Sunday, 1 December 2013

My World Cup Memories

Sure, the final was a bit of an anti-climax, and England didn't make it, but wasn't the 2013 Rugby League World Cup great!

The biggest crowds in Workington for a generation, over 7,000 for a group game in Bristol and a number of sold out stadiums. Record crowds at Spotland (for a RL game), John Smiths Huddersfield (for a sporting event) and Leigh Sports Village and the final set an all-time record for an international Rugby League game. Its fair to say the fans - new and old - turned out in great numbers to support the event.

Great viewing figures on the BBC were complemented by regular highlights, and full live coverage of the world feed was on Premier Sports, with BBC radio commentating on all the games too. They say targets on commercial partnerships were met and whilst it wasn't exactly wall to wall, press coverage was an upgrade on what we're used to. All these are reasons for the tournament to have been considered a success.

But it wasn't just this off field stuff that was good was it - the action on the field was almost always highly intense, highly skilled and highly enjoyable. Who will easily forget the video ref trying to pick the bones out of the dramatic close to Scotland v Tonga? Or Dean Whare's offload out of touch in the semi-final?

I personally went to 7 games live - Rochdale, Huddersfield, Leigh, Salford, Halifax, Wigan and Old Trafford - and watched all but 4 others on the TV. I saw all but three teams in the flesh and I had a great time with all of it. Before I go over the games I did get to, I'll pick out the most memorable games I watched from the sofa.

29 October 2013 - Premier Sports - Tonga 24-26 Scotland - Group C
A lot of people talked about the New Zealand v Samoa game at Warrington as a highlight but sadly I wasn't able to take in that game. The best TV game for me in the first week was Scotland v Tonga at Workington. It looked like a cold night up in Cumbria but the Bravehearts started hot and led 20-4 at half-time. Tonga in all honesty looked rusty and out of tune with one-another but don't let that dent what Scotland did.

The second half started with a surge from the Mate Ma'a and saw four tries in 21 minutes after half time put Tonga ahead. They looked to have found their physically and were making all sorts of metres, but Scotland didn't lie down and Matty Russell popped up in the 72nd minute to get scores level, Danny Brough converting to take back the lead. Tonga threw all they had at Scotland, which left the video ref Ashley Klein with a number of decisions to make, including one on the final hooter as the game ended in the ref's box. 'No Try' came up on the screen and I was as excited at home as those in attendance must have been. The USA Tomahawks debut win was good on the Wednesday night, but nothing really compared to that Tuesday night game from Cumbria.

3 November 2013 - Premier Sports - Scotland 30-30 Italy - Group C
I attended more games in the second week, which also saw a few one-sided results creep in, so Scotland were again the pick of the televised games this week. This time Italy were the opponents at Derwent Park and even more tension was evoked through the drawn result. Again Scotland started fast, Matty Russell in particular in sparkling form, but this time were pegged back before half-time, narrowly leading 14-12.

The Bravehearts dipped after half time, as they had against Tonga, as Italy put the pressure on, particularly through dummy half Raymond Nasso. Italy took a 30-26 lead into the final quarter of the game. A brilliant Ben Hellewell try that Brough failed to convert tied the game up on 69 minutes. A bit of luck and a couple of great defencive sets closed the game out in a draw. Not only was the game itself exciting, but it also set up an exciting end to the group as all three teams in the group could still qualify for the quarters.

17 November 2013 - Premier Sports - Samoa 4-22 Fiji - 1/4 Final
The next week brought the quarter finals. The pick of which was always going to be the South Sea Island clash between Fiji and Samoa at Warrington. To be honest, I don't recall it being that exciting or bruising an encounter and I expected a little more from the game, but it was still the pick of the week.

Samoa lacked organisation and structure in attack and Anthony Milford was sufficiently bottled up that little attacking openings were made. Fiji's half-backs worked as well as they had all competition and their pack had a little more force at the end of the day.

23 November 2013 - BBC One - New Zealand 20-18 England - 1/2 Final
On to the semis, and the game of the tournament. Probably the game of the year and possibly the best game I've watched for many years. England v New Zealand. I had everything really. Great attack, great defence, great skill, great physicality and great drama. The opening hit-up, Sam Tomkins try saving clearance, Graham and Sam Burgess setting Lockers up, Whare's offload, Sinfield's pass for Watkins' try...and that last gasp try to ruin my mood for the rest of weekend.

Looking back, it was a fantastic game, so much to be elated about, but I've never felt so deflated by a sporting result. Maybe its bias,  but I thought England were the better team and had more stand out performers on the day. Strong defence and enterprising attack from England was only countered with an exceptional moment of skill and execution by New Zealand in the first half. England nearly cost themselves the game after half time with a sloppy run of penalties, then the game was almost won through some great passing and line running cutting the Kiwis open twice in 10 minutes, only for the game to be lost on some tired efforts and poor decisions in the closing seconds.

England were defending their lead manfully in the face of mounting pressure and got the chance for a clearing set with just over two minutes left. At the end of the set though, the first tired mental error crept in. Kevin Sinfied, having no doubt his greatest representative game to this point, chooses to kick to the most in form winger in the world rather than look to hammer the ball dead in goal or touch and give the defence a short breather. George Burgess, NRL rookie of the year, slipped high on a tired tackle on Sonny Bill Williams as New Zealand come on one last counter. a couple of drives, including a quick scoot by Isaac Luke, left England's defence on the back foot close to their line. Sinfield unwisely rushed out of the line at Shaun Johnson, whose quick stepping feet were easily able to adjust back inside and past a tired George Burgess with enough speed to get beyond the covering attempts of Sam Burgess and Tomkins. The kick wasn't easy in the circumstances, but it wasn't hard enough to put much doubt in the outcome. The kick went through and England fell at the semis again.

I was heartbroken, gutted, deflated. And that was just sat at home watching it alone. My girlfriend, a safe distance away upstairs told me later it was the most animated she'd ever heard me get, but she didn't realise how flat the result had made me feel. Judging on my Twitter feed, I wasn't the only one!

So what of the games I attended? Well most of them were pretty special too.

28 October 2013 - Spotland Stadium, Rochdale - Group A - Fiji 30-14 Ireland - Att. 8,872
As was to become a bit of a theme, we were sat in a queue into the town with only half an hour until kick off. I can't imagine the last time there was such a rush to get into Rochdale. I'd only visited Spotland once before, for a poker tournament. It was nothing like this night.

We got in just before kick off, in the little Sandy Lane Terrace stand. The anthems were sang with spirit and pride, which was taken up a notch with the surprise of the Fiji Bati team hymn instead of the more customary war dance we expect from the Island nations.

