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David Middleton's top five NRL players of the year

Ahead of the release of the 2022 Official Rugby League Annual, historian David Middleton has picked his top five players of the year and remarkably none of the men who made the list in 2021 are back this year.

Two Roosters, two Panthers and a Cowboy have been judged the best of the best after a stunning year of football... with premiership-winners Isaah Yeo and Dylan Edwards getting the nod but playmaking supremo Nathan Cleary missing out after a season interrupted by suspension and injury.

Superstar Roosters James Tedesco and Joey Manu also made the top five as well as Cowboys and Kangaroos gun Valentine Holmes.

Middleton's top five players of 2021 were Cleary and fellow Panther Brian To'o, along with Dally M Medal winner Tom Trbojevic, Storm playmaker Jahrome Hughes and Rabbitoh Cody Walker.

Panthers skipper Yeo flew the flag for the forwards this year after no forwards made the top five last year.

Dylan Edwards

Often described as one of the most under-rated players in the game, Edwards did everything possible to change that narrative in 2022 with his regular eye-catching performances for the Panthers.

He was the NRL’s Running Man, notching the highest tally of attacking gains across the competition, made the most ground on kick returns and proved a major weapon for the Panthers in the quest for back-to-back premiership titles.

Along with wingers Brian To’o and Taylan May, Edwards’ ability to put the Panthers’ attack on the front foot was a precious asset. And Edwards led the charge, averaging 223 metres per game, one of only three players in the NRL to consistently run for more than 200 metres. The others were Test fullback James Tedesco (212) and To’o (204).

Dylan Edwards' Clive Churchill winning effort

Edwards has set the fitness standards for the Panthers for much of his time with the club and the results are seen in his weekly performances, whether returning the ball from the backfield with interest, or joining an attacking shift on either side of the field. He also chimed in for nine tries, the highest tally of his 105-game NRL career.

Edwards’ under-rated tag might have been dropped for good after his performance in the grand final against Parramatta. He produced another dynamic running game, notching 291 metres, broke nine tackles and threw the final pass for the opening try of the game by Stephen Crichton. But if the judges for the Clive Churchill Medal were still mulling over their decision midway through the second half, then Edwards clarified their thought process with an epic tackle on runaway Eels’ centre Bailey Simonsson.

Edwards channels Sattler with sublime cover tackle

It was the moment that coach Ivan Cleary knew that the premiership title was safe and any chance of a Parramatta fightback was snuffed out there and then.

Edwards became the third Panther to be honoured with the Churchill Medal, following hooker Luke Priddis in 2003 and team-mate Nathan Cleary in 2021. Many pundits believed it was an award that would propel Edwards into the Kangaroos squad for the World Cup but coach Mal Meninga and his selectors were blessed with fullback options outside of James Tedesco, including Latrell Mitchell, Jack Wighton and Valentine Holmes. Edwards paid the price of being a specialist in the fullback role.

Valentine Holmes

Holmes might rate his premiership-winning season with Cronulla in 2016 as the best year of his NRL career but for pure performance alone, his efforts for the Cowboys in 2022 will take some topping.

The 27-year-old was at the peak of his powers for North Queensland, a major factor in the club’s stunning about face following a dismal season in which they finished second last in 2021. He was a match-winner at left centre, a record-breaking point scorer for his club and a quality performer at representative level for the Maroons and Australia.

Holmes run play

Holmes was an undisputed match-winner in three games for the Cowboys in 2022, his efforts helping to elevate the Cowboys into the top four. He ran 85 metres to score the match-winning try against Manly at 4 Pines Park in Round 15; booted a challenging penalty goal after the siren in the highly controversial clash against Wests Tigers and back at his old stomping ground at Cronulla, landed a booming golden point field goal in a qualifying final that pitched the Cowboys into an historic preliminary final against the Eels in Townsville.

Born and raised in Townsville, Holmes has become an integral figure at the club over the past three seasons following his flirtation with the New York Giants and in 2022 he was a key figure in one of the most gifted backlines in the NRL. His combination with fullback Scott Drinkwater and five-eighth Tom Dearden generated countless scoring opportunities for the team and Holmes figured prominently in all key attacking stats.

His goalkicking was another huge asset for the Cowboys in 2022. One of the most accurate kickers in the NRL, he became the first Cowboys player to kick 100 goals in a season and broke Johnathan Thurston’s season point scoring record that had stood since 2014. Holmes was the NRL’s leading pointscorer for the season and moved into third place on the Maroons’ all-time Origin scorers’ list.

Holmes was an important contributor to the Maroons’ Origin success, scoring crucial tries in victories in Sydney and Brisbane before becoming one of only two players to appear in all six Tests for Australia at the World Cup (captain James Tedesco was the other). After playing centre in early pool games, Holmes switched to the wing for the finals matches, with Latrell Mitchell and Jack Wighton occupying the centres roles. Holmes celebrated his second victory in a World Cup final following his success over England in 2017.

This Joey Manu try had everything

Joey Manu

Few opposing players got the better of Joseph Manu in 2022 in a season where he raised his game to new heights. Whether it was for the Roosters or the Kiwis, Manu routinely produced efforts that required a second look.

