Wednesday 1 September 2021

Top 5 NRL Rookie of the Year Contenders for the 2021 Season

2021 NRL Rookie of the Year Race down to 5...
Published August 30, 2021 
Another NRL regular season is almost in the books and this means NRL Award season is fast approaching. One of the most contentious awards given out on Dally M night is often the NRL Rookie of the Year - otherwise known as the Peter Moore Rookie of the Year.
So with the 2021 NRL Finals Series just over a week away, now seems like a good time to remind you that NRL Awards are judged solely on the regular season performances of players and whatever happens in the Finals doesn't count. 
In conjunction with NOT The Footy Show's NRL Podcast which will release an Episode soon talking about the Best Rookies of 2021, has whittled down a long list of over 70 eligible rookies from this season into a standout Top 5 we believe are in contention to be 2021's NRL Rookie of the Year.
Just to clear up any confusion on 'who is a rookie?', the rules surrounding rookie eligibility are:
From - Players are eligible for the Rookie of the Year in their debut season and the subsequent two NRL seasons. Once a player plays his fifth NRL Premiership match (or English Super League match), he becomes ineligible for the Rookie of the Year in any subsequent seasons. A rookie who is suspended for two separate offences in any one season becomes ineligible for the Rookie of the Year award. The Rookie of the Year is voted on 3 points, 2 points and 1 point basis by the Dally M judges at the conclusion of Round 25. 

Now to be clear will be picking our best rookie of 2021, we will not be trying to predict who the Dally M Judges will select.

So without further ado...

The Top 5 Contenders for the 2021 NRL Rookie of the Year are:
  • Daine Laurie, Wests Tigers.
  • Josh Schuster, Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles.
  • Stefano Utoikamanu, Wests Tigers.
  • Sam Walker, Sydney Roosters.
  • Reece Walsh, Warriors.
Eligibility wise - Laurie, Schuster and Utoikamanu all played in the NRL in 2020, but only 3 games, 1 game and 3 games respectively, so all are eligible. Walker and Walsh both made their debuts in 2021.
Although the Joseph Suaalii hype-train was full stream ahead in the off-season once he'd secured his move to the Roosters from Souths, there is no room for the now 18 year old on this final list. He has also now played in 5 games (before being shut down due to injury) so he cannot win the award in 2022.
There are honorary mentions after some standout performances in 2021 from Toby Sexton (4 games) and Junior Amone (9 games) with both showing genuine promise but without a large enough sample size to force their way into the Top 5. Charlie Staines (20 games) scored 14 Tries for the Panthers during the season but struggled to get into games most weeks despite his tryscoring numbers and lost his spot in the Penrith side after Round 21.
Also worth noting is the players who are not eligible despite their relative inexperience at the NRL level. If we understand the rule 'once a player plays his 5th NRL game' applies to games played in total for their career (and not per eligible rookie season) - Matt Burton (6 games by 2020), Jason Saab (7 games by 2020), Haumole Olakau'atu (7 games by 2020) and Jordan Riki (5 games in 2020) should not be considered for the 2021 rookie class.
Now let's look at the contenders in more detail with stats courtesy of Fox Sports.
Wests Tigers 
Fullback | 22 Years Old | 2021 Games: 19 (6 Wins, 13 Losses).
Scouting Report: 
Quick, elusive and willing, Laurie is an undersized fullback by today's standards but he is a goer and footy smart. Gus Gould was a huge fan at Penrith and said as much before he debuted.
He got a 3 game taste of the NRL with Penrith late in 2020 but his path to a regular first grade spot was blocked by Dylan Edwards and Stephen Crichton at the Panthers. The Tigers liked what they saw and in November they signed him for 2022 and beyond. Then in early February with the Moses Mbye at fullback retread project not enthusing the coaching staff, they then used the most traded player in NRL history to get him to Concord immediately.
Laurie became Michael Maguire's first choice fullback from that point forward and put together a more than credible rookie season finishing his campaign prematurely through injury but he still scored 7 and set up 10 Tries in his 19 games. Could sniff out a meat pie with support smarts and his link play evolved as the season moved on, often playing out the back of Luke Brooks, Mbye and Doueihi. Averaged 14.1 Runs for 118 Metres per game (good for 13 Line Breaks, 13 Line Break Assists and 75 Tackle Breaks) and defensively he was solid without being a bank vault at the back (67.7% Tackle Efficiency), and his 16 Errors ranked him 58th in the NRL.
Click for enlarged version of his Fox League Stats