There was a lively and fun atmosphere, a lot of the crowd supporting Fiji, but Ireland were well represented too. And the large crowd got what they were expecting from the off with some massive hits put in by Fiji in the first set that I almost felt in the stands.

It wasn't the physicality of Fiji that did for Ireland in my opinion, it was the speed and finishing ability of their NRL experienced outside backs. Ireland put up a good fight in the first half despite conceding a couple of early tries and some nasty hits from the Fijians. From where I was stood Ashton Sims looked lucky to stay on the pitch for some afters on the floor after being laid out by a great hit - we saw punches thrown on the floor but it wasn't picked up by officials or cameras apparently and just a penalty resulted. Ref Phil Bentham was at risk of losing control and eventually took action in sin-binning Eloni Vunakece.

In reality Ireland just weren't creative enough and had little answer for the pace of the Fiji right edge, Akuila Uate getting a hat-trick of tries. An epic downpour began and we timed a chance to dodge the worst of the showers and missed the last couple of minutes where two Ireland garbage time tries were scored. The night belonged to Fiji and to Rochdale. Boy was it wet on the drive home too.

2 November 2013 - John Smith's Stadium, Huddersfield - England 42-0 Ireland - Group A - Att. 24,375
A number of ridiculous Saturday lunchtime traffic issues saw us find the car parks full and the anthems playing as we ran up to the stadium. We eventually got in just in time to see replays of Ryan Hall's opener for England.

We were in The Chadwick Lawrence Stand, the traditional away end at Huddersfield, which meant we were at the wrong end for England's six try burst in the first half. We could see the spaces being made and the gaps being found, but not the actual touchdowns themselves. The game really was over within 25 minutes when Brett Ferres strolled in for England's sixth try - at this time Cudjoe, Watkins and Tomkins were tearing Ireland to pieces on the edges and finding free runners next to them for pretty easy scores. Ferres' bombed chance a couple of minutes later started the scrappiness that was to be endured until the end really.

Ireland offered very little in the way of threat or excitement and the Mexican wave that George the Knight worked tirelessly to get going was about as interesting as things got until the thunder and lightning display coming over the top of the M62.

5 November 2013 - Leigh Sports Village, Leigh - Tonga 22-16 Cook Islands - Group C/D - Att. 10,544
The joys of traffic turning up to stadiums that haven't ever really had to deal with it before was felt again with more time spent on the A580 than in all my previous trips to Leigh or St Helens put together I reckon. It did give me time to find a taker for our spare ticket on Twitter, though I never had chance to meet the grateful recipient.

Quite a few late comers were rolling in as the anthems were played, and the ground was nicely full for the haka battle. I wasn't expecting much from the Cooks after watching their last two outings, whereas the Tongans needed to win to keep quarter final hopes alive. Thankfully the game was far more competitive than I anticipated and again came down to the wire for another classic game in this tournament.

It was an exciting first half full of physicality and endeavour. The highlight came just before the break when Conrad Hurrell scored an immense solo effort, crashing through and over most of the Cook Islands defenders to go over for an 18-10 half time Tongan lead.

The Cooks weren't out of it though and Isaac John had the potential to be the most influential player on the pitch with a controlled performance in the halves. Their true moment of class came through winger Chris Taripo though. He'd already claimed two decent tries in the first half, but is hat-trick try was a very special finish. Watching live I couldn't call it but the video ref gave the green light to what was one of the tournaments very best finishes. Changing hands and flying through the air, he kept his body in play and just touched the ball down inside the sideline. He even converted from as wide as you can do to bring his side within two points, but the very impressive Jorge Taufua was awarded the try his performance deserved to get some breathing room, but a missed conversion meant a tense finish.

The game had some sublime moments, but it also had two of the most ridiculous moments I've seen in a rugby game. One of the Cook Islands' replacement forwards, who looked like he'd been dragged out of the pub to be fair, got totally turned around in contact and managed to get up and play the ball towards the wrong set of sticks - I've never seen a player so comprehensively play the ball the wrong way. The over moment was even more influential on the game. With 10 minutes or so left, Cook Islands worked an opening on their right edge and set winger Jordon Rapana free. All he had to do was touch the ball down, but somehow he managed instead to knee the ball out of his own hands and knock it over the in goal line for a 20m restart.

The Cooks did have another couple of opportunities to score but Tongan held them out and kept qualification hopes alive, albeit out of their hands. We also learnt some local knowledge that a torch is a good idea for the track that allows you to nip through to the housing estate off St Helens Road where we'd parked the car. It allowed for a much quicker trip home than trip in.

7 November 2013 - AJ Bell Stadium, Salford - Scotland 22-8 USA - Group C/D - Att. 6,041
I didn't have to wait for anyone else to finish work to make the journey to Salford and I didn't want to see a repeat of the traffic I'd experienced three games in a row beforehand. Instead I got down early. Early enough to get a good standing spot in the North Stand and to watch Ben Fisher go down right at the end of warm ups to put Scotland's plans in need of a rethink. I'm not sure what Fisher did but I suspect that's the last we'll see of him on a playing field.

The first half lacked a little in action, both teams looking a little sluggish after three games in close succession. USA scored two tries and Scotland had two ruled out by the officials but this was the least physical game I'd attended so far and Scotland really were lacking a little spark and timing out of dummy half was off.

For me, the game changing moment came when the super versatile Danny Addy slipped into dummy half around the 50 minute mark. Shortly after Scotland went in for their first try when Brett Phillips hit a Danny Brough short ball with perfect timing to go through the defence.

USA had no answer and Scotland scored three more tries to close the game out with not much threat coming from USA in the final quarter. My ginger beard gives away that I have a bit of Braveheart in me and it was great to see a home nations side being successful after poor stuff from Ireland and Wales.

10 November 2013 - The Shay, Halifax - Tonga 16-0 Italy - Group C - Att. 10,266
The journey over the Pennines wasn't nice because for some reason my radio was stuck on mute and I had no-one for company either, but the trip was worth it as a Tonga by way of Scotland through grand-parentage fan - I almost felt as qualified as most of the players on show in tartan shorts!

I hadn't been to The Shay for a decade, and I'm guessing there were a fair few in the 10k+ crowd in a similar position in the jam packed South Terrace. A few home town fans tried to get Halifax chants going, but the bulk of the cheering came for the Tongans, which I was well on board with as it meant Scotland qualification.

