds can come back into the side and bring back some of the grit that saw the Bulldogs winning the close games earlier this year, they are a chance of making it to October, but if not, they are without a hope
23. Josh Mansour – Last Year – N/A
How Josh Mansour was not picked on the wing for NSW in game three of this year’s State of Origin is absolutely beyond my comprehension. Mansour has had a fantastic year. His 14 tries in 19 matches as well as his total metres run leads the Panthers – a team that doesn’t REALLY have a stand out star. This young team may find themselves a year or two away, but you can bet that if they make a run, Mansour’s form will play a significant part in getting them there. He has strong Title Value for a winger
22. Dylan Walker – Last Year – N/A
After a solid debut season last year, this teenager (yes he is still just a teenager) has begun to come into his own. The added responsibility of being moved to the number 6 jersey earlier in the season has seen Walker become more willing to try and take a game by the scruff of a neck and create plays on his own. Sometimes he does this to his own detriment as the play goes nowhere, but the reason he is so important is that if Inglis is having a quiet game (which happens occasionally) Walker is the only other real unpredictable spark in the allegedly predictable South Sydney attack
21. Anthony Watmough – Last Year – 13th
The leader of the Manly pack has lost a little bit of impact this year as he appears to have fallen out with the club and looks to get his future settled, but it is never more evident how much the Eagles need him than when he is gone. Against an inferior Penrith side** the Manly pack was pushed out of the way and it almost cost them the game. Watmough’s toughness and workrate combined with his skill were sorely missed and he can’t come back soon enough to help Manly try and secure another match in October
20. George Burgess – Last Year – 18th
While not as dynamic as last season, George has taken on a different role as simply a wrecking ball runner that tries to set up the Rabbitohs’ attack on the right foot. He isn’t used to set up tries or to be a devastating and hard hitting defender, though he gets through more than his share of tackling, but of the four games that George has missed this season three of them were losses for the Bunnies
19. James Segeyaro – Last Year – N/A
With a bullet, James Segeyaro has come from absolutely nowhere to be one of the most influential players on the Panthers side as they try to finish in the top 4 (or top 8 at all for that matter) for just the second time in 10 years. He is their attacking spark with a strong Involvement and Injury value as evident in the Panthers’ disappointing performance again Melbourne 2 weekends ago which Segeyaro had to sit out.
18. Michael Jennings – Last Year – 9th
Jennings has struggled to have the same impact this year as he did in 2013 – which was always going to be a tough ask. He has missed some games through Origin and Injury, but he has still managed to score 11 tires in his 17 games. Should be well rested for what is looking to be a well-timed finals run for the tri colours. Interesting stat, the last Roosters game that Jennings played that resulted in a loss was in Round 10
17. Jonathan Thurston – Last Year – 24th
Since the REAL season began 7 weeks ago the Cowboys have the EXACT same record as South Sydney (including points differential) which would put them in Second position on that hypothetical ladder*** with their only loss coming by a single point. This is almost exclusively down to Thurston’s ability to control a game single handedly. His dismantling of the red hot Rabbitohs 2 weeks ago was a sight to behold. They have beaten the Bunnies both times this season and I am certain that if Souths finish with the minor premiership they will be especially keen to avoid North Queensland. If the Cowboys can avoid another refereeing disaster, they could be a big chance of winning it all
16. Steve Matai – Last Year – N/A
I can’t remember the last time I watched a Manly game where Matai didn’t get his close up by clutching at an apparent injury. There’s no doubt he is a showman, but his impact for the Eagles when he is available to play is palpable. In spite of all the apparently minor injuries, he has only missed 1 game this season and his 12 tries put him second on the Manly roster. He is a hard hitter who takes care of one of Manly’s edges – the danger area that most teams focus their attack
15. Adam Reynolds/John Sutton/Luke Keary – Last Year – 6th/11th/N/A
The South Sydney halves, in some combination, are likely to have a significant impact on whether or not the title ends up in Redfern this year, but they kind of tend to cancel each other out in terms of their Injury Value. With Sutton at 6 and Reynolds at 7, the Bunnies have played a large portion of the season in the top half of the competition. When Sutton went down for a few weeks, Keary went to the number 6 and led Souths to Premiership favouritism. This weekend we get to see Keary at halfback with Sutton back at five eighth and if the 20 minutes that they played together in these positions are anything to go by, this may be their best combination yet
14. Jamie Lyon – Last Year – 8th
As the Manly halves have come into their own this season, the Eagles captain has taken a more subdued role in running the side. That was until last weekend. Needing two tries to win the game with only a few minutes remaining, Lyon took it upon himself to drag his teammates over the line and keep the Minor Premiership within their grasp by scoring one and miraculously making the second one possible. Has the big game experience and skill to come through in the big games when he is needed, and last Sunday showed that he still has it.
