NRL 2021: Centre power rankings 16-1

The regular season is done and dusted, and now it’s time to look back at how some of the great individuals in the NRL performed in 2021.

Justin Olam, Joseph Manu and Brian Kelly all had stellar seasons in the centres, while some others struggled to make an impact for their side. 

Sporting News will be ranking all positions throughout the season, continuing with the centres below.

(In positions where there are two players per side, we’ve ranked based on combinations for each club as opposed to individual players. Rankings are based solely on 2021 regular season performances and who played the most games for their club in that particular position). 

16. Tommy Talau/James Roberts – Tigers

Talau (22 games) – 11 tries, 33 tackle breaks, 14 linebreaks, 98 metres per game

Roberts (11 games) – 3 tries, 19 tackle breaks, 3 linebreaks, 74 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News James Roberts

Another tough year for the Tigers, missing the finals once again.

Roberts looked to revive his career at Concord this year, but managed just 11 games under Michael Maguire and scored just three tries.

On the other hand, Talau had a solid season and looks a player of real promise, scoring 11 tries and averaging just under 100 metres per game.

Unfortunately for the son of former Bulldogs star Willie Talau, he suffered an ACL injury in the final game of the season and looks set to miss the start of 2022. 

15. Adam Pompey/Peta Hiku – Warriors

Pompey (16 games) – 4 tries, 51 tackle breaks, 4 linebreaks, 104 metres per game

Hiku (10 games) – 1 try, 2 try assists, 19 tackle breaks, 115 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Adam Pompey

Tough year for the Warriors, away from home again due to the pandemic and battling a myriad of injuries throughout the year.

In his final year at the club, Hiku managed just 10 games due to injury. He made a significant difference when he was on the field, and will be a solid pickup for the Cowboys next year.

Pompey continues to show potential, making 51 tackle breaks in just 16 games and proving a tough man to stop, but lost his spot late in the year under Nathan Brown.

Euan Aitken moved to the second-row late in the season in what looks to be a permanent move, while young gun Rocco Berry featured at stages throughout the year as well. 

14. Will Hopoate/Aaron Schoupp – Bulldogs

Hopoate (24 games) – 5 try assists, 32 tackle breaks, 3 linebreaks, 121 metres per game

Schoupp (13 games) – 3 tries, 33 tackle breaks, 130 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Aaron Schoupp

Two men at the opposite stages of their career, both Canterbury centres had solid campaigns despite the side finishing with the wooden spoon.

Hopoate has remained a consistent performer and was again among the Bulldogs’ best throughout 2021, but will move to the Super League next year after signing with St Helens.

Schoupp had a brilliant rookie campaign, averaging 130 metres per game and bringing plenty of excitement out wide for the Bulldogs.

With the likes of Matt Burton and Matt Dufty joining the club next year, Schoupp will see more quality ball and could shoot right up these rankings in 12 months time. 

13. Seb Kris/Jarrod Croker – Raiders

Kris (20 games) – 8 tries, 37 tackle breaks, 8 linebreaks, 79 metres per game

Croker (12 games) – 1 try, 2 linebreaks, 9 tackle breaks, 75 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Sebastian Kris

Missing the finals for the first time in a while, Canberra’s mid-season form slump and second-half fadeouts proved costly.

Kris however had a really strong year, blending his physicality with speed and looks to be a star of the future. 

Croker unfortunately was hampered by injury and his career looks to be at somewhat of a crossroads. The veteran managed just 12 games and scored only one try for the Raiders this year.

Powerful young gun Matt Timoko played a handful of games and could hold Croker out of a spot next year. 

12. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow/Connelly Lemuelu – Cowboys

Tabuai-Fidow (13 games) – 8 tries, 38 tackle breaks, 13 linebreaks, 122 metres per game

Lemuelu (13 games) – 1 try, 2 try assists, 12 tackle breaks, 91 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow

Despite both these players only managing 13 games during the season, there was plenty to like about them for a Cowboys’ side that struggled for wins.

Tabuai-Fidow was absolutely electric at club level and his 13 linebreaks in as many games helped earn him a State of Origin debut for Queensland.

Lemuelu also had a solid year and at 21 years of age, is only going to improve in the next few years.

But with Peta Hiku arriving next year and Valentine Holmes looking set for a long-term shift to the centres, there will be plenty of competition for spots out wide under Todd Payten in 2022. 