The first half was low on scoring but incredibly physical, both in attack and defence from Tonga's perspective and the crowd loved it. Fuifui Moimoi actually lived up to his reputation and charged to a deserved man of the match vote. There were chances and Italy played some nice stuff but lacked the final pass or the pace and strength out wide to break through successfully. Tonga just couldn't capitalise off the back of string forward running - they desperately lacked a half back of poise and control. 2-0 Tonga at half time but the crowd were in to the game for sure.

Italy were fairly dominant in field position and possession in the second half but still couldn't take their chances, whereas Tonga did. There wasn't much in the way of electrifying attacking skill in this game, but it was a tense physical encounter throughout and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I went to this game on my own but found the people of Halifax stood around me to be friendly and knowledgeable so that was a nice plus. Oh, and the radio worked on the way home, but there was dominant coverage of the post-match Man United v Arsenal debrief than the game at The Shay for some reason. All these people missing out!

16 November 2013 - DW Stadium, Wigan - England 34-6 France - 1/4 Final - Att. 22,276
This was another game where I was only just in my seats for the kick off, but this time it was because of the beer queue. I'd been in Wigan all day, combining the occasion with a mate's birthday and we were a little merry by kick off - truth be told, I don't remember the game in much detail!

After trying and not really enjoying most of the real ales on offer in The Berkeley whilst we watched Australia rout USA then parts of the yawnion, we moved on to The Anvil, which had a much better selection on offer. We had some Italian food and I think the Peroni we resorted to at that stage pushed me over the line from being able to understand much of the game - not like me these days!

I was still with it enough to appreciate the home town presence in the England side but that was forgotten with the sluggish start by England, letting France in for a fairly soft score.

Sam Tomkins was influential in getting England into the ascendancy on his farewell DW appearance, which probably got him his man of the match award despite the late sin binning. Some decent play by England got both wingers free for scores in quick succession and just like the Ireland game, the match as a contest was over really with England only needing a 20 minute burst to win it.

England gave France plenty of ball and field position either side of half-time but they lacked the invention and execution to do anything and the second half was largely a non-event...I think. I do remember the delightful passing move in the forwards that set Brett Ferres into a nice gap late on despite France having an extra man, but it was back to The Anvil for us before the last train home. It was a fun day, but an average game.

30 November 2013 - Old Trafford, Manchester - New Zealand 2-34 Australia - Final - Att. 74,468
I don't know about anyone else but I'd only just got over the semi-final and the fact that England wouldn't be at the game. But hey, at least we've have the two best teams in the world facing off yeah?

New Zealand were never going to be favourites, but lots of fans and experts were giving them a chance to retain. In SBW they had arguably the game's biggest figure and best player. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is the world's in form winger. Isaac Luke has been as threatening as any player in the tournament, and there was try-scoring strike power everywhere.

Australia though weren't undercooked, and despite plying some easier games, it wasn't an accident that they hadn't given up any tries since the England game - they wanted this, 2008 still hurt and 2017 might not come for some.

On the way we discussed if we would want to have lost to the champions so see a Kiwi win or not. I just couldn't see it and if that were the case then there would be too much regret from an England view as we should have been there - the heartbreak would continue. It was already all we could talk about on the way to Manchester!

To round things off in typical fashion, we only just made the start, catching the haka in the concourse before finding our seats as the kick off went up. This time some broken farm machinery and a detour to Orrell put us behind schedule.

In reality, it wasn't the end to the tournament that what had gone in the five weeks previous deserved. People were asking whether New Zealand didn't turn up, or whether Australia were than good. Others suggested England tired the Kiwis out the week before. I think it was just an incredibly professional and driven performance by the Aussies. Their defence was every bit as good as the stats suggested. Their attention and relentlessness in the earlier rounds against lesser teams had drilled them for this. They controlled the speed of the ruck, bottled Isaac Luke up and contained SBW. It was clinical and dominant. No breaks allowed all game. Phenomenal.

On the other side the kangaroos were far better too. The kick that set up the opening try was almost impossible to defend. Inventive and enterprising kicking was a theme that set up most of Australia's scoring opportunities in the first half.

Man of the match Jonathan Thurston then took to opening New Zealand up any which way he could and some brilliant team interplay got a try straight after half-time, which was a hammer blow to New Zealand. Despite 20 offloads still they couldn't find a way through and Australia just kept driving their supremacy home.

The one-sided nature and result being clear early in the second half took plenty away from the occasion, but take nothing away from that Australia display. Well and truly deserve to be back in place as world champs. Sure, we can think England would have given them more of a game. Heck, the atmosphere would have had something extra-special about it had we made it. But in reality, playing like that, no-one would be a match for that green and gold performance. A tribute to their brilliance is the fitting way to go out on this review, that memory will endure. Bring on 2017 eh!?

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Strike Whilst It's Hot - International Rugby League

We're seven games in to this 2013 Rugby League World Cup and hasn't it been great so far!

We've had good crowds, close games, big hits, upsets, skill and drama.

I hope it continues throughout. There are some games that will test the good will earned so far - the Ireland v Australia game is one to really test where we're at and it would be great to see that risk deliver - but this is the time to come up with a plan. A way forward that holds onto this early momentum. Not just for this tournament, but the international game beyond.

Us fans should enjoy the present, but the administrators at the RLIF and the national bodies need consider the future. They need to come up with a plan to take advantage of the current positive light shining on the international game.

There is a dark cloud hovering in the background of this tournament - that no formal announcements for the 2014 international calendar or beyond to the next world cup have been made.

Now is the time, and here is what I would suggest.

A five year rotation of events. I know most international sporting rotations are four years (olympics, soccer world cups, lions tours etc.) but they don't have to be.

Say 2013 is Year One. It's a world cup year, so the next world cup should be 2018. Unless the strength of the weaker/emerging nations comes on fast, this year's format makes sense as its working well!

Year Two (i.e. 2014 in my example) - Australia or New Zealand (alternating) play a proper tour and test series against Great Britain in Britain. Other European / North American nations host tours from Pacific Island nations, or vice versa.

Year Three (2015) - GB tour Australia or New Zealand (alternating) in test series with tour games hopefully thrown in. Other European and North American sides play tour games with Pacific Islands again (alternate northern/southern hemisphere).

Year Four (2016) - Britain breaks into constituent parts for teams to build to the next world cup. A number of four nations tournaments based on world ranking will be played. The 'Top Four' league alternates between England and Australia, other leagues moving between northern and southern hemisphere based on teams involved/finances etc.

Year Five (2017) - a European nations tournament between top 6 (8 if game grows) nations in region and an equivalent for southern hemisphere and other regions.

Ranking points from year four and year five games would decide which nations join Australia, New Zealand and England at the next world cup.

I think key is helping emerging nations grow, both with domestic exposure and from greater buy in to their long term cause by qualifying players from NRL and Super League.

