Had these awards been published a fortnight ago, it could have been so easy to go for Zak Hardaker. The 25-year-old had looked throughout 2017 like a player – and, more important, a person – who had finally rid himself of the off-field indiscretions that plagued the early years of his career. We may now not see him on a rugby field again for some time. That, however, should not overshadow the outstanding form of our first winner: Hardaker’s Castleford team-mate Luke Gale.
He may be only 12 games into his professional career, yet Leeds’ Jack Walker already owns a Super League winners’ ring. That is not bad going. And, perhaps most encouraging of all, the maturity with which he handled his first Grand Final at the age of just 18 suggests a bright future ahead at club – and perhaps international – level in the coming years.
Wakefield Trinity and their coach, Chris Chester. Super League’s lowest spenders bucked the trend in 2017 to come within just one point of a first-ever top-four finish. Fellow perennial strugglers Salford also deserve a mention before their season fell away in the Super 8s but, under Chester and with a new stadium finally set to become a reality, Trinity can certainly look forward to more enjoyment in 2018 and beyond.
As ever, there are many contenders. But Leeds’ Matt Parcell was the Rhinos’ only signing following a season of struggle in 2016 and the difference he made was monumental. The former Manly hooker finished his maiden season in Super League with a place in the Dream Team and a Grand Final success to cap a fine debut season in England.
Only eight days after being beaten 66-10 by Castleford in March, the Leeds coach, Brian McDermott, said: I believe we can win the Grand Final. Sometimes you have got to be kicked in the groin to find out the best of you. The media balked at McDermott’s suggestion, the rugby league world berated him. Six months later, McDermott and Leeds had the last laugh.
It has to be Toronto Wolfpack for the impact that the world’s first transatlantic sports team had on rugby league but a word for York City Knights, who were the first team to beat them in league competition. Many thought the Wolfpack would coast through the League 1 season unbeaten but it took them until the penultimate week of the campaign to win the title. Incidentally, a bumper crowd of 2,601 watched the Wolfpack in York – proof that they do pique the interest of lower-league fans.
Wigan’s and Warrington’s wins that provided a clean sweep for Super League in the World Club Series could easily have got the nod here, but the way both of last season’s Grand Finalists went about their business thereafter was even more surprising. Warrington ended up in the Qualifiers – which eventually rubber-stamped the demise of Tony Smith – while Wigan toiled in mid-table and missed the play-offs for the first time in a decade.
It is an unusual twist that when he begins work as Hull’s head of rugby in November, Gareth Ellis’s biggest challenge will be replacing himself. The 36-year-old retired a back-to-back Challenge Cup-winning captain with the Black and Whites and rugby league will be a worse place on the field without one of the finest players of his generation entertaining us any more.
Hopefully before the big kick-off rolls around again February, the sport will have been able to put two things into place: one is a confirmed plan for the World Club Challenge given speculation the NRL champions, Melbourne, may not travel. The other more important decision is a clear long-term plan for rugby league in regards to the league structure for 2018, 2019 and the years beyond that.
Ben Barba. The form which the former Dally M Medal winner showed at the end of the season as he returned from his 12-match suspension carried over from the NRL hinted at a bright future for Barba and St Helens next season. If the 28-year-old from Darwin can rediscover the form that made him a superstar in the NRL, Justin Holbrook’s side will be right among the title favourites in 2018.
Based solely on my own Dream Team votes: Z Hardaker, M Fonua, O Gildart, M Shenton, G Eden; A Kelly, L Gale; L Watts, M Parcell, A Cuthbertson, M Ashurst, M McMeeken, A Milner.
Watching Hull lift the Challenge Cup again at Wembley was a real highlight – what odds for three in a row in 2018? In the Championship, Bradford’s relegation to League 1 for the first time in their history asks further questions of the Bulls’ future, while speaking of the third tier, the re-emergence of sides such as York and Newcastle suggests Bradford will not have it their own way in 2018. The best bit though? The fun isn’t even over for 2017 yet – with the small matter of a World Cup beginning later this month. Can England finally go all the way?
News Source TheGuardianNews