The Dally M Medal race is officially down to five with Sea Eagles fullback Tom Trbojevic climbing to second behind Nathan Cleary after 19 rounds of the Telstra Premiership.
Trbojevic joined Cleary, Roosters captain James Tedesco, South Sydney's Cody Walker and Sea Eagles halfback Daly Cherry-Evans as the stars short-listed for the prestigious award to be announced next week.
The unveiling of the top five on Monday night was part of a new-look awards ceremony this year, split across two evenings with the Dally M medal winner to be crowned at Howard Smith Wharves in Brisbane on September 27.
A further seven rounds of votes were unveiled on the first night of the awards with Trbojevic polling eight points between rounds 13-19 to sit one point behind Cleary.
Dally M contender - Nathan Cleary
Cleary led the Dally M count after 12 rounds with 21 points but his position in the top spot was expected to come under heavy pressure given he missed five games due to a shoulder injury.
Cleary started the year in dominating fashion with the Panthers halfback receiving 21 votes in 11 matches as the side racked up 12 consecutive wins early.
He polled three votes against the Roosters in a man-of-the-match performance in round 15 but wasn't sighted again until round 22.
Dally M contender - Tom Trbojevic
"It would be pretty awesome [to win]," Cleary said on Fox League.
"Going to back to when I was growing up you always watch the Dally Ms and some who have won it in the past are some of my heroes. We'll have to wait and see."
Trbojevic, who missed the opening five rounds of the season with a hamstring injury, would become the first Sea Eagles player since Matt Orford in 2008 if he was able to win the award.
The 24-year-old collected 15 points in six rounds before voting went behind closed doors before a further eight points in the middle part of the season up until round 19.
His 25 tries in 16 games during the regular season came with 30 line breaks, 105 line breaks and 27 try assists.
Trbojevic said watching on from the sidelines with injuries previously had played a part in his form this year.
"That was obviously a motivator for me and watching a lot of last year was disappointing, that hurt me a lot," he said.
"I didn't start the year the way I would've liked on a personal level. All that build-up has helped me."
Walker entered the 2021 Telstra Premiership finals series with more try assists (33) than any other in the competition with the Rabbitohs five-eighth particularly dominant during a 10-game winning streak.
After gaining eight points between rounds 1-12, Walker stormed into Dally M contention with four man-of-the-match awards in seven rounds to pick up an extra 12 points.
Cherry-Evans was one point in front of Walker with nine votes on the official count with the Sea Eagles halfback instrumental this year alongside Trbojevic to guide the side into the top four.
Dally M contender - James Tedesco
His career-best 25 try assists for the year was second behind Trbojevic for the Sea Eagles with his running game also on show for an 86-metre average throughout the season.
Fresh off his fourth consecutive Jack Gibson medal for Roosters player of the year, Tedesco enjoyed another stellar season for the Tricolours and a second Dally M medal is not out of the equation.
Tedesco was nine points behind Cleary when voting went behind closed doors but to his advantage played an extra four games than his NSW teammate in the final half of the year.
He gained a further three points in round 19 against Newcastle to remain in contention with six games remaining.
Dally M contender - Daly Cherry-Evans
Former Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Dragons leader Ben Hunt were among the top five after 19 rounds but along with Panthers forward James Fisher-Harris and Melbourne's Jahrome Hughes, all dropped out of contention.
“Tonight we began the celebration of our best athletes, those that have defied impossible during one of the most challenging and unique season in our game’s history,’’ NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo said.
“With all the challenges we have faced this year, it is a wonderful opportunity to go deeper in celebrating the exceptional performances of 2021."
Meanwhile, the coaching candidates of the year were also unveiled with top four coaches Craig Bellamy, Ivan Cleary, Wayne Bennett and Des Hasler joining Roosters coach Trent Robinson in contention.
Robinson's effort in guiding the Roosters to a semi-final finish has been widely commended while Hasler's ability to get his side into the top four has also earned him a nomination.
Part one of the award's ceremony on Fox League saw the try of the year, tackle of the year and VB Hard-Earned player of the year awarded while the top try scorer and points scorer for 2021 were also acknowledged prior on NRL360.
Sea Eagles winger Reuben Garrick claimed the top points scorer gong with a record-breaking 304 points through 21 tries and 110 goals in 24 matches.
Dally M contender - Cody Walker
Garrick broke former Bulldog Hazem El Masri's record of 288 in 2004 with an 18-point haul in the final round against the Cowboys.
"I haven't had much time to reflect on it with us still playing but holding the medal in my hand now it sinks in a bit more," Garrick said on NRL360.
Rabbitohs winger Alex Johnston took out the Ken Irvine medal as top try scorer for the second consecutive year with 27 tries in 19 regular-season games.
"A lot of it has got to do with guys like Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell and Gags [Dane Gagai] in the centres," Johnston said.
2021 Ken Irvine Medal: Alex Johnston
"I'm pretty lucky they give me some good ball and I've just got to catch it and put it down.
"It's a lot of combination work that gets over the line for me."
Parramatta's Isaiah Papali'i, arguably one of the buys of the year, finished the season as VB's hardest working player.
After being released from the Warriors last year, Papali'i finished his season in blue and gold with seven tries, 109 tackle breaks, 809 tackles, 30 offloads and 1500 post-contact metres.
2021 Top Pointscorer: Reuben Garrick
In the try of the year award, the Sea Eagles claimed the gong with their 110-metre team effort that ended with Trbojevic collecting a Cherry-Evans kick against the Cowboys in round 25.
For the tackle of the year, departing Broncos winger Xavier Coates claimed the honours for his 90-metre effort to run down Rabbitohs centre Dane Gagai and deny a try in round 13.
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