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NRL 2020: The top five players of the year

As part of the NRL 2020 Annual, historian David Middleton takes a look back at the 2020 season and settles on his top five players.

Nathan Cleary

The chart plotting Nathan Cleary’s progress as a leading NRL playmaker remained on a sharp incline in 2020 despite the disappointments of a grand final loss and State of Origin series defeat.

The 23-year-old was acclaimed the best halfback in the NRL, named the Players’ Champion by the RLPA and was a key figure in the Panthers’ record-breaking run to the minor premiership.

The departure of James Maloney at the end of the 2019 season left Cleary in the driver’s seat at Penrith and he proved his readiness for the role with his most consistent season.

He was the popular choice to carry off the Dally M title and even though he missed out on the honour (by two votes) his status as an elite NRL talent was not up for debate.

Cleary was instrumental in the Panthers smashing the club record for consecutive wins (the run ended at 17 in the grand final) which carried them to their first minor premiership title since 2003.

Clutch Cleary gives Penrith an edge

He did it through an immaculate kicking game, a preparedness to engage the defence and an ever-improving ability to close out games through his management of pressure situations.

He may have fallen short of his ambitions in two of the biggest games of the season but there is little question that the grand final loss to the Storm and the Origin defeat in November will fuel his motivation.

Cleary’s kicking skills were seen at their best in the Blues’ Origin victory at ANZ Stadium.

Cleary gives Penrith a glimmer of hope

Aided by a dominant display from his forwards and the speed of winger Josh Addo-Carr, Cleary tormented the Maroons with the variety of his kicks and afterward won acclaim from Blues’ royalty when Peter Sterling and Andrew Johns rated his exhibition one of the finest seen in the Origin arena. Cleary led the NRL for 40/20 kicks and he executed two of them in the Origin series.

His willingness to take on the defence was reflected in his tryscoring tally of eight. For the second season running, Cleary finished with the most tries by a halfback while his career strikerate of 36 tries from 100 NRL games compares favourably with any halfback of the modern era.

He won games for the Panthers with a cool head, four times piloting field goals that proved decisive to the outcome with none more important than his one-pointer in the qualifying final defeat of the Roosters.

Unfulfilled ambition should drive Cleary to greater heights in 2021, a prospect that will excite supporters but cause opponents to shudder.

Munster scores as the Maroons lift

Cameron Munster

In a vintage year for five-eighths, Cameron Munster vaulted to the top of the class with dazzling performances in the biggest games of the season.

Dally M winner Jack Wighton, South Sydney maestro Cody Walker, Roosters playmaker Luke Keary and livewire Panther Jarome Luai were all in the running to be acclaimed as the best five-eighth in the game but it was the Melbourne Storm No.6 who was the best when the stakes were raised.

Munster’s capabilities have been applauded ever since he burst into the top flight with the Storm in 2014. He’s won recognition from state and national selectors and twice been awarded the Dally M Five-eighth of the Year title, but it could be argued that the prodigious 26-year-old has never quite produced the goods on the same sustained basis that he did in 2020.

Perhaps it was the unique circumstances of the season that were a contributing factor. The Storm’s isolation on the Sunshine Coast resulted in a more intense focus on performance than ever before.

Distractions were kept to a minimum and while life in the "bubble" had its restrictions, it might have provided Munster with the perfect conditions to play his best football.

Maroons five-eighth Cameron Munster.
Maroons five-eighth Cameron Munster. ©Jason O'Brien/NRL Photos

If there was one Storm player who had occasionally succumbed to outside noise, it was the extroverted Rockhampton junior but there was none of that in 2020 as Munster made a huge contribution to Melbourne’s premiership success and then backed up to star for the Maroons in their unlikely Origin series victory.

He played almost no part in Queensland’s Game 2 defeat after he left the field as the result of an early head knock but for the two games that Queensland won, Munster was front and centre.