That's my proposal (admittedly not thought through in great detail!), what's yours?

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Falling out with football

So far in the 2013-2014 season I've watched about 300 minutes of football and about 30 minutes of highlights. I've listened to no podcasts or radio phone ins, almost no newspaper articles and only the odd blog post. I certainly haven't been to a match (other than my sister's U11s side!).

I have to be honest, I've not missed it at all. In fact, I've quite enjoyed it. I've had more time to focus on things I actually enjoy and feel fulfilment from.

I currently only feel like a supporter by association with my past history. I haven't put any United fixtures on the notice board at home to reserve the big TV, I haven't even known when or who we would be playing most weekends.

Its hard to be sure when it began, when I started to fall out of love with the 'beautiful game', but I know that Fergie and Scholes' retirement was a watershed moment for me. An end of an era that would give me almost a clean break from my deepest attachments to the sport.

I do know the reasons though. I feel very little sense of identification to modern day football. Whilst I'm really interested in the more analytical side of sport that is growing both inside and outside of football, the actual product on the pitch does not interest or excite me as much as it should to be a fan.

And even worse is the cliche laden, analysis lacking media coverage that seems to almost saturate the Sky Sports and Talk Sport agenda, as well as that of our newspapers. There are some exceptions to the generally awful punditry we're subjected to these days, but even a lot of those get dragged into issues that are of no real importance or effect on the sport by presenters looking for their own highlight reel moments to get replayed and replayed on Sky Sports News and the like.

Then there are today's footballers and managers. There are very few that I feel any tinge of respect for anymore. They are so ingrained in the celebrity of their wealth and media profile that they don't have any real engagement with the watching public. They most come from or end up in a different place to every fan so no fan can share their story, understand their actions, accept their tantrums or dishonesty.

The thing that probably annoys me the most though is the level to which football permeates, or in fact dominates, our national landscape. It is too far and away the national sport to a point where other sports and sportsmen are marginalised as a sideshow to football, other than in an Olympic year of course, when we all ask why our footballers aren't more like other sportsmen, or we just have interviews and profiles about which football team these other athletes support, because that is apparently important.

I'm not certain my feelings are terminal, we'll have to see if I get drawn back in come the latter stages of the season, but right now I wouldn't be surprised if I never pay to watch another match of football again and never plan my weekend around matches. Sorry football, you just aren't all you crack yourself up to be.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Super League 2013 Review

Its now October. We should be excited in anticipation of the World Cup (go and buy tickets!), but first have a look over what has come to pass with my club by club review of the 2013 Super League season.

This is a follow up to my season preview so we'll see how my predictions turned out, apologies for this small amount of self-indulgence!

I'll run through the clubs in order of the final league placings.

Huddersfield Giants
Final position: 1st
Play offs: qualifying semi-final (week 3)
Cup: 1/4 final

My prediction: 8th

The Giants really messed up my whole top 8 by being at the top end of the standings rather than squeaking in as I expected. Great credit to them for this season. Some well deserved silverware.

I always thought they would be good enough to make the play offs and beat some top teams along the way, I just didn't think they could be so consistently good. Paul Anderson has done a great job in actually getting his team tactically prepared to play winning rugby league football all season. They had their slump earlier in the season and for a shorter period than in previous years. Players who've been there a while really stepped up from being good quality to class acts and leadership examples. I wrote about him more last month - Danny Brough has been outstanding, sweeping the end of season awards, deservedly so. Brett Ferres and Leroy Cudjoe have come of age. The forwards have been constant in their efforts and quality.

Obviously finishing top of the regular season they were well ranked in all the key statistical categories. They also had five players named in the Dream Team.

In the end they fell short to Warrington in the play off semi-final, a team they couldn't get the better of all season and also went out of the cup to, but you have to think this will be regarded as a great season for Fartown and maybe evidence that they've turned a corner.

Warrington Wolves
Final position: 2nd
Play offs: runners up
Cup: semi-final

My prediction: 1st & GF winners

Its always their year, so the song sung by rivals goes, and this was a bit of the same for Warrington. In the end they lost it at Old Trafford after a couple of notable in game injuries added to a forceful and intense second half Wigan performance.

The final position demonstrated a great consistency all season and they had particularly outstanding play out of dummy half with Micky Higham having himself possibly his best ever season. Joel Monaghan continued his impressive record of better than a try every game in his Wire career and was for me a surprise omission from the Dream Team.

At the start of the season I suggested the age of the Warrington squad could either hold them back or serve as a motivation with many moving on. I also discussed how younger players might start showing some more development. Well, the older players mainly did the job for Warrington again this year but it wasn't quite enough. Adrian Morley, Gareth Carvell and Brett Hodgson out of the veteran group will be leaving. Ben Currie was the only young player to continue to make an impact. Others had a small number of games for the Wire, with Gareth O'Brien and Brad Dwyer having more game time out on loan. A transition in the squad will probably be ongoing for a few years at this rate of growth for the younger players.

I think Warrington have to ultimately be disappointed with a trophy free season. A sad way for Morley, so instrumental in turning around the attitude of the club, to depart.

Leeds Rhinos
Final position: 3rd
Play offs: qualifying semi-final (week 3)
Cup: 5th round

My prediction: 2nd & Cup win

Leeds didn't do what Leeds do this year. They didn't make a final and they didn't run through teams in the play offs. Wigan took care of that the week before Old Trafford with their own Leeds-like run through the teams that finished the regular season ahead of them. Huddersfield beat them in the cup in one of the most enjoyable games this season.

Their talented young outside backs did provide a few highlight reel moments this season, Joel Moon particularly showing he belongs at a top team. However, their real stand out player was Jamie Peacock - an ageless talisman who would have been a worthy man of steel winner. He had more metres than any other player and seemed to have as much energy as anyone else too.

Leeds did suffer a number of injuries along the way but despite this they managed their highest finish since 2009. In fact, the injuries helped them develop some younger payers, notably Liam Sutcliffe and Brad Singleton both playing over a dozen games and looking up to the grade. The younger players again added something for Leeds and I think were possibly a factor in them finishing higher up the table as the squad depth and competition for places is as good as it has been for a number of years now, despite them in the end not matching the GF success seen in recent years.

Yes, an unsuccessful season for Leeds in trophy terms, but I think it should be seen as a good season for squad progression.

Wigan Warriors
Final position: 4th
Play offs: Winners
Cup: Winners

My prediction: 3rd & appearing in one of the finals

What a year! First team to do the double since close rivals St Helens in 2006 and they started the year written off by many due to the experience and talent they had lost, particularly in the halves. The best way to answer that doubt was not just by winning the trophies but also seeing Matty Smith get the Lance Todd and Blake Green the Harry Sunderland.

