ESPN's mid-season NRL report card: Studs, duds and surprise packets

We're just past the midway point of the NRL season, with some fanbases daring to dream about September and others already counting the days until 2024. But who have been the best players, the breakout stars, and which teams have not performed to expectations?

Team of the year (so far)

Fullback: Reece Walsh (Broncos)

The likes of Scott Drinkwater, Dylan Edwards, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, and Clint Gutherson are all having superb seasons, but Walsh stands above the rest so far.

In his first season with the No.1 jersey since returning from the Warriors, it's doubtful even the most ardent of believers on Caxton Street thought their young fullback's campaign would go this well.

Yes, there's still some issues in terms of decision making, errors and controlling his temper, but the good has outweighed the bad for Walsh who has not only given Broncos fans reason to believe again, but has already ousted Kalyn Ponga for the Maroons' fullback spot.

Wing: Dominic Young (Knights), Phillip Sami (Titans)

With every passing week, the decision by Young to leave Newcastle for Sydney in 2024 stings that little bit more for Knights fans as he delivers highlight-reel plays. In a team that's struggled pretty much everywhere else on the field, both Young and Greg Marzhew have been exhilarating on their respective wings.

As for Sami, he's shown himself equally capable in the centres or out wide this year, busting tackles at will, scoring plenty of tries and playing well enough to catapult himself back into Origin contention for the Maroons -- although he just missed out on selection.

Centre: Campbell Graham (Rabbitohs), Matt Timoko (Raiders)

Such was the start to Graham's season that there was widespread bewilderment when he was relegated to 18th man duties for the Blues -- and ignoring the circus that's surrounded him since, he has taken his game to the next level this year. Arguably the best defensive centre in the NRL, Graham has become a truly well-rounded player and was, at one point, topping the try-scoring list from the centres, which is pretty tough to do.

Timoko is another who was already well-rated by Canberra fans but has become a bit more regarded by the rest of the league with his play so far in 2023 -- and while the tries haven't been there for the most part, the damaging ball running and physical defence has been.

Five-eighth: Cody Walker (Rabbitohs)

The last couple of weeks have been a struggle, but let's not forget how dominant Walker was before that -- even after Sunday's poor showing against the Cowboys he's still a mile clear at the top of the try assists charts, and will likely get his mojo back once fullback Latrell Mitchell returns shortly.

Halfback: Shaun Johnson (Warriors)

The Shaun Johnson renaissance in 2023 has been a joy to behold -- and with Nathan Cleary's injury, and the Ben Hunt drama playing out in front of us, there aren't really any other contenders for this one. Nicho Hynes has been good but the same issues regarding Cronulla in big games have lingered this year, and while Daly Cherry-Evans has had a decent year, Manly are rapidly tumbling off a cliff.

But not the Warriors, and not Johnson -- who at times for Cronulla looked a shell of the player that carried New Zealand to the grand final in 2011. He looks revitalised in his second year back with his former team, where they've got a new coach, a full-time return to their home country, and a new lease on life.

Prop: Payne Haas (Broncos), Addin Fonua-Blake (Warriors)

What can be said about Haas that hasn't already been said? He's the best prop in the world, nevermind anybody else. If he continues on this trajectory he'll be in the conversation as the best forward in the game's history -- no player transforms their pack this much; when he doesn't play, it's extremely noticeable, and when he goes off, most Brisbane fans are just watching the clock until he comes on for his second stint.

And then there's Fonua-Blake, who edged out Joe Tapine of Canberra to take the second spot in what has easily been the best season of his career. The Warriors have been well-balanced across the field but it's through the strength of their middle, led by Fonua-Blake, Bunty Afoa, and Tohu Harris, that's set the platform for everything else.

Hooker: Harry Grant (Storm)

Quietly having yet another brilliant season down in Melbourne, Grant's form kind of sums up the Storm as a whole; nobody's really talking about them, they aren't really turning heads massively with their play and yet, there they are, right near the top of the pile once again.

A special mention to Jacob Liddle, though, who has revived his career in a tumultuous situation with St George Illawarra.

Second row: Haumole Olakau'atu (Sea Eagles), David Fifita (Titans)

He's cooled off a little bit after a hot start, but Olakau'atu has comfortably been Manly's most-impressive player this year in a season that's been bereft of star performances from back rowers across the league.

