Panther and Cowboy streaking ahead in red-hot rookies race

The NRL’s rookie of the year is already a race in two between North Queensland back-rower Jeremiah Nanai and Penrith’s Taylan May, with Sydney Roosters sensation Joseph Suaalii ineligible for the award.

Suaalii, along with Panthers centre Izack Tago and Brisbane flyer Selwyn Cobbo, played five or more NRL games last season so are not in contention.

The lack of rookie contenders is a clear indication of the impact of two years of COVID-19 disruptions on the lower grades and player development.

But Nanai, who plays against Manly on Friday evening, and May would more than hold their own in any other era, with previous winners including Harry Grant (2020), Adam Reynolds (2012), Daly Cherry-Evans (2011), Israel Folau (2007) and Jarryd Hayne (2007). Matt Gillett (2010) remains the only first-year back-rower to win in the NRL era.

Nanai, 19, who made his Origin debut this month following a red-hot start to the season with the Cowboys, told the Herald his only goal this year was to lock down a starting back-row spot.

I wanted to play 80 minutes each week and just play good footy, Nanai said. The thing I’ve been happiest with is my preparation. I’m doing all the little things with recovery and just looking after my body.

I don’t really know Taylan, but I do know he’s Samoan, and hopefully at the end of the year we will be teammates at the World Cup.

Cowboys coach Todd Payten said Nanai deserved to be in the conversation, especially given he was in the engine room every week and played every game. Nanai has also scored 10 tries.

May was only given his start at the premiers this year when Brian To’o injured himself in round three. He did such a brilliant job on the left edge with Tago, May kept his position ahead of Charlie Staines when To’o returned. Only South Sydney’s Alex Johnston has scored more tries.

Panthers backrower Viliame Kikau said he thought Tyrone May was the pick of the brothers until he realised what 20-year-old ‘Tiny’ could do. So impressive has Taylan May been in the opening half of the year, before he recommitted for less at Penrith for two years.

Tago, who played six games last year and has arguably been Penrith’s best this season, said of his wing partner: I can definitely see him winning [rookie of the year]. If I was a betting man, I’d back him. He’s scoring a heap of tries and making the rest of us look good by finishing off our sets well.

He’s good in yardage, finishes tries and defends well. He’s the whole package.

Canberra’s Xavier Savage, Manly’s Tolu Koula and South Sydney’s Lachie Ilias are playing regularly, but well off the pace when it comes to Nanai and May.

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