In a season that featured so many fresh faces that announced their arrival in the NRL, it was always going to be difficult narrowing down just 10 first-year players to feature on this list. Who were the NRL's best rookies in 2016?
The game’s official website, nrl.com.au, ran the rule over all the candidates and came up with Aquis Titans halfback Ash Taylor as their number one. Let’s see what happens on Dally M Medal night next week.
10. Daniel Saifiti (Knights)
He started the year as a relatively unknown 19-year-old with a try on debut against the Titans, but Saifiti finished 2016 alongside his twin brother Jacob as Newcastle's starting front-rowers for their Round 26 clash with the Dragons. Now 20, the Fijian international played 20 games for the Knights this year, finishing the season as the club's third leading metre-eater (2,089), fifth in tackles (493) and equal fifth in offloads (15).
9. Kerrod Holland (Bulldogs)
There are NRL debuts, and then there are NRL debuts, and for the former Singleton Greyhound, his first game under Thursday night lights is one he will never forget. With the scores locked at 16-16, Holland stepped up in the 80th minute to attempt to convert a Moses Mbye try 10 metres in from the sideline. With the poise of a seasoned veteran, he piloted it between the sticks to etch his name into rugby league folklore. Holland finished the year with three tries and 39 goals from his 14 matches, and also established himself as a solid defensive centre on the right edge.
8. Josh Aloiai (Wests Tigers)
No player in the club's history had played in every game of their debut season. That was until this year when Josh Aloiai went from bench player to starting back-rower to feature in all 24 matches for the Tigers. The 20-year-old former Junior Kiwi finished 2016 averaging 65 metres and roughly 18 tackles per game, and only made two errors in the last 16 rounds of the season. His combination with five-eighth Mitchell Moses blossomed as the year went on, with the edge forward crossing for two tries as a result.
7. Bevan French (Eels)
It started with a record-breaking haul of eight tries at the Auckland Nines, and the year ended with French bagging an astounding 19 tries from just 13 matches at NRL level. It took until Round 12 for him to make his debut where he scored and stopped a try to help his side past the Knights. Three hat-tricks – including back-to-back trebles to finish the season – capped off a dream debut year that saw him score in 11 of his 13 appearances. The Eels flyer finished the year as the third-leading try scorer in the Telstra Premiership and looms as the club's long-term option at fullback.
6. James Fisher-Harris (Panthers)
No one knew what to make of Fisher-Harris after he started the year with just 113 minutes from his first six matches. But a two-try haul against the Sharks in Round 8 put him on the path to stardom with the 20-year-old going on to start 13 of the next 14 games for the Panthers, including 80-minute efforts in four of the last five rounds. You get the feeling Fisher-Harris has the potential to turn into a wrecking-ball as he matures, and with five tries, 1,418 metres and 499 tackles from a 21-game rookie season, he's on the right track.
5. Suliasi Vunivalu (Storm)
Storm coach Craig Bellamy couldn't even pronounce his name when he made his debut against the Wests Tigers in Round 7. Now Suliasi Vunivalu is the name on everyone's lips. A virtual unknown at the start of 2016, the flying Fijian scorched the rest of the field to finish 2016 as the NRL's leading try scorer with 22 (a club record for a debut season). His time in first grade started with three doubles in a row, and included two hat-tricks and a four-try haul. He has the aerial skills of Israel Folau and the finishing ability of any premier winger in the game.
4. Latrell Mitchell (Roosters)
His goal was to play every game in 2016, and despite some injury scares, Latrell Mitchell got there in the end. In a year that saw him play in the Auckland Nines and the World Club Challenge, the now 19-year-old quickly established himself as the Roosters' first-choice fullback before finishing the season on the wing. He ended 2016 as the club's leading points-scorer (80), leading try-scorer (14), most line breaks (13) and with the second most tackle breaks (89). Given how good he is already, it is scary to think just what sort of player Mitchell will become in five years.
3. Cody Walker (Rabbitohs)
Cody Walker could have been excused for thinking his time in first grade was never going to come, but after being handed his NRL debut in Round 1 as a 26-year-old mature-age rookie, the Rabbitohs playmaker hasn't looked back. Whether it was in the halves or at fullback, Walker thrived in every situation, finishing 2016 with eight tries, 15 line breaks and a whopping 80 tackle breaks to establish himself as South Sydney's premier attacking weapon. With Adam Reynolds steering the ship at halfback, Walker's off-the-cuff style is the perfect accompaniment and just what the Rabbitohs need going forward.
2. Nathan Cleary (Panthers)
No one in rugby league history has finished the year as a club's leading points scorer in both NRL and NYC in the same season. Enter 18-year-old wunderkind Nathan Cleary. The Panthers playmaker finished with 106 and 156 points respectively despite only featuring in 13 first-grade matches and 10 in the Holden Cup. It can be easy to get caught up in hyperbole when describing a player with his ability, but the truth is that Cleary has all the attributes of a 27-year-old at the peak of his powers. With three tries, seven assists and 47 goals, his attacking numbers are great. But it's his base stats that are most pleasing, with Cleary averaging more than 60 metres a game and almost 20 tackles in his debut season. His kicking game is already world-class and he never looks flustered. It's unfair to heap pressure on someone so inexperienced, but Cleary has the game to be the competition's next great halfback.
1. Ashley Taylor (Titans)
In what was the most tightly fought contest in years, we couldn't go past Titans halfback Ashley Taylor as the rookie of the year. At different stages of the past 12 months it didn't even look like he'd play first grade. But after Daly Cherry-Evans opted to stay at the Sea Eagles and Kane Elgey went down with a season-ending knee injury, the 21-year-old stepped in seamlessly to lead the Titans to their first finals appearance since 2010. Playing like a guy who seemed to be having fun, Taylor finished the regular season with five tries, 11 assists and 26 offloads from 21 appearances. He kicked goals when required, forced dropouts under pressure and led the team across the park like he'd been doing it for years.
This story first appeared on nrl.com.au