Laurie looks to be the long term fullback at the Tigers but as we all know... the off-season is much longer than you think and who knows what Maguire goes after to improve the Tigers in the off-season... if Maguire lasts til then.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
Second Row | 20 Years Old | 2021 Games: 17 (12 Wins, 5 Losses).
Scouting Report: 
Incredible prospect. Schuster came through the junior system as a five-eighth but his body has developed so well at just 20, he is the physical prototype for today's edge forward. Skilful to the wazoo (he may actually have too much skill for Des Hasler to fully enjoy) and strong enough to offload at will, Schuster is quick and agile despite his size but is still learning the game on both sides of the ball. The future is something else for Josh.
Began the year on the outside looking in and when injury took out Andrew Davey in Round 2, he was thrust into Manly's left edge as a second rower and stayed there. Missed 5 games with a leg injury mid-season but returned in Round 18 and showed he hadn't missed a beat, as he carved up the Dragons. Schuster has rarely looked overawed by the NRL.
Has set up 16 Tries already this season and possesses a superb no look pass which can be long and short. Hasn't shrugged his work rate either, especially in defence - making 25.4 Tackles per game at 91.0% Efficiency. Doesn't run a great deal but 8.7 Runs for 72 Metres per game isn't chicken feed. When you can do the things Schuster can with the ball (19 Offloads and 10 Line Break Assists), mistakes do follow, with his 19 Errors 39th worst in the NRL.
Click for enlarged version of his Fox League Stats

Josh Schuster is one of two rookies on this list who will play in the NRL Finals and with Manly firing on all cylinders as long as Tom Trbojevic takes the field - he might just be the first of this select rookie crop to taste Premiership success. Long term he looks like a representative player and should be a cornerstone of the backrow at Manly for the next decade. Sensational footballer.
Wests Tigers 
Front Rower | 19 Years Old | 2021 Games: 20 (6 Wins, 14 Losses).
Scouting Report: 
Massive unit and fairly athletic for his size, Utoikamanu has worked incredibly hard on his fitness during this campaign and is arguably the Wests Tigers most important forward when he is on the field - which is a lot more often now than it was to start 2021. Body shape reminds you of Ian Roberts - but Roberts was more skilful - and with a presence like that he is a force to be reckoned with even after 21 NRL Games. And a big bonus with him is he doesn't make errors or give away penalties - which might get him thrown out of the Front Rower Union if he keeps it up.
Signed to a big money deal to join the Tigers - even as an unproven rookie at Parramatta before the 2020 season and it's looking like one of their best investments in a long long time. Managed to get a spot on the interchange bench at the start of the year and announced himself with back to back tries against Newcastle and Parramatta in Rounds 3 and 4. Played solid football thereafter but it wasn't until he was called into Brad Fittler's NSW Origin squad for Game 3 that things really started to come up Millhouse for Stefano.
Fresh from Origin camp, Utoikamanu has started every game since and is averaging 14.4 Runs for 126.1 Metres in those 7 games, and he's scored 3 tries as well. His defensive work-rate has been consistent with 22.4 Tackles per game at 91.1% Efficiency. And in 20 games he has just 3 Errors and conceded just 2 Penalties (not including six agains).
Click for enlarged version of his Fox League Stats