13. Anthony Minichiello – Last Year – N/A
A true Indian Summer for The Count in his final season in the NRL. His 14 try output has not been matched since 2005 – a time when he was playing for Australia. He hasn’t missed a game all season and his steadying influence on a team that has struggled with second year syndrome at times is invaluable as they head into another Finals Series.
12. Brett Stewart – Last Year – N/A
He may not have scored as many tries as he would have liked this season, but the use of Brett Stewart as a decoy and a facilitator has increased and allowed other players in the backline to cross the line far more often. Additionally, the fact remains that he has sheer ability when it comes to scoring tries and if he turns it on, Manly will be even harder to defend. He has a high Injury Value as the Eagles just don’t have a replacement that is ready to fill the same role Stewart does.
11. Billy Slater – Last Year – 5th
It seems strange to say that someone has had a bit of a quiet year when they have scored 12 tries in 20 games, but for Billy Slater that is a quiet year. However, he has started to come into form at the right time, with 3 tries in his last 2 matches. But overall, as an attacking weapon, he has fallen off a little. This is likely due to the Melbourne attack beginning to get a little stale and teams finally catching on to their tricks, but either way, his impact has been lessened this season so he misses out on a top 10 spot by the slimmest of margins
10. James Maloney – Last Year – 12th
Although they find themselves playing tonight with a chance of taking home the Minor Premiership again, this year’s Roosters team has not been as strong as last year. The slow start to the season saw Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney both lose their Origin spots. Since then, the Roosters have turned their season around. Mitchell Pearce’s game has shown no signs of life, and certainly no signs of the form he had last season, but Maloney has been flying high. He is equal third in the league for Try Assists and second in the league for Line Break Assists. If The Roosters are to defend their title, Maloney is an integral part of getting them there
9. Isaac Luke – Last Year – 14th
In spite of having a fairly capable replacement in the South Sydney team, Luke is still one of the most irreplaceable players in the team or the league. It is no coincidence that as the Bunnies meandered through the middle of the season it was with Luke on the sidelines. Few players in the league have the toughness of the Rabbitohs hooker, let alone the ball skills and eye for a lazy marker that set him apart from most in his position. The ability of the rest of the forward pack to get over the advantage line is only so useful to Souths because of Luke’s ability to take advantage of it like few others. His availability for tonight’s clash with Easts – and managements will to fight for him – could be the deciding factor in the minor premiership
8. Cameron Smith – Last Year – 4th
The only Hooker in the game that is better than Luke right now, and the man who has been the lynchpin in everything his team has done for several years has dropped 4 spots from last season. This is partly down to the Storm amazingly not even being guaranteed a finals spot heading into the final round^ and the fact that his Involvement Value has decreased a little this season. If we’re being honest, it is also due to the fact that he hasn’t quite been the dominant force that he once was. He looks tired. And who can blame him? He has played 20+ Regular season games for every one of the last 12 seasons, plus an average of 2 finals matches per season while also playing 33 games for Queensland and 38 for Australia. The guy needs a break if he is going to take Melbourne back to the top
7. Cooper Cronk – Last Year – 7th
But one player that hasn’t moved at all is the consistent halfback in the most structured team in the league. Cronk suits Melbourne’s style and Melbourne’s style suits Cronk. Another player that was looking tired earlier in the season, managed to get injured and buy himself a bit of a rest. This will be the first time in 10 seasons that Cronk plays less than 20 regular season matches, and his form is all the better for it. In spite of missing matches, he is second in the league for Try Assists, fourth in Line Break Assists and all of the teams kicking goes through him. His Involvement Value has sky rocketed as he takes a bigger hand in running the team on the park and it is because of these reasons that he maintains his spot in spite of Melbourne’s struggles
6. Jamie Soward – Last Year – N/A
If you had told me this time last season that Soward would be in the top 25 I would have laughed you out of the pub. For him to be one spot out of the top 5 is unbelievable, and especially so considering I give the Panthers almost no chance of winning the competition this season. Penrith have shown themselves to be pretenders since the real season began with their 3-4 win-loss record, and while they still might finish with a top 4 spot, they probably don’t deserve to. I wrote in an article earlier this year that they may make the leap this year, but they look to be a bit short of becoming an elite team at this point. Having said all of that, if the Panthers manage to go on a run over the next month to put themselves in contention, Soward will be the centre of it all. He has the highest Involvement Value in the competition easily. There isn’t a thing that the Panthers do that doesn’t go through him and their success this season relies almost solely on his shoulders
5. Greg Inglis – Last Year – 1st
A fall from last year’s number one spot but still within the top 5. The question is why? To answer that question you have to go back to the form he had last season as he became the most dominant player in the game, capable of single handedly taking over a game and was consistently a threat to any opposition, while being the best last line of defence in the league. It was always going to be tough to maintain. But even still, his form this year has been inconsistent. He has only scored in 6 of his 20 matches thus far, he has drifted out of more games than he has drifted into and his normally rock solid goal line defence has slipped a bit. The real question is how is he still in the top 5? That answer is easy. Even the average bad Inglis game comes with a line break or two and an offload that leads to a 50 metre run. Then when he is on, he is the single most devastating player in the competition. He single handedly beat Brisbane – a top 8 team – three weeks ago, and it wasn’t just a win, he destroyed them. He is one of only about 5 players that is good enough to win a grand final by himself, and not all of those players are in this top 5. He still has a role to play this season. It might be by winning a title by turning up for the finals, or watching Souths bow out again because he didn’t, but either way, his contribution will be significant.
