Storm halfback Jahrome Hughes has emerged as favourite to wear the No.7 jersey for New Zealand at next year's World Cup after being named the 2021 Kiwis player of the year.
Just days after winning Melbourne's 2021 player of the year award, Hughes was chosen as the best performing Kiwi in the NRL following a standout season in which he scored nine tries and produced 19 try assists.
Hughes has been used as an interchange utility in his three Test appearances in 2019 and had previously been so far down the pecking order for New Zealand selection he pledged his allegiance to Wales ahead of the 2017 World Cup.
However, the likes of Shaun Johnson, Dylan Brown, Kodi Nikorima and Kieran Foran will now be vying to partner Hughes in the halves as the Kiwis seek to confirm their IRL No.1 ranking by winning the World Cup.
“Jahrome’s consistency in the spine was evident. He led his team to a record win streak and saw them through to the semi-final," New Zealand coach Michael Maguire said.
Maguire proud to carry number one ranking into World Cup
"Kiwi boys across the competition have led their teams to new heights in 2021. The likes of Fisher-Harris, Brandon Smith, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, and Joey Manu were all standouts for their clubs.
"However, Jahrome’s growth into a leader at the Storm saw him deserving of this year’s accolade."
The award caps a stunning rise for Hughes, who made his NRL debut at fullback for Gold Coast in 2013 and played one other Telstra Premiership match for North Queensland in 2016 before joining the Storm in 2017.
The 27 year-old was initially viewed as a possible replacement at fullback for Billy Slater but the emergence of Ryan Papenhuyzen resulted in Hughes shifting to the halves for the 2019 finals series.
With Hughes organising their attack, the Storm won a record-equalling 19 matches in a row last season to claim the minor premiers and Maguire said he was set to be a key player for the Kiwis at next year's World Cup.
"His improvement over the last couple of years has been exceptional, and his game management and kicking game reached a new level in 2021," Maguire said.
“He has solidified himself as one of the game’s best halves and is well-deserving of the Kiwis player of the year title."
Forward Isaiah Papali’i was awarded the 2021 Young Kiwi player of the year after his breakout season with Parramatta, while Penrith prop James Fisher-Harris won the inaugural NZRL People's Choice award.
Papali'i, who is set to play under Maguire at the Wests Tigers from 2023, made 109 tackle breaks and 809 tackles for the year to also win the VB Hardest Working player of the year and Dally M backrower of the year awards.
“From the first time I had Isaiah in the Kiwis squad, to now, he’s grown into one of the game’s most dangerous back-rowers," Maguire said.
“His performance this year stood out, He really stepped up at Paramatta, and he’s well-deserving of the accolades he’s received in 2021.
"What’s exciting about his growth is that Isaiah is still young, he’s got years of footy left in him, and he’s well on track to being one of New Zealand’s best players.".
Voting was tight in between Hughes, Smith and Fisher-Harris for the People's Choice award, but the Panthers star edged his Melbourne rivals for the title.
Fisher-Harris enjoyed arguably his best season, running 154 metres per game with the ball and averaging 100 post-contact metres as he helped Penrith to premiership glory and claimed a second Dally M prop of the year accolade.
“James is extremely deserving of this," Maguire said. "He had an exceptional season, he’s the best prop in the game and an asset to our Kiwis squad.”
Maguire recently named a 36-man extended squad for the World Cup, which includes the likes of Manly forward Josh Schuster and Cronulla winger Ronaldo Mulitalo, who has committed to New Zealand after this year's Origin eligibility fiasco with Queensland.
“This year, we have watched many Kiwi players play their best seasons. The depth we are seeing, plus the calibre of football on display is exciting," Maguire said.
"I’m looking forward to a busy 2022 international season and seeing these boys come together for their country once again.”