Junior Paulo takes out Canberra Raiders' Mal Meninga Medal
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Junior Paulo takes out Canberra Raiders' Mal Meninga Medal

The scary thing is Junior Paulo's best is yet to come.

While the Canberra Raiders wrecking ball was crowned the 2017 Mel Meninga Medallist on Monday night, Raiders coach Ricky Stuart says the 23-year-old is still on the up.

Junior Paulo is the 2017 Mal Meninga Medal winner.

Junior Paulo is the 2017 Mal Meninga Medal winner.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

Paulo polled three votes in the round 25 win over Newcastle to put him one vote ahead of boom rookie Nick Cotric.

Raiders fullback Jack Wighton then picked up three votes against the Storm to cement his spot in the top three of the prestigious player-of-the-year award.

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While he narrowly missed out on the top gong after a stunning debut NRL season, Cotric was a clear winner of the Raiders rookie of the year.

Stuart named Canberra's "Mr Versatility" Elliott Whitehead for his coaches award, while the retiring Jeff Lima was named the clubman of the year.

Paulo was clearly the Raiders' best front rower this season and he was third for run metres for the Green Machine and equal first with Jordan Rapana and Joey Leilua for offloads.

Having come to Canberra from Parramatta midway through last season, Stuart was expecting Paulo to continue to improve.

"I think the best is yet to come with Junior. He's a player that has such great versatility as a front rower," he said.

"He's got wonderful skill, he can play big minutes and he's the type of player that I know other players enjoy being beside.

"When we got a bit of rhythm and consistency in our game it came off the back of Junior's performances.

"He had a very strong back end of the season and I think it's healthy knowing that Junior's only young and there's a lot of quality football left in Junior."

Cotric fell narrowly short of claiming the Meninga Medal, having played all 24 games in his debut season.

The 18-year-old slotted seamlessly into the NRL, prompting Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga to put him in the mix for the Prime Minister's XIII to play Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby in a fortnight.

That team is expected to be announced on Tuesday.

He's also the favourite to win the NRL's rookie of the year as well, with the winger scoring 16 tries this season.

And he did it all playing out of position, with fullback and centre his spots as a junior.

This time last year he was awarded the junior representative of the year after he played for the NSW under-18s in the State of Origin curtain raiser.

"For his age and how consistently he performed it's just been an incredible debut season," Stuart said.

"I can't remember witnessing a rookie season to be of such high quality performance.

"He's just had a marvellous influence on the team with the way he played and his approach right throughout the season."

Stuart's a massive fan of Whitehead, whose versatility has seen the England second-rower play at lock, centre and at five-eighth since moving to Canberra.

His switch to lock late in the season played a big role in the Raiders' emphatic 30-12 victory over Cronulla at Shark Park.

Stuart also praised Lima for his efforts on and off the field in his final NRL season.

Lima has hung up the boots and will move on to the next phase of his life.

While he's only played three NRL games in 2017, Stuart said Lima's experience had helped all the players around him become better professionals with the way he prepared.

On top of his 127 NRL games, he also played six Tests for New Zealand and one for Samoa.

"I love coaching Elliott, he's the type of player who just turns up every week and is ready to perform," Stuart said.

"There's never any excuses with Elliott, he competes at everything he's involved in, he's a wonderful guy to have in your squad with his utility value and when you ask him to play another position or you ask him to do something for the team he's very much got that team mentality."

2017 MENINGA MEDAL WINNERS

Meninga Medal: Junior Paulo

Meninga Medal points: 23 Junior Paulo, 22 Nick Cotric, 21 Jack Wighton, 16 Josh Papalii and Jordan Rapana.

Rookie of the Year: Nick Cotric

NRL Coaches Award: Elliott Whitehead

Fred Daly Memorial Clubman of the Year: Jeff Lima

NYC Player of the Year: Mikaele Ravalawa

NYC Coaches Award: Jarred Tuite

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Gordon McLucas memorial Junior Representative Player of the Year: Emre Guler

Geoff Caldwell Career & Education Award: Harry Van Dartel

David Polkinghorne covers the Canberra Raiders, local rugby league, Canberra Cavalry, racing and cycling, along with every other sport, for The Canberra Times.