Josh Charnley was possibly the stand out player with the best ever summer season tally of tries with some absolute crackers along the way - and lets not forget that try saving effort in the Cup final, one of the most exciting plays all season. Sean O'Loughlin and Sam Tomkins proved vital to success with Wigan not losing a game they both played in all year.

Through to June they were by and large tearing opponents apart and racking up the tries with ease, putting the team in a commanding position to take the league leaders shield at the time. Then the team started to juggle about - resting players and key injuries meant league form was sketchy and questions were rightly being raised about the coach and squad's ability to beat top teams in big games. Wigan's attack faltered and others worked out the outside shift. Cup form carried on earlier league form and then torrid weather at Wembley brought out the old ruthless winning style the 2010-2011 Wigan sides showed. This was picked up again in the play offs with Wigan playing true play off rugby and, in the end, rather convincingly knocking aside all those teams that jumped ahead of them in the regular season run down.

How Wigan will cope with Tomkins' departure is a question for next year, but there is time to celebrate what the side did this year first. What a year!

St Helens
Final position: 5th
Play offs: preliminary semi-final (week 2)
Cup: 4th round

My prediction: 4th & possible final

The cliche is a game of two halves, but this was a season of two halves for St Helens, and it went the opposite way to what we're used to seeing from coach Nathan Brown's Giants teams in recent seasons. Saints won only 7 of the first 17 games and there was legitimate concern over whether they would make the play offs. However, they closed the season with 8 wins from 10 and entered the play offs as dark horse candidates, a late one-pointer from Danny McGuire seeing them lose to Leeds in week 2.

All the top teams have had key injuries to contend with this year, its just Saints didn't deal with them as well as the teams that finished above them. They lost 3 of a 9 game mid-season stretch without both James Roby and Jonny Lomax available to play, including losses to four teams that ended the season below them (London and Widnes amongst these). Clearly Roby is still key to what sort of season Saints have, which as I noted pre-season is a dangerous place to be.

The other thing we learned about Saints is they have to find some half backs. They've signed Luke Walsh from the Penrith Panthers for 2014, which should help things, but at times this season they didn't even have one recognised half playing so it only in part solves the problems.

The Club of the Year award at the Man of Steel night suggests Saints have done some things right this year, I'm not sure what though. Despite some decent wins and good seasons for a few players like Super League debutant Alex Walmsley and now full-back Jonny Lomax, this was a poor season for the red-vee and will not live long in the memory of their fans.

Hull FC
Final position: 6th
Play offs: preliminary semi-final (week 2)
Cup: runners up

My prediction: 5th & deep play off run

I predicted an outside chance of  play off run, but what we actually saw was a cup run - the less said about the week 2 play off exit the better for black and white fans I'm sure!

The cup run showed the potential the team had when they had their best team out all together. The inconsistency in the league showed that this didn't happen often enough. As well as injury disruption, a big problem for FC was in attack. They were in the bottom half of the league in tries, points scored and breaks.

Despite the season ending in a drubbing, with a poor showing at Wembley also a headline feature, there was still a lot to be excited about at Hull. Danny Houghton had an outstanding year at hooker, most notably in defence as he led the league in tackles and marker tackles. Even more exciting was the emergence of some young backs. Super League Young Player of the Year Ben Crooks won a regular starting spot over off-season signing Joe Arundel and carried that through to be top try scorer. Tom Lineham also emerged with great credit in his debut first team season, making his way into the Super League Dream Team. Jacob Miller came over from NRL's Wests Tigers to show some flashes of skill and creativity. Then, at the back end of the season, the attacking talents of Jamie Shaul were unleashed from the full back position with his blistering pace and ability to break out of tackles suggesting a long term answer at that position.

Overall not the season the Hull board would have hoped for saw Peter Gentle lose his job, but I don't think it was all bad for FC. They remain behind the top 5 clubs a little way but showed signs they could close the gap.

Catalan Dragons
Final position: 7th
Play offs:
Cup: 1/4 final

My prediction: 6th

I expected the French side to drop a bit this year and they have - lets face it, you lose a coach with the calibre to go on and win an NRL title and you're likely to drop off a little.

The games I saw them play this season were mostly scrappy affairs. I thought the side took another dip in the flair and excitement stakes again this season, they aren't as fun to watch as they once were. This is brought to bare by the stats that show they were the third lowest try scorers in the regular season, despite being par for their 7th place finish in other key attacking numbers like carries, metres and clean breaks.

Key man from 2012 Scott Dureau missed a lot of play. You could point to that as a contributor to their inconsistency, but then they only won 2 of 8 games he featured in, so maybe not. Playing forwards (especially the super-veteran Steve Menzies) in the centres also possibly slowed them down a bit and this is a position they lack quality depth for sure.

One area they don't lack is full back. Big name signing Brent Webb was impressive when available, but missed a lot of the season through injury. That however opened the door for the real bright spark of this Catalan season - Morgan Escare. Although I've said a lot of what I saw from les Dracs was scrappy, this kid was totally exhilarating. Young player nominee and he would have got my vote if I had one. Had a great season, highlighted in more detail in my Man of Steel blog.

They didn't manage their usual one home play off game so fell at the first post-season hurdle, bringing the curtain down on one of the great rugby league careers with Menzies finally hanging the headgear up. It isn't hard to realise what the problem was for Catalan in 2013 though - they won 79% of their league games against the teams that finished below them, but only 25% against the teams that finished above them - they just weren't good enough when they came up against the top teams.

Hull Kingston Rovers
Final position: 8th
Play offs:
Cup: 5th round

My prediction: 7th

Rovers were expected to better their sub-par 2012 season, and they just about did that. They picked up this years honour of being the 'team that didn't really deserve to be in the play offs', being as they finished in the bottom half of the table, lost more than they won and conceded a lot more than they scored. Of course, it isn't their fault we've played in a top 8 system that rewards a relatively poor team with a post-season spot, but they were dumped out in rather flat fashion at St Helens in comfortably the worst game of week 1 in the play offs.

In that game, the Robins missed 30 tackles compared to only 8  by the Saints. That sort of highlights what was wrong with Rovers this year - defence. They conceded 760 points, way more than any other play off team, and were the 2nd worst team for missing tackles all season in absolute and percentage terms. They averaged 7.5 missed tackles more than their opponent in the games they played. You don't win many games of rugby league if you defend like that.

Discipline was also an issue. They conceded more penalties than any other side and this also saw nine sin-bins and one red card.

