34 thoughts for 34 grand final players
GRAND final week is always the best week of the year, regardless of who is playing.
When the rugby league world shrinks down to two teams, one game and the ultimate prize is on offer it's impossible not get caught up in it all.
People do crazy things - like dye sausages green, or dress up as the Macho Man Randy Savage, or decide to do a column every day of the week.
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This offering from your sleep-deprived scribe is a thought on each of the 34 grand final players - that's right, I'm finally writing something about the Roosters.
1. James Tedesco
You'd get no argument from me if you named James Tedesco as the best player in rugby league, but he can confirm his place as the finest player in the sport with another grand final victory.
The pride of Camden was one of the Roosters best in their premiership victory last year and has since cemented his place as their most dynamic player - his outstanding workrate and ability to always stay involved are his two greatest weapons, and after his Origin heroics and probable Dally M victory he's rapidly becoming one of the best fullbacks of the modern era. Turns out the Raiders knew what they were doing when they tried to sign him.
2. Daniel Tupou
Tupou has very quietly become one of the Roosters best ever wingers. He's entering his third grand final with the club (he crossed the stripe in both of his previous appearances) and his 93 tries is level with club legend Dave Brown for the fourth highest total in club history. By the time he leaves, he could well enter the top three given he's just 11 tries behind Bill Mullins. Tupou is always an aerial threat, but he's an underrated yardage man as well and has put together a very tidy season - he's currently averaging a career-high 159 metres per game, good enough for third among wingers who played more than 15 games. Look for him and Tedesco to link on kick returns.
3. Latrell Mitchell
A bit earlier this year we touched on Latrell Mitchell's rollercoaster ride of a season, where he's stayed in the same place but public perception has raged around him and given him a first-hand look at the temporal nature of the rugby league discourse.
Mitchell is the same as he's always been, a jaw-droppingly gifted attacking player who can struggle to stay involved in games, it's the way we perceive him that's changed. His head to head battle with Joey Leilua will be a highlight - look for the Roosters to go his way early and often.
4. Joseph Manu
Manu had a slow beginning to the year but really kicked into top gear once he spent a few weeks at fullback and in the last few matches he's been one of the Roosters' best. His defensive decision making was a highlight of the Roosters run to glory last year and he'll once again be charged with shutting down Canberra's potent left edge. Manu earned a points decision victory over Croker when the two teams last met in Round 21, and given the amount of traffic run down their left the Roosters need Manu to be at his best once again.
5. Brett Morris
Let's not kid ourselves - Canberra are the people's champions for this grand final, maybe more so than any team in recent grand final history. The Roosters are rich, powerful and successful - admirable qualities, but not likeable ones. If you are looking for a reason to cheer for them, Brett Morris is as good as any. Signing him was a typical Roosters bit of business and a very clever signing, the kind where you look around and think how someone else didn't snap him up first - Morris might be getting long in the tooth but he's still an excellent finisher and a very smart, tough and canny all-round operator on the wing, and it's always better to have him at your disposal than to not. If there's a chance to score he will take it, if there's a chance to stop someone he will do it. Nine years after his first premiership, Morris could well win his second but even if the Roosters lose it'll be through no fault of the 33-year old.
6. Luke Keary
Keary is in an unusual position. He could win his third premiership, the most of any spine player not named Cronk, Slater or Smith this century, and he may well claim his second Clive Churchill Medal, but his bona fides as one of the game's elite players are almost entirely dependent on club form. Through a variety of misfortunes, Keary is yet to make his Origin debut and has played just two Tests for Australia, missing the bulk of one due to a concussion. In an era where Origin form, rightly or wrongly, dominates discussions of a players legacy, value and place in history, Keary is an anomaly. He may well finally run out in sky blue for Game I in Adelaide next year, but until then he almost stands alone, with an indisputable resume which can still grow in the telling.
7. Cooper Cronk
Nine grand finals in 16 years. It's obscene. Cooper Cronk the man has played in more grand finals than the Knights, Titans, Warriors, Cowboys and Tigers combined. He has made the grand final more often than he's missed it since debuting back in 2004. He is a profound rugby league player, blessed with a will of iron and a deadly set of weapons he forged and sharpened himself.
He was already a rugby league great when he left Melbourne, but the extra exposure he's gained at the Roosters has been a nice addition to his career, proof that he was not of the Storm system, he was the system itself.
