From the workhorse to the heavy hitter: The NRL’s best defenders



The introduction of the six again rule and never-ending quest to increase the speed of the game attests to the ideal that the future of the NRL relies on a free flowing brand of football.

The punters should be forgiven for the belief that attack in the NRL is king, and must be prioritised above all else.

However, the by-product of this increase in speed and attacking emphasis is the need for strategies and players with the skills to stop it – that is, quality defense, and quality defenders.

It is no coincidence that of the teams currently sitting in the top half of the ladder, seven are also ranked in the top eight defensive sides (the exception being Canberra).

And within these sides are defensive leaders that band teammates together and drag themselves off the canvas for one last ditch effort when they have nothing left.

No matter how impressive the optics of a 100m break, nothing inspires the man beside them more than a big shot under the ribs or a last ditch effort to close a gap to prevent a near certain try.

Below, in no particular order, is my assessment of the top five defenders in the current game. Selection criteria has not relied purely on tackles made or missed, but on a combination of tackle efficiency (courtesy of NRL.com) and influence a player’s defensive prowess has on inspiring their teammates and impacting the result for their side.

Victor Radley – Sydney Roosters

Team Defensive record – 5th
Ladder Position – 8th
Personal Tackle Efficiency – 92.4%

With a nickname ‘Victor the Inflictor’ need I say more? Ever since his breakout season in 2018 Radley has dealt out punishment well beyond that which his 92kg frame should rightfully produce.

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The ability to bend his back and rapidly drive up under the ball is second to none in the NRL, and regularly forces a handover from an opposition player on the attack.

When out of the side due to injury or suspension (which happens more often than they would like) the Roosters are a far less formidable side, as there is no one in their outfit that has opposition players looking over their shoulder quite like Victor.

Victor Radley of the Roosters celebrates victory with Jake Friend of the Roosters.

Victor Radley (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Cameron Murray – South Sydney Rabbitohs

Team Defensive Record – 6th
Ladder Position – 5th
Personal Tackle Efficiency – 95.9%

To the casual observer, Cameron Murray’s contribution to the South Sydney Rabbitohs may go unnoticed in comparison to the more flamboyant attacking players along side him.

However Murray has fast turned himself into one of the most reliable all-round forwards in the game. Another one who plays well above his weight (which sits at 90kgs), Murrays has an uncanny ability to harness his aggression and strength, wrestling attackers down with ruthless efficiency.

His ability to play massive minutes, getting through a mountain of work is invaluable in complementing the likes of Latrell Mitchel, and co. in Souths’ quest for success.

Nathan Cleary of the Panthers is tackled by Cameron Murray of the Rabbitohs during the round 23 NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium, on August 20, 2021, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Nathan Cleary of the Panthers is tackled by Cameron Murray of the Rabbitohs (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Reuben Cotter – North Queensland Cowboys

Team Defensive Record – 2nd
Ladder Position – 2nd
Personal Tackle Efficiency – 97.2%

It is no coincidence that the Cowboys’ unexpected rise to the pointy end of the NRL leaderboard has coincided Reuben Cotter’s break-out year at the club.

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Season 2021 was North Queensland’s second-worst defensive season in the club’s history, while 2022 is on track to be one of their best.

With the highest tackle efficiency rating out of the five, combined with an ability to maintain a high level of defensive intensity for extended minutes, Cotter’s contribution to this success is extensive.

This was never more evident as in the dip in Cowboys’ defensive record over the last month, that has coincided with Cotter’s absence due to a hamstring injury.

Nathan Cleary – Penrith Panthers

Team Defensive Record – 1st
Ladder Position – 1st
Personal Tackle Efficiency – 85.3%

It is inevitable that the tackle efficiency rating of a half-back will be considerably lower than their forward counterparts, who have the luxury of men inside and out to assist in the cover up any defensive errors. Anyone that has defended on an edge will understand the complexities of making decisions while being isolated one on one.

It is the ability of Cleary to more often than not make the correct decision and complete a quality tackle in these circumstances that makes him such a great defender.

Not only does Nathan rarely miss, but hits with purpose, inspiring his side like no other half in the competition.

And when Trevor “The Axe” Gillmeister dubs you the best “pound-for-pound defender” in the game, who are we to argue?

Jake Trbojevic

Team Defensive Record – 10th
Ladder Position – 10th
Personal Tackle Efficiency – 95.8%

The exception to the rule, is Manly’s position on the ladder, even with the inclusion of Jake Trbojevic in their side. However this is more a reflection of circumstances out of his control, rather than Jake’s contribution to the team.

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No other player in the NRL has the ability to cut people in half on a regular basis as does Jake Turbo.

This was highlighted no more so than in the State of Origin series this year, when Brad Fittler rushed him back into the side for game two after the realisation that the starch he provides in the middle was sorely missed in the opener.

When watching a Manly game and a player abruptly crumples at the waste, and folds to the ground, there is no need to ask who was responsible for inflicting such punishment.

Jake Trbojevic of the Sea Eagles looks on

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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