4. Sonny Bill Williams – Last Year – 2nd
Another player that was rated highly in 2013 – and probably ended up being the difference in last season’s title – only to see a slight drop in his impact this year, albeit only a 2 spot drop. He has spent a bit of time on the sidelines this season, with a couple of injuries, but for a player with the unbridled talent of SBW, that just means he is well rested and ready to have a shot at the finals. In spite of missing 6 matches, he is still third in the league for offloads. He is a devastating runner of the ball and hits as hard as anyone, but I am left to wonder if winning the competition last season has taken a little bit of the hunger away. Tonight’s game against the Rabbitohs will tell the real story as he goes up against his running nemesis from the South Sydney forward pack. If SBW can win two titles in his two years back in the code, he will have to move into a different conversation of greatness when looking back on his time with the game.
3. Kieran Foran – Last Year – 16th
It feels like he has been around forever, but Foran is only in his 5th full season of NRL football. The reason it feels like that is because he plays the game like a wily old veteran. He isn’t the percentage player that Cronk is, but he also isn’t the wild card of a Chris Sandow either. He knows when to take his risks and he knows when to take the smart option. He can occasionally get lost in a game and let it overtake him, but most of the time he knows how to get the right result. It is this clever and steady hand, along with the Eagles’ rise to the top that have seen Foran rocket up the charts from last season. If he keeps making the right decisions, the Eagles will be in a good position to take the title.
2. Daly Cherry-Evans – Last Year – 23rd
The figurative captain of the ship (though obviously not the actual team captain) at Brookvale has had his best season in his relatively short career this year. He is in the top 10 in the league for both Try assists and strangely enough, offloads! When Manly are in trouble he is the man who they throw the ball to, to get them out of it. If that means a field goal, he can do it, if it means a precision kick for a corner he can do it, if it means taking on the line or finding the perfect pass, he can that too. He can occasionally get caught out trying too much and it falls apart (as it did in the Souths game at the SCG). But outside of that he has steered Manly into pole position for the Minor Premiership. His injury and involvement value are both high and his form is likely to be the deciding factor in whether or not Manly are able to win another title this year
1. Sam Burgess – Last Year – 21st
In what may prove to be his last ever season in Rugby League (though I am skeptical), Burgess has hit the peak of his powers and won the coveted Most Important Player award. He leads the league in hit ups, is second in offloads and 11th in tackles. Also, he has scored 10 tries – the same number as team mates Greg Inglis and Dylan Walker. I have been his biggest critic at times in his career but as the season as really ramped up, he has been brilliant. In an important match last week he did something that no other forward in the game is really capable of doing. He put the entire team on his back and beat a top 8 side by himself. It is a role normally reserved for the flashy backs of the game, but Burgess showed how far he has come in the last 12 months by pulling the struggling Bunnies out of a hole that most players couldn’t. He has more motivation than anyone else to succeed this year and his form in the finals will directly translate to how well Souths do. His Title Value is the highest of anyone on the list. If Burgess is breaking the advantage line it allows Luke to take advantage of the quick play the ball and get the ball to whatever halves combination the Bunnies end up using to bring the likes of Inglis and Walker into play. But it all depends on Big Sam. No pressure buddy.
*Though he isn’t even the grubbiest player in his own team by a long shot. Hi, Michael Ennis.
**That is no great slight on Penrith, I’ll save my great Penrith slights for later. But Manly are on top of the table and deservedly so in spite of some hiccups of late.
***All three of the Cowboys, Bunnies and Roosters have 6 wins and a loss but the Roosters’ Points Differential is just 8 better than the other two
^Something that hasn’t happened since 2005 if you take out the salary cap affected season