Cronk is a good choice for man of the match given his excellent performances in the 2009 and 2012 grand finals in which his kicking, still one of his best assets, came to the fore. Look for him to pin Canberra down their own end whenever he can.
8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves
The big Kiwi returns after a week on the sidelines via suspension and is one of three Roosters in the grand final squad who have played in each of the club's deciders this decade. A couple of years ago, after Jason Taumalolo stole Waerea-Hargreaves' soul in front of the world in the 2017 prelim, I thought he was finished as a top line prop but in the two years since he's played the best football of his career. The Roosters were able to get by without him against Melbourne, but he's still their best middle and the steel beneath their attacking silk.
9. Sam Verrills
After thinking about it for a few days, I'm convinced at this point that Trent Robinson will bring Jake Friend into his matchday 17. The risks simply aren't worth the reward though. As good as Friend is, and given Verrills has done such a fine job since he secured the job, Robinson can trust him to perform. It's a shame for Friend, a wonderful player who has endured a tough year, but sentiment shouldn't trump what's best for the team. If Friend does play he might not get through the 80 minutes, he'll be heavily targeted by the Raiders and it creates a whole lot of uncontrollable elements for the Roosters. It's a tough loom for one of the club's most loyal servants, but Verrills should start.
10. Isaac Liu
An unsung hero for the Tricolours, Liu started on the edge in last year's grand final before switching back to the middle this season. The Roosters stars get all the attention, but they can't do what they do if guys like Liu don't aim up. A punishing customer on both sides of the ball, Liu's aggression and physicality will be crucial if the Roosters are to gain the ascendancy early.
11. Boyd Cordner
It's been an up and down season for Cordner, who has struggled with injuries all year, but in the last two weeks he's shown his quality with two huge performances. The line he ran for his try against South Sydney was as good an angle as any forward has run all year, a tremendously subtle thing where his footwork shifted at the last minute and totally bamboozled Adam Reynolds, and the skipper was man of the match against Melbourne. He's going to lock on to Aidan Sezer and run at him all day, all night and maybe for a few days after that.
12. Mitch Aubusson
If I'm ever trapped in the desert with no hope of rescue I'll simply say "I wonder who is the most underrated player in the NRL" and a heap of Roosters fans will appear out of nowhere to say "WHAT ABOUT MITCH AUBUSSON BRO?" and I'll be saved. Seriously though, Aubusson is the kind of player who has made the most of his own talents by always doing the little things right, and he's a true ornament of the Bondi club. A third premiership, not to mention a fourth grand final appearance, would just grow his already considerable reputation as one of those guys who helps bind the game together.
13. Victor Radley
Last year, in the lead-up to the grand final, I did a story on some of Victor Radley's mates from Bronte, who get around their boy with a passion and enthusiasm which is impossible to deny. The ringleader of the Bronte boys, Robert Bruns, dressed up as the Macho Man Randy Savage for grand final day and assured everyone that the cream would rise to the top, brother. This year the great man has done it again. I will refuse to refer to Canberra's coach as anything but Ricky "The Dragon" Stuart from now on.
14. Angus Crichton
Crichton has never quite fit at the Roosters as he struggled to find his feet at his new club but he's tackled his new role in the middle admirably, and he had one of his best games of the season in the prelim against Melbourne. He's still better suited to the edge, but Crichton's athleticism and his leg speed can be a real weapon against tiring defenders - if Canberra don't come correct he could hurt them.
15. Zane Tetevano
The Cook Islands international is known for his hard-hitting off the bench, and he's become a constant in Trent Robinson's best 17 in recent years. It's no easy thing to keep the tempo and energy high off the bench, but Tetevano manages to do it with his physical strength and willingness to rip in. He could very well be a two-time premiership winner when the dust settles on Sunday.
16. Nat Butcher
One of the real success stories for the Roosters this season, Butcher has plugged whatever role Robinson has needed from him this year, filling in on the edge and in the middle when required. His style reminds me a little of Anthony Watmough - Butcher is built close to the ground and moves well for such a compact man. A big improver in 2019, Butcher has ensured the Roosters were able to cover the loss of Dylan Napa.
17. Sio Siua Taukeiaho
It's a measure of the Roosters depth that they're able to have a four-cap Origin player and one of the best props in the game come off the bench. Taukeiaho shapes as a crucial player for the Roosters - they have a stronger bench on paper than the Raiders and, depending how the rotations work, Tauikeiaho's entry to the match against the Raiders interchange forwards could be the moment the Roosters start to turn the screws.