11. Herbie Farnworth/Kotoni Staggs – Broncos

Farnworth (20 games) – 3 tries, 56 tackle breaks, 7 try assists, 145 metres per game

Staggs (4 games) – 3 tries, 19 tackle breaks, 4 linebreaks, 76 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Kotoni Staggs

Somewhat controversial, but hear us out. 

Staggs played just four games this year due to injuries and off-field issues, but he made a significant impact on the Brisbane side and produced better performances in those games alone than some centres did all season. 

As for Farnworth, he compiled another really good year at Red Hill, despite the side finishing in the bottom-four once again. The Englishman averaged just under 150 metres per game and produced seven try assists.

With premiership-winning halfback Adam Reynolds joining the club next year and Staggs back at full fitness, opposition centres will be shaking in their boots. 

10. Waqa Blake/Tom Opacic – Eels

Blake (15 games) – 5 tries, 54 tackle breaks, 3 linebreaks, 107 metres per game

Opacic (21 games) – 7 tries, 57 tackle breaks, 9 linebreaks, 84 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Waqa Blake

Another finals finish for Parramatta, dusting off a late-season slump to go within inches of a prelim final.

Blake remains an attacking threat, breaking 54 tackles and averaging over 100 metres per game, but struggled at times in defence during the year.

Opacic did a solid job after signing with the Eels this year, scoring seven tries and making nine linebreaks, but was left out of the side late in the year.

The emergence of rookie centre Will Penisini will excite Parramatta fans moving forward, and he looks set to lock down that spot for years to come. 

9. Bradman Best/Kurt Mann – Knights

Best (16 games) – 3 tries, 6 try assists, 6 linebreaks, 119 metres per game

Mann (21 games) – 3 tries, 4 linebreak assists, 67 tackle breaks, 99 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Kurt Mann

A strange year for both these men.

Mann started the year in the halves, but with the early arrival of Jake Clifford, was shifted to the centres midway through the year. 

The utility performed well in his new role and looks to have found a permanent role there. 

Best had a campaign disrupted by injury, but when he was on the field he always looked damaging. There are some queries over his defence, but he’s still in the infancy of his career and should only improve.

8. Jesse Ramien/Connor Tracey – Sharks

Ramien (17 games) – 5 tries, 101 tackle breaks, 7 linebreaks, 140 metres per game

Tracey (24 games) – 14 tries, 3 try assists, 5 linebreak assists, 134 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News connor tracey

Missing the finals for the first time in years, Cronulla fans would be very disappointed – but two shining lights throughout the year were these two men.

Ramien is one of the best strike centres in the competition, equally as destructive out of his own end as he is close to the line. Averaging 140 metres per game and making over 100 tackle breaks this year is no mean feat either.

As for Tracey, he played a whole bunch of positions in 2021 but looked very comfortable at centre, despite coming through the ranks as a halfback.

The utility scored 14 tries and averaged over 130 metres per game, and may have found himself a long-term home at the Shire-based outfit. 

7. Jack Bird/Zac Lomax – Dragons

Bird (22 games) – 4 tries, 7 try assists, 83 tackle breaks, 122 metres per game

Lomax (12 games) – 4 tries, 3 try assists, 17 tackle breaks, 82 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Jack Bird

A year that started with so much promise for the Dragons unfortunately fell of a cliff late in the year. 

Bird enjoyed a great return after a lengthy injury layoff, producing seven try assists and averaging over 122 metres per game, adding plenty to the Red V attack when they were firing.

Lomax is a raw talent and still only 21, but his skills and footwork are almost impossible to stop at times. He had his season hampered by a thumb injury, but was dynamic when he was on the field.

Moses Suli looks set to join the Dragons next year and play centre, which would likely see Bird move back into the forwards for 2022 and beyond. 

6. Brian Kelly/Patrick Herbert – Titans

Kelly (21 games) – 11 tries, 7 try assists, 10 linebreaks, 132 metres per game

Herbert (19 games) – 6 tries, 6 try assists, 71 tackle breaks, 106 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Brian Kelly

Take away the final seconds of their eliminational final loss to the Roosters before jumping down our throats here.

Herbert had a fantastic year at his new club, scoring tries and setting them up, as well as carrying the ball out of trouble better than most centres in the competition. Just pass the ball to your winger next time when the game is on the line!