He did it for the Roosters with improbable offloads and spontaneous pirouettes and displays of strength. He was most dangerous in those broken play moments when he unleashed his unpredictable skills but he was also dangerous in more structured moments when he appeared to be well held before releasing a late pass.

He played fullback for the Kiwis and raised the bar on individual attacking performance with an astonishing output of 401 metres in the mid-season Test against Tonga (from 32 runs) and with an average of 260 metres at the World Cup.

In a beaten team in the semi-final against Australia, Manu ran for 318 metres, a figure surpassed only by Kangaroos fullback and Roosters team-mate James Tedesco, with 320.

Manu received the highest recognition of his career during the World Cup when he was awarded the Golden Boot as International Player of the Year. He also won a place in the Dally M Team of the Year

Manu was a consistent and constant performer in a Roosters team that battled injury and other setbacks for much of the season. He slotted seamlessly into five-eighth for two games when regular No 6 Luke Keary was injured and was at his best as the Roosters made their charge for the finals with an eight-game winning streak through July and August.

But when he limped off Allianz Stadium with a calf injury in the Round 25 victory over arch-rivals South Sydney, it marked the beginning of the end for the Roosters’ premiership chances.

Hobbling Manu with a magical moment

They had bravely combated almost every other challenge during the season but losing a player of Manu’s strength and skill proved impossible to overcome.

The Roosters were completely out of sorts in their elimination final loss to the Rabbitohs the following week and the absence of Manu’s rock steady influence and composure might have been enough to tip them off their axis. It was an uncharacteristic display and coach Trent Robinson admitted that both teams had “descended the game” but the Rabbitohs were the ones who recovered to play winning football. It might have been a different story if Joey Manu had been there.

James Tedesco

In years to come, James Tedesco can look back on 2022 as a year of towering achievement. It mightn’t have come with premiership success or State of Origin glory but the individual honour of captaining his country is expected to make it a defining year of his stellar career.

Tedesco became only the 70th player bestowed with the Australian Test captaincy in the long history of the game and he joined a select few who have led Australia to a World Cup victory. The Roosters star played all six games of the Kangaroos’ Cup campaign and it would be hard to argue that he was not among the best performers at the tournament.

Tedesco domination

Tedesco was recognised for other deeds during the season; named Brad Fittler Medal winner as New South Wales’ best player of the State of Origin series for the third time; named RLPA Players’ Champion for the third time and he won the Jack Gibson Medal as Roosters player of the year for the fifth consecutive year.

Tedesco finished second in voting for the Dally M Medal and was Dally M Fullback of the Year for the second time.

Fair compensation for a year that ended in disappointment for club and state!

Tedesco proved both durable and consistent throughout 2022, appearing in 24 of the Roosters’ 25 games, in three Origins and six Tests.

Even at the age of 29, Tedesco finished among the leaders in many attacking categories. He was second for metres gained, third for kick return metres and once again he was first in the NRL for tackle breaks.

Tedesco proved an inspiring leader for the Roosters, guiding the team through another season impacted by injury, and providing a strong example for young team-mates Joseph Suaalii and Sam Walker to follow. He was also shown to have the highest success rate with Captain’s Challenges!

Tedesco achieved two major career milestones in 2022, playing the 200th game of his career late in the season and breaking through the 100 tries barrier. He became only the eighth fullback to score 100 tries at first grade level.

In the winner's sheds: Isaah Yeo

Isaah Yeo

Of all the factors built into the success of the Panthers over the past three seasons, the role played by lock Isaah Yeo may just prove to be the most significant.

The 28-year-old has evolved the position of ball-playing lock forward to a new level. His ability to read the opposition and effect the balance between hurling his 106kg body into the fray or setting up an opportunity for halfback Nathan Cleary has made Yeo the modern prototype of a lock forward.

Frequently appearing at first receiver, Yeo offers Cleary and five-eighth Jarome Luai the opportunity to stand wider and deeper, providing them more time and space to work their plays. At other times, Yeo operates as a highly effective middle forward, averaging gains of almost 150 metres per game in 2022.

The other factor Yeo brings to the Panthers is his temperament. He has proved almost completely unflappable, making him an ideal forward leader.

The contribution Yeo has made to the Panthers’ success since 2020 cannot be underestimated. No individual player has won more games at NRL level than the tall No 13. He has played 70 games during the period for 63 wins. That amounts to an incredible winning rate of 90 percent, figures seldom seen in the game’s history.

Yeo’s performances demanded recognition at representative level and despite the presence of other outstanding No 13s in the competition such as Cameron Murray, Victor Radley and Jake Trbojevic, the combination of Yeo and Cleary has become something of a no-brainer for selectors.

Yeo played all three Origin games for the Blues and was denied by centimetres from scoring a try on full-time in Game 1 that could have changed the outcome of the entire series.

Yeo: 'We feel like we're at the top of our game'

Yeo achieved the highest honour of his career in October when he was named in Australia’s World Cup side and he went on to play five of the six games, including the final at Old Trafford.

He is now a Test player and a two-time premiership winner and his status as the quiet achiever behind the success of Panthers is only expected to be enhanced in the years ahead.

Acknowledgement of Country

North Queensland Cowboys respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.