A positive would have been the stand out seasons had by Cory Paterson and Micky Paea, if the two players weren't leaving the club now, the latter to head to city rivals Hull FC. Greg Eden will have to be the happy stand out for Robins fans - a star performer who doesn't appear to be on his way out. He had 300m in one game at Catalan, which is the best single game gain by any player this season.

As well as maybe holding on to a few players, its clear what the Robins will take away from this season - must learn how to tackle!

Bradford Bulls
Final position: 9th
Cup: 5th round

My prediction: 10th

We got what I expected from Bradford by and large. Most things were pretty average or just below that mark.

The two areas of issue on the field for Bradford were the missed tackles, that dogged them almost as bad as it did Hull KR, and a pretty poor average yards per carry (2nd worst behind Salford).

Only 3 defeats in the first 11 matches meant Bradford actually started the season very strongly and looked well in contention for a play off place mid-way through the season. However, big mid-season losses in a difficult stretch where they played the top 4 in a five week run seemed to knock their confidence and momentum somewhat. After a season worst beating at Magic Weekend by Huddersfield, Bradford went on to end the season with only 3 wins in the last 11 matches. They were competitive as only 1 of the 8 defeats in the run in was by more than two converted try margin (14 points against Warrington in Round 20), but that was another problem I saw - the team lacked that winning experience to know how to get a win in tight games. With that, the play off ambition was ended.

Bradford fans point to the performances of Nick Scruton and Manase Manuokafoa as bright points, but to be honest these players weren't much above average in reality. Brett Kearney's start to the season was really good, but he became less consistent in the second half of the season. Matty Blythe was another player who had a strong season. Bradford overall were average though and more worryingly the late season downturn on the field was added to by further financial worries off the field, with problems in paying players making headlines. Now the club will see if things can improve under their third set of owners in 18 months or so.

Widnes Vikings
Final position: 10th
Cup: 1/4 final

My prediction: 9th

Widnes have shown development. Hopefully its sustainable and they can become more competitive in 2014.

The headline recruits to me were a bit hot and cold, in every way for Gareth Hock who in my opinion dropped down to Widnes' level more than he lifted them to the level he is capable of. I've liked the performances of a couple of their younger players and Adam Lawton and Jack Owens look like really good prospects.

A player who impressed me every time I saw Widnes, even in defeat, was Joe Mellor who had a break through year and earned his new contract, but the star man for Widnes was really their half-back turned full-back Rhys Hanbury. This has been the modern way for full-backs and Hanbury looked great in an average side. He made more clean breaks than any other player. He's another who has earned his new deal, but really wouldn't have been out of place at a higher placed club. Its good for Widnes they kept hold of him.

Three red cards indicated discipline might have been an issue, but worse for me was how many tries they seemed to concede without getting hands on opponents. They allowed 216 clean breaks, which is second worst in the league and more than any team produced according to the Super League website stats provided by Opta.

I like Denis Betts and I think 2013 has to be seen as a step forward for Widnes and a small thumbs up to the outgoing licensing system.

Wakefield Wildcats
Final position: 11th
Cup: 5th round

My prediction: 11th

Wakefield are the first team I've got spot on so far. I don't think anything went particularly wrong for them to finish 11th, they just didn't get the same winning run at any point that pushed them to the play offs in 2012 (with a little help from Bradford's point deduction). Their best winning run was four games but they never surprised any of the big teams this year and the lack of those surprise wins left them out of the play offs.

That has also left them with a financial cloud hanging over them after some open and honest revelations from the board about the predicament they are in and the sale of players being a result.

One of the players to be sold looks likely to be Ben Cockayne, who had another very strong year, only five players in Super League equalled or bettered his 17 100+ metre games this season, although the tries did dry up in the second half of the campaign.

Danny Kirmond earned himself heaps of praise and this resulted in a Dream Team place, the only player outside the top 6 to get this recognition. In my opinion he nicked a place from Liam Farrell owing to a lot of positive chatter during the second half of the season, but Kirmond is a leader of some presence and quality. His positive press swelled from people taking notice of 9 tries in a 6 games period in the start of the second half to the season, but for me Kirmond's main virtue is his bravery and willingness to work hard in defence for his team.

Paul Aiton and Kyle Amor are others that deserve credit, but really Wakefield didn't have more than an average year in 2013 after a good on in 2012 and they may fear a bad one in 2014 with all the outgoings.

Castleford Tigers
Final position: 12th
Cup: 4th round

My prediction: 12th

Another team I got spot on, although they would have fared worse if they hadn't changed coach mid-season. 6 of their 9 league wins came after Daryl Powell was appointed coach.

In my opinion Rangi Chase relied too much on himself when they had the ball - he carried the ball more than anyone else in the league and counted for a massive 13% of all Castleford's carries during the season. He was second in the league in tackle busts and did assist on nearly a quarter of their tries, but on the flip side he missed on around a quarter of his tackle attempts and was second in the league in errors made.

The young hookers performed pretty well for Cas and Daryl Clark is still a player of immense potential, but he needs to take the game more - he only averaged around 5 runs from dummy half per game, which is pretty low compared to hookers at the top clubs, including those who split time like he does. He should take a more active involvement in games and maybe he will with Chase leaving for Salford, assuming Clark stays around.

Justin Carney was the good, the bad and the ugly for Cas this year. Discipline wasn't his strong suit, but barrelling opponents out of the way was. 21 tries and averaging 10 metres a carry over the season are impressive figures.

For me, Cas need more depth in the squad and more power in the pack to be more competitive. They just weren't good enough to regularly compete in 2013.

London Broncos
Final position: 13th
Cup: Semi-final

My prediction: 14th

London would have finished bottom if Salford didn't use an extra defender late in their game against Castleford that cost them those two points.

Their 70-0 Cup semi-final drubbing was one of the low points of the whole season for the game as it starts to wake up to their just not being enough talent in the country to sustain so many top tier teams. The debate about the value to their Super League existence and fears about this not continuing in 2014 have also brought negative attention to the capital's premier club, but I've written plenty on this elsewhere this year.

On field it was really the defence that embarrassed them. Attack wasn't good either, but they just allowed so many busts and breaks that the metres racked up and the spent much of the season running the wrong way.

Kieran Dixon did manage to have himself an impressive season and I spoke about him more last month when assessing his Young Player of the Year nomination. He's an exciting player who represents some of the development and potential that is emerging in London and the South East.

I'm really unsure about what is next for London. With promotion and relegation returning and most of their better players leaving, they can't keep having bad seasons like this but don't see anything but bad seasons like this sadly.