As for Kelly, he continues to fly under the radar in this position. He scored 11 tries and made 10 linebreaks throughout the year, and has sneakily become one of the game’s best centres. 

With another pre-season under their belt and some changes in the spine next year, it will be interesting to see how these Titans stars go next year. 

5. Morgan Harper/Brad Parker – Sea Eagles

Harper (20 games) – 7 tries, 10 linebreaks, 58 tackle breaks, 104 metres per game 

Parker (23 games) – 8 tries, 39 tackle breaks, 13 linebreaks, 102 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Morgan Harper

A product of playing alongside Tom Trbojevic, but take nothing away from the season these two blokes had.

Parker has become one of the game’s best defensive centres, but his eight tries and 13 linebreaks show is just as handy with the ball in hand.

Harper joined the club midway through 2020, but really shone this year and has grown in confidence.

The fact that both these players could keep Moses Suli out of the side for a large chunk of the year only proves how good they are going. 

4. Joseph Manu/Josh Morris – Roosters

Manu (23 games) – 10 tries, 7 try assists, 92 tackle breaks, 12 linebreaks, 141 metres per game

Morris (18 games) – 8 tries, 6 try assists, 10 linebreaks, 87 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Joey Manu

A tough year for the Roosters with injuries and retirements, but there was one man who really stood out for them.

Manu compiled another elite year on stats alone – but he’s also established himself as a match-winner. Playing all across the backline during the year, this was a career year for Manu on an individual level.

As for Morris, the first-half of his season was outstanding, but unfortunately he dropped in form later in the year after his brother Brett was forced into retirement, where Josh will now join him. 

They will be spoilt for choice next year for who will partner Manu, with young guns Billy Smith and Joseph Suaalii returning from injury and Adam Keighran putting together some strong performances at centre. 

3. Dane Gagai/Campbell Graham – Rabbitohs

Gagai (20 games) – 10 tries, 11 try assists, 14 linebreaks, 79 tackle breaks, 133 metres per game

Graham (18 games) – 8 tries, 4 try assists, 9 linebreaks, 113 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Dane Gagai

A deadly centre pairing, with both men producing plenty of highlights for the Bunnies.

Gagai has shaken off the notion of ‘only playing well for Queensland’ this year, performing consistently well at club level. He reached double-digits for tries, try assists and linebreaks which is a pretty fair achievement.

Graham continues to be the quiet achiever for Souths, and while he isn’t as rampant in attack as Gagai, his defence has been fantastic and was a part of the NSW Blues squad for Origin this year.

With the former moving on at season’s end to return to the Knights, it will be interesting to see what new coach Jason Demetriou does in that centre spot for next year. 

2. Stephen Crichton/Matt Burton – Panthers

Crichton (23 games) – 8 tries, 8 try assists, 51 tackle breaks, 138 metres per game

Burton (22 games) – 16 tries, 13 try assists, 8 linebreak assists, 108 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Matt Burton

One is among the highest-paid centres in the competition, while the other is a halfback playing in the centres – but it was the latter who had a better year. 

Burton, desperate to play first grade before heading to Canterbury in 2022, was a standout wherever he played this year, scoring 16 tries and producing 13 try assists.

Crichton had a solid year but perhaps didn’t improve on his breakout 2020 campaign, and actually ended the year playing on the wing for Penrith.

With both Burton and Brent Naden moving to the Bulldogs next season, Crichton will likely partner Paul Momirovski in the centres moving forward, with the latter performing well whenever he was given the chance. 

1. Justin Olam/Reimis Smith – Storm

Olam (23 games) – 11 tries, 10 try assists, 11 linebreaks, 80 tackle breaks, 123 metres per game

Smith (23 games) – 14 tries, 3 try assists, 11 linebreaks, 51 tackle breaks, 81 metres per game

© Provided by Sporting News Justin Olam

The NRL might have forgot about Justin Olam for the Dally M Centre of the Year award, but we certainly didn’t.

Olam was the best centre in the competition this year, scoring 11 tries and setting up another 10. His bone-rattling defence also gave plenty of opposition centres nightmares during the year.

Smith on the other hand moved down from Canterbury and immediately became a ‘Craig Bellamy player’, putting together a brilliant first year at his new club with 14 tries and 11 linebreaks.

The pair have the potential to stay in this spot for many years to come given the way they played in 2021. 

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