1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad
The grand final will be Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad's 33rd game of first grade. His story, rising from backup Warriors winger to potential premiership winner, is well told at this point but it's still absolutely remarkable. Along with John Bateman, Nicoll-Klokstad's sheer energy and willingness to fight as hard as he can to win even the smallest battles is part of what has transformed Canberra into what they have become. Look for him and Hodgson to combine close to the line - several of Nicoll-Klokstad's tries have come in short yardage situations.
2. Nick Cotric
It's been a funny old year for Nick Cotric. He made his Origin debut and played in his first finals series, but he also ended his streak of consecutive appearances stretching back to his debut and, for the first time in his career, he faced some personal adversity after he was sent off against the Dragons. Given Cotric is in his third season of first grade it's easy to forget how young he is - the grand final will be his 71st game and he's still the youngest player on the field. His carries out of the backfield will be crucial for the Raiders, who rely so heavily on their back five for yardage.
3. Jarrod Croker
There are few Canberra records Croker does not hold - he's already got most tries, most goals and most points, last week he claimed the record for most games as captain and by the time he's done he'll be the most capped Raider of all time.
By the time he retires he'll be the fourth man on Canberra's Mt Rushmore - we can carve it into the side of Mt Kosuciozko maybe - but if he leads the Raiders to this title we can start carving his headgear into the rock on Monday.
Croker's defence still unfairly has its detractors (apart from a misread on the Dane Gagai try last week, which was part of a total defensive misread by the men inside him, Croker was superb in that regard last week) but he's a key attacking player given how much traffic the Raiders send down their left.
The captain's goalkicking has been shaky this year (his 73.68 per cent success rate is the worst of his career) and the Raiders need to keep the scoreboard ticking over - they cannot afford easy misses.
4. Joey Leilua
Leilua is the sole Raider with NRL grand final experience, which is hilarious in itself. Just like we all expected, Leilua will be the calm, reasoned voice of experience, showing the younger fellas the way and using his cool head to keep everyone focused on the big stage.
Or, conversely, he could uncork some of the wild shit we all know lurks deep within. Breaking down the Roosters defence cannot be done conventionally - it will require offloads, broken tackles and individual brilliance, and no player in the Raiders side is more individually brilliant than Leilua.
His strong carries, which were such a feature last week, will also be of paramount importance, as will his decision making in defence - he'll come under heavy pressure from the Luke Keary/Latrell Mitchell combo.
5. Jordan Rapana
If this is the final game for Leipana, and it may well be given Rapana seems all but certain to leave for Japanese rugby, the only thing we can predict is the unpredictable. They are clearly the very best centre-wing combo of recent years, maybe the best since Matt Gidley and Timana Tahu. Rapana himself has built a strong legacy at the Raiders playing more games on the wing for the club than anyone else and outscoring every other winger in the club's history bar Noa Nadruku. He's 100/1 with most bookies to win the Clive Churchill medal but if any winger can do it, it's Rapana. Say he makes 160 odd metres, grabs a couple of tries and makes a break or two, which he's very capable of doing, he could become the first winger to take the medal home. Stranger things have happened.
6. Jack Wighton
Time to put my hand up - I didn't just think Jack Wighton's move to five-eighth wouldn't work, I thought it would be a disaster. Before his suspension last year Wighton had made great strides as a fullback, I argued, why waste all that time by moving him again? That wasn't me being bitter by the way - Wighton himself agreed. There was no recognised replacement at fullback, why open up another roster spot, I said, they're changing up the combinations again with so little upside, I said. Given Wighton is now an Origin series winner, one of Canberra's attacking linchpins and is about to play in a grand final I think it's fair to say this is one for the blooper reel of takes.
7. Aidan Sezer
A few weeks ago I wrote about Aidan Sezer, who was still viewed as one of the weak links of Canberra's premiership push. The basic premise was as follows - Sezer's incredible gifts haven't quite been realised, for a variety of reasons, some of which are his fault and others that aren't. Sezer had a tough outing against the Rabbitohs as the Raiders lost their way in the attacking 20, but the fact remains he will join Ricky Stuart and Chris O'Sullivan as the only halfbacks to lead Canberra to a grand final. The Raiders cannot afford another shrinking violet performance from Sezer, who's kicking game will be of paramount importance. He can silence the doubters, and justify the faith of believers forever if he can realise his potential on this stage and transform ANZ Stadium into Sezer's palace.