Utoikamanu is some kind of front row prospect. Although the Tigers have faltered (again) in terms of challenging for that ever elusive Top 8 berth, the development of Utoikamanu from bench forward into integral starting prop is a rare win for coach Maguire in 2021. When Brad Fittler goes out of his way to show just how big a fan he is, you are a good chance of going places in rep footy as well. We will watch Stefano's career with great interest.
Sydney Roosters 
Halfback | 19 Years Old | 2021 Games: 18 (12 Wins, 6 Losses).
Scouting Report: 
You won't find a more precocious talent in Rugby League today. Walker has the potential to be a halfback in the Allan Langer mould but with a better passing game. That's not us saying he's going to be as good as Alfie but the instincts he has remind us very much of the all time great Brisbane halfback. Remember Alfie wasn't big (Walker definitely has him covered height wise) and he made a fair career for himself.
Walker actually is going to grow into his body - he's just 19 - and as it matures so will his running game which you can see he wants to use but it does get him belted at the NRL level right now. Has a smart kicking game that is better short than it is long. His passing and vision are already extremely good, almost to the point where the more mistakes he makes the better he'll be for it so he learns what's on and what's not in First Grade. Is a string-bean but he's willing and with more rump he'll get better at getting in the way effectively. Goal-kicking is something he needs to spend every waking hour on during the off-season as the Chooks are desperate for a reliable kicker. The package is there and in 2021 we've seen a lot from it already.
The big games have been big. Games against Cronulla in Round 5, St George Illawarra in Round 7, Newcastle in Round 8, the Gold Coast in Round 14 and North Queensland in Round 18 were all Walker's-On parties and all Sydney victories. He's experienced a couple of savage losses but for the most part - Walker has won in his rookie season (12 wins from 18 starts).
He has been a try-creating machine with 21 Try Assists (10th in the NRL) and another 7 Try Contributions to go with 8 Tries of his own. Throw in another 30 Line Break Assists (3rd in the NRL) and 7 Line Breaks of his own and good things happen when Sam's got the ball in his hands. With creativity comes risk and his 21 Errors are 26th worst in the comp, and his defensive game is weakness teams go after - he has 63 Missed Tackles (12th worst in the NRL) and is completing Tackles at just 76.9% Efficiency. However it is encouraging that of his 263 Tackles - he's made 41 of the One on One variety. Again, as his body fills out he'll get better here... because he obviously needs to.
The Roosters leant on him far earlier than they'd planned as Luke Keary's knee injury thrust Walker into the NRL in Round 4 but he has delivered more than they really could have hoped. Sure the talent is there but the desire to be a difference maker is as well, and that is the main quality that will have endeared Walker to his teammates as they tried to resurrect an injury and retirement plagued 2021 NRL campaign... and it isn't over yet.
Click for enlarged version of his Fox League Stats
Walker has all the tricks but he also has the footy instincts. It's a fair combination. Next year he gets to play next to one of the best playmakers in the game in Luke Keary and there simply won't be a more potent 6-7 combination than these two. Oh and he gets to pass to James Tedesco and Joey Manu for the next few years of his development as well... the sky is the limit for this kid. 
Fullback | 19 Years Old | 2021 Games: 15 (5 Wins, 10 Losses).
Scouting Report: 
Showed phenomenal confidence for an 18 year old when he debuted for the Warriors in Round 7 against Melbourne in Melbourne, and within two months Walsh had been picked in the Queensland Maroons team for Game 2. Although he didn't make his debut due to a training camp injury, Walsh had announced himself to the Rugby League stage in a big way before Origin came calling. 
Silky and elusive runner with a fearless approach to throwing cutout passes to his winger, Walsh immediately became the Warriors top playmaker when he joined the team. You only need to point to the regression of Kodi Nikorima's role in the team as evidence of this. The Warriors - and the fullback job - were Walsh's to command after what felt like about 60 seconds of first grade. If you require stats to underscore his playmaking importance so far - Walsh has scored 9 Tries and set up 14 more in his 15 games and has 14 Line Breaks and 13 Line Break Assists. The kid makes things happen.
There are limitations to his game at the moment and one is physically, he simply can't bang out the volume of runs that his contemporaries at fullback can. Averaging 10.1 Runs for 106 Metres per game - not bad, with 60 Tackle Busts, so he's not shirking his job at the back but he's not about to hit 200m a game through pure work rate anytime soon like some others can. Defensively he's limited and that is to be expected with his inexperience and size. Has errors in him (18) but all playmakers do. Does have a kicking game already which the Warriors haven't had at fullback since arguably Matthew Ridge in the late 90s. It's a great asset.
Click for enlarged version of his Fox League Stats

Walsh burst onto the scene with an even bigger impact that Sam Walker and that's saying something. If there's a knock against Walsh in the evaluation of Rookie of the Year it is the fact the Warriors have simply not won enough with him in the lineup. Like any rookie he will have down games or not be able to convert on a key moment in a match that may be the difference between winning and losing but with Walsh - you get the feeling he's going to keep trying to win games by himself even if the last time he tried to didn't payoff. With the right pieces around him (cannot wait to see him and Shaun Johnson play together in 2021), Walsh can keep turning heads with the kind of footy that crowds (and hopefully New Zealand ones) love to see for the next decade and a half. Fantastic talent.
So who takes it out?

It's not an easy choice. 

Walsh and Walker have certainly produced highlight reel content every other week for the Warriors and Roosters respectively. Schuster as a rookie has shouldered the responsibility holding up the left side of Manly's backrow (which was without Curtis Sironen for most of the season) and looked silky smooth with the ball in the process. Utoikamanu has come along in leaps and bounds in the second half of 2021 in a team that definitely needed extra punch up the middle and got a NSW squad call-up for Game 3. Laurie has been very good for the Tigers despite joining late in the pre-season but did not quite have the same level of impact on results as Walsh and Walker especially.

So here is the Top 5 in order of how we would crown the 2021 NRL Rookie of the Year.

5. Daine Laurie.
4. Stefano Utoikamanu.
3. Josh Schuster.
2. Reece Walsh.
1. Sam Walker.

Laurie is a good footy player but the other four are outstanding talents already and have some kind of future ahead of them at the top reaches of Rugby League.

And we believe Sam Walker is the pick of the bunch now and long term - he's a halfback who takes the game on which means he just shades Walsh and Schuster, whom by the nature of their positions are quality compliments to the halfback or hooker who runs things. 

Meaning Sam Walker is our choice for the 2021 NRL Rookie of the Year.
Who is your pick for Rookie of the Year and which player do you think will be the best long term?
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