He combined superbly with man of the match Daly Cherry-Evans to frustrate the Blues in Origin I and he was perfectly positioned to take advantage of a NSW error to score the try that ultimately proved the match-winner.

He was even more influential in Origin III and his ball-on-a-string play before halftime might have been the moment that turned the fortunes of the series irrevocably towards the Maroons.

It was a brilliant piece of ad-lib play that involved two kicks and had interchange Jai Arrow not been hauled in just short of the line, it surely would have gone down as one of Origin’s greatest four-pointers.

In any case, it was a play destined for highlights reels for years to come and it led immediately to a try for winger Edrick Lee that handed the Maroons a 12-6 lead at the break and a giant psychological boost.

Munster was deservedly awarded the Wally Lewis Medal as player of the series, but more widely, he has become recognised as one of the modern game’s best big-match performers.

Papenhuyzen breaks through

Ryan Papenhuyzen

Pure, unadulterated speed was an asset the Melbourne Storm possessed in vast supply in 2020.

It came from the flanks where wingers Josh Addo-Carr and Suliasi Vunivalu played mighty roles in the Storm’s success but more significantly it came from fullback where Ryan Papenhuyzen developed into one of the most dangerous attacking players in the game.

Papenhuyzen was well down the pecking order when it came to finding a fullback replacement for the peerless Billy Slater at the end of 2018. Scott Drinkwater had the jump on the role before he was injured in the pre-season and then Jahrome Hughes took over until Papenhuyzen’s eye-catching form off the bench led to him taking on the position late in the 2019 season.

In 2020, Papenhuyzen made the position his own, dazzling with his skills and thrilling with his raw speed.

Papenhuyzen claims Clive Churchill Medal

Addo-Carr might have had his measure in a one-on-one sprint but Papenhuyzen was far more involved in the contest, handling the ball almost three times as often and invariably placing his stamp on the game as the Storm returned to the winner’s podium for the first time since 2017.

Papenhuyzen was largely responsible for the Storm topping the NRL for tries originating from beyond halfway. Melbourne finished with 28 long-distance efforts for the season, with Papenhuyzen weighing in with seven.

He was also a key contributor to the Storm’s number one ranking for tries scored on tackle zero or one. His anticipation and acceleration allowed the Storm to transition from defence to attack in the blink of an eye or take advantage of a six-again call.

The 22-year-old did not miss a beat during the finals series and stunned the Panthers with a scintillating 80-metre try from a scrum win soon after halftime in the decider. The importance of the try was only apparent in the dying stages as the Panthers mounted their comeback.

Another grand final moment exemplified Papenhuyzen’s value to the Storm and weighed heavily in his favour when he was awarded the Clive Churchill Medal.

Little Papenhuyzen, big leap

With his team ahead by 20 points and only 15 minutes left to play, Papenhuyzen made a diving leap from the field of play to ensure a penalty kick for touch by Nathan Cleary did not reach its mark.

It was not the first time he had made such a move in 2020 but was typical of the type of the effort plays that had rocketed him up the rankings of the NRL’s fullbacks.

Papenhuyzen may not have unseated James Tedesco at fullback for NSW but there was regret among the Blues’ brains trust that he was not included on the bench for the series decider after Tedesco left the field with concussion. He may have made the difference.

Papalii cruises over as Roosters defence left wanting

Josh Papalii

When it came to dispensing blunt force, no player dished it out the way Josh Papalii did for Canberra and Queensland in 2020. The 118kg giant was the most feared and respected front-rower across the NRL as much for his power and timing in attack as for the brutality of his defence.

Papalii was named one of the top five players of 2019 after playing a major role in the Raiders’ drive to the grand final. We described it as "his finest season in the game" and highlighted moments where Papalii’s involvement was crucial to victory.

Despite the challenges of 2020, the long hiatus as much of the country went into a 10-week lockdown and profound changes to the Raiders’ travel routines, Papalii took the disruptions in his stride and maintained his 2019 standards.

