Nathan Cleary, Reece Walsh and Kalyn Ponga top the list of NRL players to watch in 2024

Ben McClellan
The Nightly
5 Min Read
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There really is nothing the Prince of Penrith can’t do. When the kingdom looked lost against a Broncos second-half rampage in the grand final he produced one of the greatest 20 minutes of rugby league in the code’s history to snatch victory from the gaping jaws of defeat. The three-time champion has a deadly boot with which he terrorises defences and racked up 8934 kicking metres in 2023.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 01: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers celebrates after scoring the match winning try during the 2023 NRL Grand Final match between Penrith Panthers and Brisbane Broncos at Accor Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Nathan Cleary celebrates after scoring the match winning try during the 2023 NRL Grand Final. Credit: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

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This brash youngster is an entertainment machine and showed why he is the best fullback in the game at both State of Origin and NRL finals levels. He made 17 line-breaks and an astonishing 105 tackle breaks in 2023 but there is sure to be more in store in 2024 as Walsh sharpens his game in an electric Broncos backline.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 11: Reece Walsh of the Broncos scores a try during the round 24 NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and Parramatta Eels at The Gabba on August 11, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)
Reece Walsh is simply electric to watch. Credit: Albert Perez/Getty Images


Newcastle had a season of two halves and the Dally M winner was a crucial cog in their incredible second-stanza surge into the semi-finals. He also had to overcome a tonne of adversity to get himself and the Knights there after a failed five-eighth experiment and recurrent concussion issues saw him fail to secure a spot in the Queensland team.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 10: Kalyn Ponga of the Knights breaks away from the defence during the round 15 NRL match between Brisbane Broncos and Newcastle Knights at Suncorp Stadium on June 10, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Kalyn Ponga won the 2023 Dally M Medal. Credit: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images


There are man-mountains and there is Payne Haas. Brisbane’s best for half a decade his ferocious ball-running and huge motor for a player his size (370 runs in 2023) make him the premier prop and forward of the NRL.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 19: Payne Haas of the Broncos is tackled during the round 11 NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Brisbane Broncos at McDonald Jones Stadium, on May 19, 2022, in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
The brave few choose to tangle with Payne Haas. Credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images


When a big game is on the line you want a goose-stepping Cameron Munster with the ball in his hands - just take his slick moves against former Storm team-mate Nicho Hynes to put Queensland in front in the first State of Origin game. He didn’t set the world on fire in 2023 but the Storm as always featured heavily in the finals, thanks to similar Munster moments of brilliance.

Cameron Munster of the Kangaroos during the 2023 Pacific Championships men’s rugby league match between Australia and  Samoa at Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville, Saturday, October 14, 2023. (AAP Image/Scott Radford-Chisholm) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Cameron Munster makes a break for the Kangaroos against Samoa during the 2023 Pacific Championships. Credit: SCOTT RADFORD-CHISHOLM/AAPIMAGE


The rangy centre famous for grand final intercepts and solid edge defence was again pivotal in a season decider for the Panthers in 2023. This time he stepped up with a powerhouse try and fifth tackle kick in a 10-minute period to help Cleary vanquish the fading Broncos.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 25: Stephen Crichton of the Panthers and his team mates celebrate victory after the NRL Grand Final Qualifier match between the Melbourne Storm and the Penrith Panthers at Suncorp Stadium on September 25, 2021 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Hear me roar. Stephen Crichton. Credit: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images


Mam’s name was virtually being etched into the 2023 Clive Churchill Medal before Cleary stole the grand final show. Mam’s blistering hat-trick of tries in 10-minutes had Broncos fans in raptures before they had their heads in their hands in shocked disbelief at fulltime.

Ezra Mam scored three tries in the 2023 NRL Grand Final.
Ezra Mam scored three tries in the 2023 NRL Grand Final. Credit: IZHAR KHAN/AFP


The towering Titans skipper has stepped up his efforts on the Gold Coast. Racking up 1217 post-contact metres and 52 tackle breaks, the 197cm prop-lock also signed a 10-year contract to stay on the coast.

Tino Fa’asuamaleaui’s strong 2023 form earnt him a spot in the Kangaroos team for the Pacific Championship last year.
Tino Fa’asuamaleaui’s strong 2023 form earnt him a spot in the Kangaroos team for the Pacific Championship last year. Credit: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images


While To’o doesn’t possess the height or aerial abilities attributed to wingers in the modern game, the nuggety wrecking ball more than makes up for it with his destructive play one and two runs, usually credited for setting a rock-solid platform for the powerful Panthers pack to further bash their opponents from.

PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 09: Brian To'o of the Panthers dives over to score a try as Isaiah Tass of the Rabbitohs attempts to tackle during the round two NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at BlueBet Stadium on March 09, 2023 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Brian To'o plays a key role in Penrith’s attack. Credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images


A recent boozed-fuelled dust-up with his skipper shows the emerging star does not take a backward step. The versatile lock forward made 54 line breaks in 2023 and is a key part of Brisbane’s defence and makes a formidable combination with Haas up front.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 26: Patrick Carrigan is seen during a Brisbane Broncos NRL training session at Suncorp Stadium on September 26, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Patrick Carrigan is going from strength to strength. Credit: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images


Painfully unlucky not to win the Dally M, Johnson showed age is no barrier to success with a stellar 2023 campaign that made the Warriors one of the competition’s hottest teams as they stormed into the preliminary finals. He turned back the clock, racking up 176 points and led the league in try assists (27).