8. Josh Papalii
Remember a bit earlier when I said Croker would end up on the Mt Rushmore of greatest ever Raiders? Papalii has become another contender. Personally, I would have had him in an all-time Canberra XVII before the prelim victory over South Sydney, but in light of his incredible performance, the best by any Raider in a final since the 1994 premiership, he's locked in as far as I'm concerned. Papalii has been Canberra's best player this season and if he can go forward the way he has in recent weeks the Raiders are in with every chance.
9. Josh Hodgson
Of all the recruits to come through Canberra in recent years, none has changed the club's course more than Hodgson. I'm fond of saying life before the English dummy half was like living in black and white. Given the low ebb the club was at before he arrived in 2015 and the heights they've climbed to since, it's fair enough to say only Mal Meninga brought on a more dramatic change. They couldn't have signed Ricky Stuart's brother without paying overs, but they found Hodgson, and through him, Blake Austin and another recruit who we'll get to in a second, everything changed.
10. Sia Soliola
The other guy who helped change everything was Sia Soliola. Along with Papalii, he's Canberra's steel in the middle of the field but his impact stretches beyond the field. It's telling that Soliola is one of only two men to play under Stuart at the Raiders and Roosters (David Shillington is the other, for those of you playing at home) and Soliola is the only one Stuart recruited. The coach describes him as a leader of men, and he is - on the field and off it. Soliola's physicality in attack and defence will be key if Canberra are to win the opening exchanges.
11. Elliott Whitehead
The Raiders have received many accolades this year, but one man who's been overlooked is Whitehead. The English international is a tremendously well-rounded and committed player, who never stops working in defence or trying to sniff out a chance in attack. Whitehead does the little things very well, and it's the little things that make up life - his offload in the lead up to Jarrod Croker's try last week, for example, is the kind of play he's been making all year. He's a prime candidate for the coveted "Played Great But Was Robbed Of The Clive Churchill Medal" award. '
12. John Bateman
There's little I can write about John Bateman that isn't just repeating what's already been said. I had high expectations for him this year, given his reputation and accolades in England, but he's totally exceeded them. Like Nicoll-Klokstad, his energy, enthusiasm and intensity, mixed in with an uncommon skill for men in his position, has helped turn this Raiders side into what they are today. Win or lose, he'll have a major say in the result.
13. Joseph Tapine
Tapine is a good example of something all grand final teams need - that is, a willingness to sometimes put the needs of the team before one's own ambitions. The New Zealand international was one of Canberra's best players last year on the right edge, which is definitely his best position. That's also where he began the season, before injuries and suspensions restricted him to just 16 regular season games. In the meantime, Bateman came in and changed Canberra's world, his form demanding he couldn't be moved. Tapine is not a natural middle forward, and his attacking workrate can be spotty, but he's rangy, difficult to take down and can fire off a shot in defence. The Raiders need the best of him on Sunday.
14. Corey Horsburgh
"The Red Horse" is the most important of Canberra's interchange forwards. Not only does he carry the ball well, and rather nimbly for a big man, he's also a confident distributor from first receiver who can help open up the attack if the Raiders get too bogged down. It's a big responsibility for Horsburgh, but he's up for it - rep football is not beyond him in the next few years.
15. Bailey Simonsson
No player has improved more this season more than Simonsson, who's gone from a train and trial deal to a grand final berth. In the first trial of the year, against Parramatta, he looked damn near unplayable, and now he's signed an upgraded contract and will be a starter next year if Rapana leaves. Unless there's a backline injury he might not see many minutes in this one though - maybe as relief in the middle if Canberra need a jump start.
16. Dunamis Lui
Much-maligned on occasions, Lui has quietly become a fixture in the Raiders match day 17. He's played every match this season, just like he did last season, alternating between the starting line up and the bench. Personally, I prefer him starting with Soliola coming off the bench, so one of either Soliola or Papalii are on the field at all times. Like Horsburgh, Lui can open up the Canberra attack from first receiver - he did this well in the win over Melbourne in the first week of the finals.
17. Emre Guler
With just 14 games to his credit, Guler is tied with Roosters hooker Sam Verrills as the most inexperienced player in the grand final. He's a prop of some promise, with strong carries and deft footwork the highlight of his play, but it's still a surprise to see him here over Siliva Havili and Ryan Sutton, who both played the bulk of the regular season. Having said that, Guler has shown himself to be up for the task in each Canberra's finals wins and the big Turk will be ready for more responsibility should Stuart call upon him.