He continued to make his mark on the Raiders by generating all-important attacking momentum, clocking up consistently high counts for metres gained and post-contact metres and was a constant threat to the opposition when charging onto the ball at close range.

He produced a memorable match-winning try in the grand final rematch against the Roosters at the SCG in July; defying the attempts of three of the most formidable defenders in the game; Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Siosiua Taukeiaho and Boyd Cordner.

And while he so often rocked opposing players with a brutal body shot, Papalii’s defensive input in 2020 will be forever remembered for his long-distance chase and ankle-tapping bring-down of runaway Gold Coast halfback Jamal Fogarty in Round 15. It was voted Dally M Tackle of the Year.

Papalii was unconcerned that he was conceding almost 40kg in this chase and he didn’t care that the Raiders held a near unassailable lead at the time.

Papalii chases down Fogarty and saves certain try

He could have left the chase to a faster team-mate but Papalii refused to concede and his despairing dive stopped Fogarty after a 60-metre pursuit. "Papa will go down as one of our greatest ever players, when he retires," Raiders coach Ricky Stuart said after that game.

It was a comment later echoed by two-time premiership-winning prop Glenn Lazarus after Papalii put pen to paper on an extended deal that will tie him to the club until the end of 2025.

"Surely he has to be mentioned in every conversation when it comes to the [best] front-rowers Canberra have had,” Lazarus said.

The accolades continued for Papalii, who was named at prop in the Dally M Team of the Year, while the Raiders awarded him the Mal Meninga Medal for the fourth time. Papalii shared the honour in 2020 with team-mate Jack Wighton.

Dally M Medal winner - Jack Wighton

Jack Wighton

Jack Wighton’s development as an elite NRL performer continued in 2020. After making the switch from fullback to five-eighth 12 months earlier, the 27-year-old became entrenched in the role, harnessing the confidence gained from a Clive Churchill Medal-winning performance in the 2019 grand final to take his game to new levels.

Wighton made it known from the opening game of the season that he would be a force to be reckoned with when he powered across the Titans’ line to score Canberra’s first two tries of 2020.

That physical impact would be repeated often across the season as Wighton emerged with 13 tries, a tally exceeded by only one five-eighth in the Raiders’ history (Blake Austin crossed 14 times in 2015).

And it was Wighton who answered the call from coach Ricky Stuart when a special effort was required or when the team needed to raise its energy levels. It was evident in Round 16 when the Raiders faced an uphill battle against the Bulldogs at GIO Stadium.

With his team trailing 20-12 at halftime, Wighton powered his way to back-to-back tries to restore the lead and set the Raiders on course for a decisive win.

He scored another double against the Dragons in Round 18 and was judged best-on-field a week later against the Warriors, despite a controversial sin-binning.

Wighton does it all himself

Wighton’s consistency was enough to lift him clear of the field in the race for the Dally M Medal, an honour that most pundits were convinced was headed for Nathan Cleary at Penrith. Wighton was rested for the final round of the season against Cronulla but still had enough points to remain atop the leaderboard.

He became the first Raider to win the Dally M title since Laurie Daley in 1995 and only the second Canberra player after Ricky Stuart to win a Clive Churchill Medal and a Dally M Medal.

Wighton’s candidacy for the State of Origin series was never in doubt and after his success at left centre for the Blues in 2019 he was thrust into the role again by coach Brad Fittler.

The gamble paid off in 2019 as Fittler successfully squeezed a stable of stars such as Tom Trbojevic, James Tedesco and Wighton into the one backline, however the plan to repeat the achievement in 2020 was diminished by injury and a resurgent Queensland under coach Wayne Bennett.

Wighton committed his future to the Raiders before a ball was kicked in 2020, signing an extended deal that will keep him in the capital until the end of 2024 and like team-mates Josh Papalii and captain Jarrod Croker, is likely to remain a Raider for life.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.