Rare feat as rookie snares spot in NRL Team of Year
With a full 13-man squad being selected for the first time, Cleary joined Stephen Crichton, James Fisher-Harris, Viliame Kikau and Isaah Yeo in the Dally M Team of the Year.
The rise of new a generation of young talent has been reflected with 12 players earning selection for the first time, including Cleary after the 22-year-old stamped himself the best halfback in the game amid Penrith's charge to the minor premiership and Sunday's grand final.
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Crichton was named as one of the centres in his first full season as an NRL starter with Brisbane's Kotoni Staggs also earning selection despite the Broncos finishing the season in last place.
Kiwi enforcer Fisher-Harris, arguably Penrith's most underrated forward, was named at prop alongside Canberra's Josh Papalii.
Papalii has been counted as the top prop in the game for some time but Fisher-Harris isn't far behind - much of Penrith's best football this year has been built on the back of the platform he sets in the middle of the field.
Yeo's selection as lock of the year ahead of North Queensland colossus Jason Taumalolo is just reward for the hard-working Panther, who has improved out of sight in 2020 and become one of the NRL's best forwards.
Fijian dynamo Kikau rounded out the Penrith contingent as he won second rower of the year honours alongside New Zealand's Tohu Harris.
It's a just reward for Harris - the Warriors had to endure more than any other team in 2020, playing the entire season on foreign soil, but Harris never wavered in his efforts in the back row.
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Kikau will return from suspension in Sunday's grand final against the Storm and has become one of rugby league's unstoppable forces - his combination with Crichton on Penrith's left side is the minor premiers most devastating attacking weapon.
Dally M Medal winner Jack Wighton partners Cleary in the halves, a combination which could be repeated for NSW in next month's Origin series.
Wighton's brilliant finish to the season for Canberra propelled him ahead of Roosters playmaker Luke Keary, Cronulla's Shaun Johnson and Cleary's halves partner at Penrith, Jarome Luai.
Tigers flyer David Nofoalouma was a shock exclusion from Brad Fittler's NSW squad but the 26-year-old was an automatic selection for one of the wingers of the year spots.
Despite the Tigers missing out on the finals yet again, Nofoalouma was superb on the right wing for the joint venture and thoroughly deserves the nod alongside Melbourne's Josh Addo-Carr.
"The Foxx" is still the fastest man in rugby league but took his game to a new level in 2020 in what shapes as his final season with the Storm ahead of a return to Sydney next year.
Addo-Carr and Cameron Smith are Melbourne's only representatives with the Storm skipper claiming hooker of the year honours for the ninth time.
Smith first won hooker of the year in 2006, the year he won his first Dally M Medal, and is still counted as the top dummy half in rugby league.
Sunday's grand final could be his final game in the NRL and despite celebrating his 37th birthday earlier this year the Storm champion would depart at the top of his game - South Sydney's Damien Cook and Penrith's Api Koroisau might have enjoyed strong seasons but so long as Smith is around they'll all be playing for second.
Parramatta's Clint Gutherson rounds out the side at fullback, beating out Roosters superstar James Tedesco and Melbourne's Ryan Papenhuyzen.
The Eels skipper missed out on the top prize to Wighton by a single vote and was one of the blue and gold's most consistent players amid an up and down season.
DALLY M TEAM OF THE YEAR
FULLBACK: Clint Gutherson (Eels)
Parramatta's fortunes waxed and waned through 2020 but they could always rely on maximum effort from their fullback and captain. Gutherson was one of the sole constants as Parramatta's fortunes rose and fell and was their best player to the end, even as their finals charge petered out.
WINGERS: David Nofoalouma (Tigers) & Josh Addo-Carr (Storm)
The Tigers couldn't end the longest active finals drought in the NRL but it wasn't the fault of Nofoalouma, who did everything he could and then some. With an excellent workrate and tremendous finishing, Nofoalouma joined Addo-Carr among the best wingers in the NRL after the Storm flyer enjoyed another excellent season on the flank for Melbourne.
CENTRES: Stephen Crichton (Panthers) & Kotoni Staggs (Broncos)
Two of the games best young players finished at opposite ends of the ladder but both enjoyed breakout seasons and ended the year among the game's deadliest attacking players. Crichton came from the clouds to seize a spot in Penrith's backline and scored tries for fun while Staggs was a shining light in the worst season in Brisbane's history.
FIVE-EIGHTH: Jack Wighton (Raiders)
Went from good to great and was rewarded with the Dally M Player of the Year award. When Wighton is on there's no way to contain him and he was on for almost all of 2020, especially in the second half of the season as he came from the clouds to pip Cleary and Gutherson for the top prize.
HALFBACK: Nathan Cleary (Panthers)
Might have lost out on the top prize to Wighton but still enjoyed the best season of his career in 2020. Cleary is at the heart of Penrith's premiership charge with his kicking game and organisational skills coming to the fore during the Panthers 17-match winning streak that could yet end with the club's third premiership.
LOCK: Isaah Yeo (Panthers)
One of 2020's big improvers, Yeo has always been solid but this year he became spectacular. The Dubbo product retained the excellent workrate that's been his trademark throughout his first grade career but became far more of an attacking threat with his footwork and speed making him a constant danger around the ruck. Formerly underrated, nobody underestimates Yeo any more.
SECOND ROW: Tohu Harris (Warriors) & Viliame Kikau (Panthers)
Harris deserves all the praise we can muster after a terrific season amid unprecedented circumstances for the Warriors - switching between the middle and edge, the Kiwi international's consistency and production never wavered as the New Zealanders defied the odds and stayed competitive all the way through the year. Kikau is one of the game's most destructive attacking forces, with a combination of strength, size and skill that make him impossible to fully contain.
PROP: Josh Papalii (Raiders) & James Fisher-Harris (Panthers)
Papalii is widely acclaimed as the best prop in rugby league but this is the first time he's taken home a Dally M positional honour. The Raiders enforcer helped the Green Machine qualify for their third preliminary final in five years and has fast become a Canberra legend. Fisher-Harris came of age for the Panthers and formed the bedrock of their pack amid their mighty winning streak - there are few tougher players in the NRL
HOOKER: Cameron Smith (Storm)
At 37 and after 429 NRL games, Smith is still the best hooker in rugby league and one of the very best players in any position. This is the ninth time he's won hooker of the year and even as retirement possibly beckons for the Melbourne champion he still controls his team's fortunes like nobody else in the sport.
Jack Wighton (Raiders) 26
Clinton Gutherson (Eels) 25
Nathan Cleary (Panthers) 24
Cameron Smith (Storm) 22
Luke Keary (Roosters) 18
Shaun Johnson (Sharks) 18
3 votes: Rounds 1, 5, 10, 11, 15, 16, 18, 19
1 vote: Round 9, 14
3 votes: Rounds 3, 7, 8, 12, 15, 19
2 votes: Rounds 1, 17
1 vote: Rounds 2, 11, 14
3 votes: Rounds: 2, 6, 7, 12, 13
2 votes: Rounds: 10, 16, 18
1 vote: Rounds: 14, 15, 17
Originally published as Rare feat as rookie snares spot in NRL Team of Year