The 2022 NRL season has gifted fans one of the more diverse rookie classes in recent memory. The contender list for Rookie of the Year honours is so long, only a Top 10 countdown will justify those in contention…
The Dally M Rookie of the Year award was formed in 1980 to reward the most impressive rising star in their first full season.
The winners list boasts Dally M Medalists Greg Alexander and Jarryd Hayne, greats of the game Paul Sironen and Steve Menzies, and current stars Daly Cherry-Evans, Adam Reynolds and Harry Grant.
The parameters to qualify are pretty simple, you must be in your debut season, or have played less than five first grade games across a maximum of two NRL or English Super League seasons preceding the current year.
Got it? I hope so. Because without further hesitation, it is time to countdown the top rookies of the 2022 NRL season.
2022 Rookie of the Year contenders, Top 10
10 – Zac Woolford (Canberra Raiders)
Position – Hooker
2022 Key Stats – 14 games, six try-assists, 95% tackle efficiency
Perhaps the biggest unsung hero of the 2022 NRL season is Raiders’ ‘Son of a Gun’ Zac Woolford. Debuting in Round 10 at the hearty age of 26, Zac made an immediate impact creating two tries in Canberra’s pivotal underdog victory against the Sharks. He has since started all games bar one with the simple role of weathering the brutal opening exchanges to allow Tom Starling the opportunity to meddle against tiring opposition. This change helped stimulate the Raiders to 10 wins in 14 games with the destiny of playing finals footy now firmly in their own hands.
9 – Toby Sexton (Gold Coast Titans)
Position – Halfback
2022 Key Stats – 19 games, two tries, nine try-assists, 23 forced dropouts
At 21 years of age it is a difficult task to assert yourself at NRL level, especially when your chosen profession is halfback in a side struggling to avoid the wooden spoon. Sexton performed admirably for the majority of the season, but eventually paid the price for the Titans’ poor form when coach Justin Holbrook made changes to his spine after Round 20 in a bid to salvage consolation wins and potentially his job. There is plenty of upside to Sexton and he will feature prominently for the Gold Coast moving forward.Embed from Getty Images
8 – Christian Tuipulotu (Manly Sea Eagles)
Position – Winger
2022 Key Stats – 18 games, 10 tries, 50 tackle busts, 126 avg run metres
Tuipulotu could almost be considered a veteran compared to the rest of the field with 2022 being his third season in the top flight. The ‘veteran’ played a solitary game for the Roosters in 2020, and again for Manly in 2021, before finally establishing himself in their first grade side when a backline reshuffle was required for Tom Trbojevic’s first injury of the season. Christian’s powerful frame is troublesome for opposition defences close to the line, and in general play where he has accumulated over 100 run metres in all but three games.
7 – Jacob Kiraz (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs)
Position – Winger
2022 Key Stats – 14 games, six tries, 33 offloads, 49 tackle busts, 132 avg run metres
The wiry outside back left Newcastle in the pre-season in search of an NRL opportunity and seized it with both hands when it presented on the wing for the Bulldogs. His explosive, energetic nature has troubled all rivals in 2022 especially the Knights who were left rueing his departure when he scored a hat-trick in Round 20. The Lebanon international has an unbelievable ability to offload which suggests he will move closer to the action as his promising career develops.
6 – Ezra Mam (Brisbane Broncos)
Position – Five-Eighth
2022 Key Stats – 13 games, six tries, seven try-assists, 30 tackle busts, 100 avg run metres
Ezra debuted at halfback in Adam Reynolds’ absence and played a starring role in Brisbane’s Round 11 hammering of the hapless Knights. His performance was so impressive he retained a starting position at five-eighth upon Reynolds’ return and was dynamite during the two months that followed. His form unfortunately dipped in conjunction with the Broncos dramatic fall from grace and he has been dropped for Round 25 as a consequence. It should only be a minor speed bump in a prosperous career for the livewire 19-year-old.
5 – Xavier Savage (Canberra Raiders)
Position – Fullback
2022 Key Stats – 16 games, five tries, six try-assists, 35 tackle busts, 144 avg run metres
Savage is another Canberra rookie whose promotion to the starting side helped correct their stuttering season. He is the X-factor Canberra have been desperate for at the back and he only just seems to be scratching the surface of his true potential – a frightening fact for the rest of the competition. If Ricky Stuart nails his development, Canberra could have their first star fullback since Brett Mullins.
4 – Tolutau Koula (Manly Sea Eagles)
Position – Centre
2022 Key Stats – 19 games, six tries, 11 line breaks, 69 tackle busts, 125 avg run metres
For one of the quickest men in rugby league, Koula was slow off the try-scoring mark in his NRL career. It took ten games for Tolu to finally register a four-pointer but he quickly made up for lost time posting six in his next seven games. His athletic prowess with ball in hand is unsurprising considering his Olympic track and field pedigree, but his courage in defence at just 19 years of age against much larger men has been one of the standout features of his rookie year. The Tongan international can cover any position in the three-quarter line and should be a star of the NRL for years to come.
3 – Lachlan Ilias (South Sydney Rabbitohs)
Position – Halfback
2022 Key Stats – 22 games, four tries, 11 try-assists, 25 tackle busts, 15 forced dropouts
Ilias had big boots to fill at Redfern following the departure of Adam Reynolds and many Bunnies fans were rightly nervous after his slow start to the year. As the season progressed, so too did his confidence, and Lachlan now looks every bit an NRL half ready to steer his side into a finals campaign. His control off the boot has all the promise of the number seven who went before him, and his athleticism – coupled with aggression, has given the Bunnies extra physicality at halfback they didn’t previously possess. Ilias looks assured in his ability and it appears increasingly likely he will become the next long term halfback the Rabbitohs desire.
2 – Taylan May (Penrith Panthers)
Position – Winger
2022 Key Stats – 20 games, 16 tries, 18 line breaks, 97 tackle busts, 158 avg run metres
Taylan has looked right at home in a champion side since scoring a hat-trick on debut in Round 3. Originally selected at left wing in Brian To’o’s absence, May was so impressive that Blues representative To’o moved to the other side of the field upon his return. Taylan is an elite finisher and robust runner of the footy who delivers equal worth charging out of trouble as he does over the tryline. His advanced footy intellect also enables him to make quality decisions with or without the footy which is a trait so impressive in someone so raw. A long and illustrious career awaits for this multifaceted attacking weapon.
1 – Jeremiah Nanai (North Queensland Cowboys)
Position – Backrower
2022 Key Stats – 20 games – 17 tries, eight line breaks, 15 offloads, 31 tackle busts, three Origin games
It is difficult to remember a forward posing an aerial threat more lethal than Nanai’s. When not plucking bombs from above the opposition, he is punching holes through their defence to score tries at a rate unseen from a backrower since Steve Menzies.
His ability to promote the footy for his teammates adds another string to his attacking bow and his development is a key factor in the Cowboys’ catapult to Top 4 status. His impact at club level was duly rewarded with State of Origin selection and after two appearances off the bench to begin the series, he finished with an impressive 80-minute display in the decider to help Queensland secure victory. Jeremiah Nanai will be the 2022 NRL Rookie of the Year and an enduring presence in representative footy.