They get their hands on the ball more than anyone else on the field, and they often lead the tackle counts as well. An increasingly vital piece of the puzzle for the NRL's top teams, hookers are rugby league's busiest players, required to control the tempo of their team in attack and be a rock in the middle of the park in defence. Here are the five best, according to the writers at NRL.com.
5. Peter Wallace
2016 stats: 26 games; 33 tackles per game; 62 dummy half runs; 9 try assists
Some will be surprised to see Wallace make this list – but not those who watched the Panthers closely in 2016. The former NSW halfback made a surprise switch to dummy-half and was so effective that Penrith were happy to let dynamo No.9 James Segeyaro leave the club in June. Wallace proved to be perfect for the role – a stout defender who could play out the entire 80 minutes in league's busiest position, the 31-year-old also provided some much-needed experience and nous in attack alongside two new Penrith halves in Nathan Cleary and Bryce Cartwright.
4. Robbie Farah
2016 stats: 9 games; 34 tackles per game; 42 dummy half runs; 2 try assists
It wasn't a year to remember for Farah, squeezed out of his beloved Wests Tigers after spending his entire career at the club. Yet despite falling out of the Tigers' 17 by season's end he still makes our top five. Why? Well, he remains one of the most dominant No.9s in rugby league – excellent at darting out of dummy-half, blessed with a quality kicking game, and an outstanding defender. He's still the incumbent NSW hooker, having topped the tackle count for the Blues across the 2016 State of Origin series. His recruitment by the Rabbitohs will be one of the most intriguing signings of 2017.
3. Jake Friend
2016 stats: 24 games; 53 tackles per game; 54 dummy half runs; 11 try assists
Roosters skipper Friend was the only NRL player to average more than 50 tackles per game in 2016 – six more than the next best in that category, Warrior Simon Mannering – and finished comfortably on top of the league's total tackles list with 164 more tackles across the season than Cameron Smith. But he's not just a defensive workhorse. Friend produced 11 try assists from dummy half in a team that finished second last on the ladder, with sneaky grubber kicks close to the line often causing headaches for defensive sides. He was forced to carry his team for the first half of the campaign with a trio of stars stuck on the sidelines and will relish having a full-strength Roosters line-up around him in 2017.
2. Josh Hodgson
2016 stats: 26 games; 34 tackles per game; 122 dummy half runs; 16 try assists
The best player at the Canberra Raiders, Hodgson has been a major part of the Green Machine's rise from mid-table also rans to serious premiership contenders in 2016. The Englishman is simply brilliant out of dummy half, with seven line breaks, 15 line-break assists and 16 try assists this season, with his influence unleashing a talented Raiders backline that became the most prolific try-scoring outfit in the league. After just two seasons in the league Hodgson already rivals the Kangaroos captain as the NRL's most valuable No.9.
1. Cameron Smith
2016 stats: 26 games; 43 tackles per game; 129 dummy half runs; 18 try assists
Not only is Cameron Smith the best hooker in rugby league – back in September we named him the No.1 player in the NRL. It's no coincidence that the three teams he captains – Melbourne, Queensland and Australia – were all dominant forces this season. Smith had more touches of the ball than any other player in the NRL this season, leading all hookers for kicks in play, line-break assists and try assists as the Storm clinched the minor premiership and played their way into yet another grand final. He ranked second for total tackles and first for 40/20 kicks, and is the best in the business in sensing a weakness in the opposition defensive line and capitalising on it. He also led the Maroons to yet another State of Origin series win and Australia to one of the most dominant Four Nations campaigns in history. On top of all that, he's one of the best goal-kickers in the NRL. With a near telepathic connection with his halfback Cooper Cronk at all levels of the game – demonstrated with their new pet play of Smith darting left out of dummy half before grubbering to his right for Cronk to score – Smith is set to be a dominant force once again in 2017.
This article first appeared on NRL.com