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As James Tedesco hits Game 200, is he the NRL’s most unloved superstar?

Do you remember the first time you saw James Tedesco play? I do.

It was a Saturday in October 2013, next to a flyover on the outskirts of Salford, a 20-year-old Teddy lined up in the centres for Italy in a pre-World Cup warm-up game against England.

The Azzurri, who had at that point never played a World Cup match and who had qualified 14th out of 14 nations, defeated the hosts 15-14 in squalling rain to pull off one of the all-time great rugby league upsets.

England love falling flat on their face, but they were no mugs: this was a team that ended up losing in the semi-finals to New Zealand in the last play of the game and featured prime Sam Burgess, James Graham, Kevin Sinfield and Gareth Widdop.

Italy weren’t mugs either – they had Anthony Minichiello and Aidan Guerra alongside Tedesco – but also had Gioele Celerino, who played for rugby league’s third most prominent Roosters, the one based in the Piedmontese town of Saluzzo and running last in the French third tier.

(The second-best rugby league Roosters, those of Eccles, play just the other side of the flyover from where Italian rugby league’s finest hour took place.)

A week later, Tedesco starred as Italy defeated Wales in their opening game – scoring one and setting up another through a superb backflick to Josh Mantellato – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, it’s my history. You’ve likely got your own. I mention the whole episode because I feel like Tedesco is perhaps the most-underappreciated superstar in the game at the moment, and with game 200 set for this weekend against the Cowboys, it’s a good time to show him some love.

It’s not that he’s under-rated, but that isn’t the same as under-appreciated. He ranks alongside Daly Cherry-Evans and Jason Taumalolo in the top three of players that are always good, and who have been so good for so long that you barely even notice it anymore.

Compare his major competitors for the best fullback in the world title, Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell.

Turbo was outstanding in 2021, and Latrell can be otherworldly at times, but both have a much bigger range of performances than Tedesco does in terms of best and worst, and both miss significant game time through injuries and, in Mitchell’s case, suspension.

Turbo and Trell Mit probably aren’t as good, but they are certainly more loved (or hated), more shareable, more talked about.

Teddy? Keeps on going. 8 or 9 out of 10 every week. Even when his team lose, he’s routinely their best player.

From the start of June to the middle of July, he personally lost five of six matches and scored no tries – and was either the best or close to the best on ground in every game.

We in the media sat in pressers afterwards, both for the Roosters and for New South Wales, where Tedesco, as captain, had to apologise, promise to be better, to learn lessons. All the while I thought – not you, mate. You were great.

It’s funny when you see Dylan Edwards touted as the Dally M Fullback of the Year, because James Tedesco is the best fullback in the NRL until stated otherwise. One great year of Trbojevic, or Mitchell, or Ponga, or Edwards, or whatever, doesn’t really change that.

I can’t quite put my finger on why Tedesco isn’t as well-loved. He does spectacular things, but not as spectacular as Turbo, On his own team, you’d probably mark Joey Manu as that guy.

He’s not a character, like Latrell is, and on the Roosters, he’d be behind Jared Waerea-Hargreaves in the love ‘em/hate ‘em stakes.

He’s had off-field dramas, but compared to a Nathan Cleary or a Cameron Munster, two of the other true superstars of the game, they’re not really in the same league of scandal, so he doesn’t get any notoriety or larrikin points either.

Whether you love or hate Cleary or Munster is based around your opinions on them as players, sure, but also wrapped up in your opinions of Penrith, Melbourne, New South Wales and Queensland, and while Teddy and DCE might be the captains of those sides, but they’re not the emotional figureheads in the same way that Munster and Cleary are.

Ditto the Roosters: they’re not a hugely well-supported team, as fans of every other Sydney side will tell you, so there’s a lesser constituency of people on social media telling you how unbelievably great James Tedesco is than there is for the superstars of other sides.

The Chooks are also annoyingly, consistently good, which is impressive but, in the wider consciousness, also quite unloveable. Nobody really hates them, but it’s more of a grudging respect than genuine affection.

On his 200th game in the NRL, it’s worth considering all these things because it’s a major milestone and that’s what milestone games are for. He’s the sort of player that we’ll miss when he’s gone, and look back on as one of the modern greats.

As for the man himself, James Tedesco probably won’t consider it much. He’ll probably do the same that he always does: stutter through a load of media questions, wipe his mind and then go out and be the best player on the pitch.

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