Salford City Reds
Final position: 14th
Cup: 5th round

My prediction: 13th

2013 was a dead year for Salford on the pitch. If was off the pitch where the headlines were made with the ownership change, the bids for high profile players and the announcement of a large player turnover for 2014.

Marc Sneyd and Theo Fages showed some good stuff this year and the back rowers Mat Ashurst and Andrew Dixon had solid seasons partnering each other in almost every game.

I'm not sure I have much else to say about Salford though, if things go to plan for them this season shouldn't really matter in the long run.

Summing up
I take no great pleasure in having picked the 8 play off teams in advance of the season - maybe I would have if I put money on it though! I would also say that on the whole 2013 has been a pretty disappointing season for Super League in many ways.

The sport has come in for a knocking. Bradford and Wakefield seem not to have shaken their financial issues. More column inches were dedicated to a player who would be leaving than about any good going on. The Cup final was largely seen as a poor effort and a bad advert for the game. Even the balls have come in for lots of negative attention. There have been some disappointing one sided affairs (including high profile games) and the gap between the bottom and top clubs doesn't appear to be getting any smaller.

I feel as if the level of play has been down this year on previous years over the course of the piece. Defences particularly seemed to dip from the last few seasons, although some would see that as a positive as they like seeing lots of tries. I personally like a compromise between the two and scoring to be regular but tough to come by. I've seen a lot of soft defences that lacked sufficient intensity this season. As a proxy for defensive intensity I would look at missed tackles, tackle busts and clean breaks. Misses and busts, which will count a lot of the same collisions in each, have both increased by over 14% from 2012. Busts are up nearly 17% from 2010. Breaks are a little less than 2012 (3% down) but still 41% up from 2010 (31% up from 2011 as well) - I'm not sure if they changed the way they recorded this stat before 2012 season because that is a massive difference. Tackle success is half a percent down, which might seem small, but it was pretty consistent in the past few years so this is a big relative drop off. All these numbers do back up my sense of a drop in defensive intensity.

Poor defence, predictable outcomes, losing stars to the NRL, lack of revenues and structural review all cast a shadow over Rugby League in 2013. It hasn't been the greatest season for the sport in this country. However, it's still be better than a season of any other sport in my eyes. 

As a Wigan fan, obviously I'm happy with what has been seen. As an England fan I'm excited for a World Cup where we do have a chance if the bounce of the ball favours us. As a Rugby League lover I'm concerned, but we should still look back on the season with some fondness at all clubs - I've managed to find some high points through my review, I hope you can add to it too.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Man of Steel 2013 - Runners and Riders

Super League's awards season is in full swing and the short list has been named for the Man of Steel and Young Player of the Year awards.

Captain of League Leaders Huddersfield, Danny Brough, could add to his Albert Goldthorpe medal. He is up against the Challenge Cup lifting Sean O'Loughlin and Leeds stalwart Jamie Peacock.

Dream Team debutant Ben Crooks, London's flying winger Kieran Dixon and French sensation Morgan Escare are the young players up for the award.

I thought I would have a look at the production provided by these players and the impact they have had on their teams, before giving my opinions on who should win the awards.

First we'll start with some overview numbers using the Opta stats available on the Super League website, then I'll look at the players individually.

Man of Steel
The three players up for the award play in different positions and fulfil different roles for their teams, so direct comparisons are difficult. What I'm going to do is compare the players to the average for the players in their positions for all games by the top four sides this season. This will give some indication of how they stack up against the best, although of course they are all a part of that 'best' group already.

Danny Brough
We'll start with the man I expect to win the award and the man I think deserves it based on this season in isolation, which is how this award should be given.

The Goldthorpe Medal win, based on game ratings from 'League Express' match reviewers, shows how consistently influential Brough has been on his team this year, revelling in the extra responsibility after Kevin Brown moved on.

He topped the charts in goals kicked and points scored in a successful Giants regular season campaign. He had a good kicking percentage too, 84% being better that the top 4 average. He was better than the average performance by starting stand offs in the top 4 sides in other categories too.

His defensive play maybe hasn't been his strongest suit and he dips below the standards set by his opposite numbers in this regard, but not embarrassingly so. He sits around the averages in most other relevant categories too. The impressive ones for me are the the offloads, try assists and attacking kicks. These numbers show his creativity and importance in attack. With try assists he leads the way amongst the players at the top teams.

His ability to kick a 40-20 is pretty impressive too, almost one every four games. Its a signal of his kicking game which is dangerous in a variety of ways, from subtle grubbers against the grain near the line to huge spiralling bombs that are almost impossible for defenders to deal with.

He only missed two regular season games, both losses to Bradford Bulls, giving the team a brilliant 84% win ratio with him in the side, the best of the players up for the award. The 0% win ratio with him missing can't be read into too deeply as its such a small sample and the whole team missed one of those games, but when his involvement has been restricted the result has been more likely to be negative, especially when he has been forced to take tackles and not be allowed to link up with Luke Robinson like Wigan did in Week 1 of the play offs, but Hull FC failed to do the week after.

Jamie Peacock
Man of Steel winner a decade ago, and his standards have never dropped. Despite being 35 years of age and overcoming a few serious injuries in the last two or three years, Peacock was the leading metre maker of all players during the regular season.

He was named in the Dream Team for an amazing ninth time and it was fully deserved. There is no sentimentality in this player being on the short list and even a doubter like me is starting to wonder if it isn't so crazy an idea to see if he wants to end his international retirement for the World Cup.

His work rate for a player at his stage of career is quite frankly incredible. One of my eternal frustrations is minutes played stats are so hard to come by, but I suspect he must play longer than the average prop given how many more tackles and carries he makes than his other top 4 counterparts. Its hardly surprising that he misses a few more tackles than other props considered, but then his success rate is on a level with the big blokes from the other top 4 clubs. Another unsurprising figure is his penalties being higher - the more action you involve yourself in, the more likely an indiscretion is to occur.

Props aren't relied on to score tries, but he is above the average here. Other than total metres made per game, the most impressive attacking stat is offloads, being nearly three times more likely to make a successful offload in a game than his top 4 counterparts.

A very impressive 76% win ratio when he is in the Leeds team is complemented with only a 25% win ratio for the four games he missed (although this is a relatively small sample size). The thing that stands out to me regarding his importance to the team is that Leeds always appear to get him back on the field when they need to step things up and win back momentum in a game. He truly is a leader by example and an eternal Super League Man of Steel for a career worth of brilliance. He would be a worthy winner of the award this season, although I think Brough would be worthier.

Sean O'Loughlin
This player for me demonstrates everything great about Rugby League. A player that I feel is genuine world class. Another leader by example and a real player's player. I can't say enough good things about Lockers.

