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David Middleton's NRL and NRLW Team of the Year

To celebrate the release of the 2023 Official Rugby League Annual, historian David Middleton has named his NRL and NRLW Teams of the Year with a host of big names selected.

Order your copy of the 2023 Official Rugby League Annual here.

NRL Team of the Year: 2023

  1. Reece Walsh (Broncos)
  2. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (Warriors)
  3. Herbie Farnworth (Broncos)
  4. Stephen Crichton (Panthers)
  5. Jamayne Isaako (Dolphins)
  6. Ezra Mam (Broncos)
  7. Shaun Johnson (Warriors)
  8. James Fisher-Harris (Panthers)
  9. Harry Grant (Storm)
  10. Payne Haas (Broncos)
  11. Liam Martin (Panthers)
  12. Tyson Frizell (Knights)
  13. Tohu Harris (Warriors)

You’d reckon that Shaun Johnson would enjoy working behind this forward pack and setting up opportunities for his outside men. And you would imagine that Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Jamayne Isaako would have the time of their lives, turning on an epic display of acrobatics to build on the imposing tally of tries they notched in 2023.

James Fisher-Harris might never work in tandem with Payne Haas in the front row and that may be a merciful thing for any opposition... but wouldn’t it be something to see Fisher-Harris careering into the defence and then Haas bumping and trampling off the back? That is a one-two punch if ever there was one and Harry Grant would have a field day with every possible option available to him.

NRL try time: Reece Walsh

Once the defence started to break up, Reece Walsh would run riot against retreating tacklers and his broken play possibilities would be limitless; he could hold up a pass for Farnworth on the left or he could accelerate into a half-gap on the right and look for Crichton to finish off, using his size and reach to plant the ball.

Chances are our Team of the Year will remain a Dream Team, and while some of these players may get the chance to play alongside each other at club and representative level, unless there is a return to a World All Stars concept sometime in the future, this line-up is destined to remain a great team on paper.

It’s always appealing to consider the possibilities, though … how Ezra Mam and Shaun Johnson might work together, what kind of damage back-rowers Liam Martin and Tyson Frizell could inflict if the space in front of them opened up and they were running off the service of Harris or Johnson or Mam.

We’ll likely never know the answers... but it’s a tantalising prospect.

NRL try time: Shaun Johnson

NRLW Team of the Year: 2023

  1. Tamika Upton (Knights)
  2. Jakiya Whitfeld (Wests Tigers)
  3. Mele Hufanga (Broncos)
  4. Jaime Chapman (Titans)
  5. Sheridan Gallagher (Knights)
  6. Tarryn Aiken (Roosters)
  7. Ali Brigginshaw (Broncos)
  8. Shannon Mato (Titans)
  9. Destiny Brill (Broncos)
  10. Sarah Togatuki (Wests Tigers)
  11. Yasmin Clydsdale (Knights)
  12. Olivia Kernick (Roosters)
  13. Simaima Taufa (Raiders)

Leaving out high-calibre talent such as Sydney Roosters centres Isabelle Kelly and Jessica Sergis from a Team of the Year is a risky proposition given the ability these players possess to cause embarrassment – they are just as likely to tear an opposition to shreds at their next start, rendering their omission from our team a glaring oversight.

Kelly and Sergis continued to perform at a high level in 2023 but for impact and achievement we found it impossible to overlook Broncos blockbuster Mele Hufanga and athletic Titans centre Jaime Chapman. Hufanga made a gigantic impact on the NRLW competition in 2023, picking up where she left off for the Kiwi Ferns at the World Cup the year before.

The 29-year-old Tongan-born centre scored 10 tries from 10 games with the Broncos, missing out by one from being the top try-scorer in the competition, after wreaking havoc with her ability to run an inside line and trample her way to the line.

Time after time she would cut back off her left foot and take an inside pass to run against the grain against defenders who had little hope of halting her at top pace.

Jaime Chapman with a GF hat-trick

Chapman was another who showed no fear of collision with her direct running style. It went close to delivering victory for the Titans in the grand final until Knights fullback Tamika Upton decided otherwise.

Chapman shared Ezra Mam’s pain after scoring a grand final hat-trick on a losing team. Like Mam, Chapman was headed for player of the match honours until the Medal was ‘robbed’ by a match-winner.

The players we have chosen as wingers both enjoyed break-out seasons in the NRLW. Jakiya Whitfeld joined Wests Tigers from Newcastle with little fanfare but turned into one of the stars of 2023 with her strength and pace. She scored four tries for the Prime Minister’s XIII, won selection for Australia for the final Pacific Test and later signed a long-term deal with North Queensland.

On the other flank, Newcastle’s Sheridan Gallagher made a mighty impact one year after representing the Junior Matildas at the Women’s Under-20s Soccer World Cup. The 21-year-old displayed outstanding natural skills and revelled in the atmosphere of grand final day at Accor Stadium where she finished among the Knights’ scorers in their narrow win.

There were challenges among forward selections, especially overlooking players of the calibre of Caitlan Johnston (Newcastle) and Ellie Johnston (Cronulla), the latter scoring six tries in nine games for the Sharks.

Destiny Brill won a narrow call for the hooking spot ahead of the always dangerous Emma Manzelmann and the ultra-consistent Keeley Davis, while the wholehearted Simaima Taufa narrowly edged out Titans tackling machine Georgia Hale.

Acknowledgement of Country

The New Zealand Warriors honour the mana of the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific. We acknowledge the traditional kaitiaki of the lands, elders past and present, their stories, their traditions, their mamae and their mana motuhake.

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