Shaun Johnson of the Warriors during the NRL Semi-final between the New Zealand Warriors and the Newcastle Knights at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, September 16, 2023. (AAP Image/Alan Lee/via Photosport) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Shaun Johnson had a standout 2023. Credit: ALAN LEE/AAPIMAGE


2023 was not the year of the hooker but Harry Grant still proved he is the number one rake in the NRL. The Australian representative steers the Storm around the park confidently and keeps defences honest with his quick darts from dummy-half. He also gets through a mountain of work in defence making 949 tackles in 2023.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 07: Captain Harry Grant of the Storm poses during a Melbourne Storm NRL captaincy announcement at AAMI Park on February 07, 2024 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Josh Chadwick/Getty Images)
Harry Grant will captain the Storm in 2024. Credit: Josh Chadwick/Getty Images


Just three years ago Liam Martin was considered the third-string second rower for the Panthers. Now he’s one of the world’s most formidable edge forwards with the kind of line-speed and aggression doled out by Blues predecessors Boyd Cordner and Anthony Watmough.

Liam Martin is a workhorse for the Panthers.
Liam Martin is a workhorse for the Panthers. Credit: Getty Images/Getty Images


The Dolphins custodian known as the Hammer celebrated a breakout 2023 season at Redcliffe, where the NRL’s fastest man blazed across the field for 15 tries and emerged as Queensland’s best player in the State of Origin. The wildest thing: he never seemed to hit top gear while doing it.

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow was instrumental in Queensland's 2023 Origin series win.
Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow was instrumental in Queensland's 2023 Origin series win. Credit: NRL facebook/ NRL facebook


Another vital member of Penrith’s metre-eating back three, Edwards has built a reputation on his tenacious counter-attacking runs from the back and his desperate defensive efforts. He made the most metres in 2023 (4726), well ahead of the Panthers forwards. The three-peat club made his worth to them known by locking him down with a $3.4m four-year extension.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 19: Dylan Edwards of Panthers during the round 25 NRL match between Gold Coast Titans and Penrith Panthers at Cbus Super Stadium on August 19, 2023 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
Dylan Edwards was the run metres leader in 2023. Credit: Getty Images/Getty Images


The Reynolds renaissance was a work of art in 2023 with the veteran halfback proving his shift to Brisbane was a genius move by the Broncos. A master tactician and pinpoint kicker, Reynolds was the fourth highest-point scorer (182) in 2023 as he almost led his young charges to the promised land.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 05: Adam Reynolds of the Broncos celebrates scoring a try during the round nine NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Brisbane Broncos at Accor Stadium, on May 05, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Adam Reynolds is beloved by his Bronco teammates. Credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images


A backrow ace with punishing defence and silky footwork, Murray was forced to shift between the edge and his preferred 13 role due to a lack of depth in the Rabbitohs pack. Even during Souths’ late slump, the Australian rep still tore into opposition packs, racking up 38 tackle breaks and 578 post-contact metres for the year.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 25:  Cameron Murray of the Rabbitohs is tackled during the round four NRL match between South Sydney Rabbitohs and Manly Sea Eagles at Accor Stadium on March 25, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
Cameron Murray was a standout in an otherwise underperforming Rabbitohs outfit in 2023. Credit: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images


Led Queensland to yet another Origin series they were all but guaranteed not to win and often kept a patchy Manly side alive during 2023 with his elite kicking game. The presence of Luke Brooks at Manly should free him up to show more creative flair on the edges.

MUDGEE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 01: Daly Cherry-Evans of the Sea Eagles kicks during the round five NRL match between Manly Sea Eagles and Newcastle Knights at Glen Willow Sporting Complex on April 01, 2023 in Mudgee, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)
Daly Cherry-Evans’ kicking game is second to none. Credit: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images


While Nathan Cleary is the mastermind of the Penrith side, there’s no doubt who leads the formidable pack in black from the front. Possessing unmatched power and aggression up front, JFH’s brutal 2023 form was rewarded with his captaincy of a New Zealand side that bashed its way to its biggest winning margin over Australia yet.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 21:  James Fisher-Harris, captain of the Kiwis (R) scores a try and celebrates during the Mens Pacific Championships match between New Zealand Kiwis and Toa Samoa at Eden Park on October 21, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
Kiwi captain James Fisher-Harris, right, celebrates scoring a try during the Pacific Championships last October. Credit: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images


Cody should be able to copyright the cliche ending with the words “like a fine wine” - even in a Souths side that failed to match its red-hot start last year. Often in the shadow of teammate Latrell Mitchell, late-blooming Rabbitohs pivot Walker came up with the league’s fourth-highest try assist tally and ran riot in the Blues’ Game 3 win over Queensland.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 13: Cody Walker of the Rabbitohs celebrates scoring a try during the round seven NRL match between the Dolphins and South Sydney Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium on April 13, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Cody Walker rounds out the top 20 list. Credit: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images


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