One guy that's been as good as advertised, though, is Fifita. He was outstanding on the weekend but has mostly flown a little bit under the radar this year, despite usually being one of the most-scrutinised players in the entire league due to his massive contract.

An honourable mention to Melbourne's Eli Katoa, who looks like one of the signings of the season so far.

Lock: Patrick Carrigan (Broncos)

Haas might be Brisbane's best forward, but Carrigan isn't far behind -- long gone are the days where the Origin star was better regarded as a Supercoach standout than a real life one, and is now a vital piece of the Broncos machine.

Incredibly, in a world where both Cameron Murray and Isaah Yeo exist, Carrigan firmly belongs in the conversation in regards to the best No.13 in the sport.

Most surprising team

New Zealand Warriors

There can only be one answer here. The Warriors came into the season with a relatively-unknown coach, a backline full of no-names, an ageing Shaun Johnson in the halves with the role as his partner up for grabs, and a decent forward pack.

Not exactly a recipe for success, is it? But that backline has proven to be far better than anyone expected, Johnson looks like he's in his 20's again, and the forward pack has been far better than 'decent'.

Andrew Webster has done a superb job so far, and with this Friday's massive game against Souths sold out a week in advance, the fans have certainly bought in to what is being built.

Most disappointing team

Sydney Roosters

While both the North Queensland Cowboys and Parramatta Eels started slowly, both have seemingly arrested their respective slumps with the former recording their best win of the year this past week, and the latter suddenly primed for a surge into the top four in the final weeks of the year.

But just a couple of hours after that Cowboys game, the Roosters, once again, looked as clunky in attack as they have all season long. The 'Joey Manu in the halves' experiment has failed with the Kiwi superstar returning to the centres, James Tedesco is playing as badly as he ever has in a tri-coloured jersey, and guys who were positioned as key spine members in Sam Walker and big offseason signing Brandon Smith have hardly been seen.

Throw in a couple of injuries to the forward pack and a Roosters team that were joint-favourites to win the competition along with Penrith in the preseason, now look outsiders to even make the top eight, and no closer to solving their issues in the halves.

Rookie of the year

Isaiya Katoa (Dolphins)

Jacob Preston has been one of the few bright spots of the Bulldogs season so far, J'maine Hopgood has played a couple too many games to be eligible, and Alofiana Khan-Pereira's form for the Titans has been superb -- but it's not just Katoa's play that has been impressive, it's that he's come onto the scene with more pressure than any teenager in recent history, and has justified the hype.

He was signed from the Penrith junior system with tags like 'the best teenager in rugby league' and 'the best halfback prospect in years' being thrown around left and right. And while it was initially thought that he may have to bide his time before getting a chance in first grade, at just 18 he was thrown in the deep end for round one and has not looked out of place for a second.

Most improved player

Marcelo Montoya (Warriors)

We've already talked about Johnson and Fonua-Blake, but Andrew Webster's squad is littered with success stories -- and perhaps none bigger than the former Bulldog, Montoya.

Now in his third season with the Warriors, he'd already looked like a vastly-improved player to the one that was dropped multiple times while in the blue and white, but has taken his game to new heights in 2023. His yardage carries, especially, have been excellent, in a backline that looked like it was going to be the Warriors' weak spot this season, but has instead proved to be a strength. In truth, you could chuck anyone else that's worn a NZ shirt with numbers two through five on it in this section as well.

Player of the year (so far)

Reece Walsh (Broncos)

We already talked about Walsh, and in my opinion it was down to either him or teammate Haas as the best player so far this year. The Broncos have been the best team, and they're the two best players -- and you really can't go wrong either way.

I've opted for Walsh for the simple reason that it's his arrival that has taken Brisbane from mid-table to premiership contender. Adam Reynolds and Ezra Mam were there for the 2022 late-season implosion while Haas and Carrigan are mainstays in that pack -- but the level of swagger, courage and excitement that Walsh has provided has been transformative to the point that everything around the club feels different.

With his three-week ban for an explosive referee outburst, we will now have a chance to see just how much the Broncos and indeed Queensland will miss his electrifying form.