He has already lifted the Challenge Cup this season, over coming injury to get out at Wembley and lead his team to victory, and I'm not sure you would want to bet against him doing the same again at Old Trafford.

There has been a change in the loose forward position in the recent past and many teams are putting a prop forward in that spot in the starting line up. Certainly the ball handling, creative likes of Andy Farrell, Paul Sculthorpe and Jason Smith that were the main stay of the first decade of Super League are a dying breed. Sean O'Loughlin is of this lineage, with him being nearly four times more likely to assist on a try than other top 4 starting 13s and he puts in more attacking kicks in than the average loose forward. His offloading ability is further testament to this and the late offload to set up a try against Warrington in Round 2 comes to mind here. He can draw in defenders then pass at the line better than any other forward in the competition, creating space for his backs and being a constant threat for opponents to worry about.

His defensive stats are pretty even across the board with his counterparts playing at the back of the pack, but it is attitude that sets Lockers apart. The tough carries he'll take early in the tackle count coming away from his own line make up a good amount of the 5 extra carries and 20 extra metres he makes on his other top 4 loose forwards. He makes a few more errors and gives away a few more penalties than most, but I forgive him this for the constant effort and desire he shows for Wigan's cause.

Possibly one of the reasons he has been short listed for the award this year is the impact his absence has had on the team. When he got injured after Magic Weekend, Wigan continued their good run for a few weeks, but when they started to lose he looked to be missed significantly. They were top in May and having just beaten Leeds they looked formidable, with retaining their League Leaders Shield being almost a formality. Then the wheels fell off and they only time they were really put back on before the play off win at Huddersfield were the cup games that O'Loughlin's fitness seemed to be managed around. Wigan won 83% of the 15 regular season games Lockers played, but only 42% of the 12 games he missed - significant numbers in this case.

That is part of the issue on his nomination for me - he hasn't really played enough games this year or stood out any more than he has in all his years as Wigan's captain to deserve this award more than the other two contenders on 2013's play alone, which as I've said is how this award should be given in my opinion. My favourite player he may be, but Man of Steel 2013 I don't think so, and I say this with regret as it may be the only time he is short listed, when he should be every year in my eyes.

In fact, I think another Wigan player should have been on the three man short list and for me would be a more than worthy winner this season - Josh Charnley. He led the league in tries and scored some incredible efforts along the way. Who can forget his length of the field pick up and go on Good Friday against Saints, his instinctive hat-trick off Widnes errors in the cup quarter final, as well as a couple of great finishes in the play off win at Huddersfield.

You look at the numbers with Charnley and its hard not to be impressed. He has already become the top try scorer ever in a summer season this year and led the league in this category. He smashes the averages set by the rest of the wingers at top 4 clubs in most categories in attack and defence. As well as the tries talked about above, an overriding memory from the 2013 season will be the moment that really lit up a damp cup final when he chased down Jamie Shaul to prevent what looked a certain try.

Charnley is very unfortunate in my eyes not to make the short list this year. If he had won it, surely no-one would argue it. But, he isn't in the running and my winner from those that are would be Brough.

Young Player of the Year
These players are a bit more comparable than the Man of Steel candidates, all being backs so all expected to demonstrate a more similar skill set than you would expect between a half and a front rower. I'm still going to use the same basis of comparison however. Comparing these young stars to the players in their positions in the top 4 sides will demonstrate just how impressive they are. They can stand up with their heads held high alongside the very best in the league.

Ben Crooks
As the son of a Hull FC legend of days past, there were probably high expectations of Ben, who made his debut in 2012 but has really established himself in the first team in 2013. So much so he was nominated to the Super League Dream Team.

His better than a try a game record is probably the stand out figure, but his overall attacking threat is impressive with his ability to bust tackles, make metres and run lines that break the line all being ahead of his peers at the higher ranked clubs.

He was rushed back from injury for the biggest match of his young career at Wembley and that didn't go well, but that was one of few negatives on a hugely promising season for the young player. His team were similarly successful with or without him, so its hard to suggest he was a key piece in the Hull side, but the importance placed on his injury and race for fitness for Wembley highlights his growing significance to the side. I suspected it was just hype because of who he is, but having seen more of him as the season went on, I think this kid is special in his own right. His Dream Team nomination may give him the edge in this award too.

Kieran Dixon
The only player nominated in either award whose team didn't make the play offs, but Dixon's electric speed and footwork have seen him linked with higher things and brought him England Knights recognition already in his short career.

Lets call it as it is, his numbers are impressive in attack but pretty poor in defence. He's willing to put in the work when his team has the ball and is rewarded with good metres and plenty of tackle busts. His attacking numbers are more impressive when you consider he was playing in a team that finished second bottom and sat at this low ranking for a number of key attacking stats, such as tries, busts, breaks and metres.

Another factor that supports his nomination is that London didn't win one of the regular season games he missed. They didn't win many games with him playing either, but clearly he has a positive impact on his side with what he can do with ball in hand. But I can't get away from those defensive and error numbers. He is way off the best in the league and trails his other nominees in these areas too. For this reason I don't think he would be the man I would pick for this award.

Morgan Escare
He is the only true rookie in the list, having not appeared in the Super League before 2013. He brought a lot of excitement to a Catalan team that I watched lose the plot in the full back position when Brent Webb first went down injured early in the season. His willingness to try things and play what he sees rather than what he would be instructed to do stands him out and he is a player I would pay to see, so much so that I was especially disappointed when Brent Webb was recalled when I saw them play at Bradford late in the season.

For such an inexperienced player coming into the team at a very prominent position how the game is being played currently in Super League, he compares very favourably with the average top 4 full back. His try scoring rate is the same as Dixon, but it stands him well ahead of the average full back. His ability to make metres and find space is top class.

His defending numbers are a touch down on the top 4's players, but not significantly so, and his relatively low error rate is very commendable for a young player in a pressure position.

The Dragons have actually performed better without him in the side in terms of results and Webb does show similarly impressive statistics in the games he played in, but then Webb is a seasoned veteran with a very impressive track record of domestic and international performance behind him.

Of the players short listed, Escare would be the one that I would give the award to. Performances, flair and excitement all stack up against the best in the league and of the three, he is the one I enjoyed the most in 2013.

There you have it, Charnley and Escare would have been my Man of Steel and Young Player in 2013. With Charnley inexplicably missing the cut, on the balance of this year in isolation and to this point in time, I would go with Brough, although if Peacock is given the honour then I would be fine with that too.

Who would you pick and who do you think has unluckily missed out in either category? And does anyone know the age criteria for young player!?