ST HELENS full-back Ben Barba began the season as hot favourite to be crowned Steve Prescott Man of Steel and so far he has lived up to his billing.
A devastating, broken-field runner and strong defender, the Australian was 2012 player of the year in the NRL and is well on course to complete the double with Saints this term.
They have been the best team in Betfred Super League so far and he has been their top player, but – approaching the halfway point of the regular campaign – who has stood out for the three clubs covered by The Yorkshire Evening Post?
Castleford Tigers: It has been a strange first half of the season for coach Daryl Powell’s side, who have won six of their eight games and have a negative points difference of nine.
Though they have produced some top-quality rugby in flashes they haven’t sustained it for 80 minutes. The most obvious example was against Leeds Rhinos at Elland Road last month when they led 24-0 after as many minutes, then had to cling on for a 25-24 victory.
Among the try scorers that evening was former Leeds forward Alex Foster and he is this column’s choice of their Man of Steel candidate so far.
Foster played eight games off the bench for Rhinos in 2013 before spells with London Broncos and Featherstone Rovers.
A move to Bradford collapsed when Bulls went bust and he was out of the game last year until Tigers offered him a trial. His first game of 2017 was for Oxford on dual registration and his last was the Grand Final at Old Trafford, when he scored Tigers’ only try.
Powell describes him as a “tough player with a work ethic that’s second to none”.
He is versatile – having played in the back-row, at prop and centre this year – he is skilful, as his try against Leeds recently demonstrated that he is also brave, not being the biggest of forwards.
Foster is not yet one of the big names in Tigers’ side, but at 24 he is still learning and developing and will be knocking on the door for one of the England squads if he continues his current rate of improvement.
Leeds Rhinos: It was possibly a surprise when Kallum Watkins was named captain, to succeed Danny McGuire, at the start of this season, but he is proving to be an excellent appointment in a team who are going well despite injuries to a host of key players.
Watkins has been in outstanding form this year and was the difference between the sides in last weekend’s narrow derby win at Wakefield Trinity.
The 27-year-old England centre’s ability is well known, but Rhinos have sometimes struggled to get the ball wide to what is as good a set of outside-backs as any in Super League.
Richie Myler has made a good start to his Rhinos career and Watkins is one of those feeling the benefit. He is getting the ball in his hands more often and when he does, opposition defences inevitably find him hard to hold.
His winger Tom Briscoe is also having a good year, which reflects well on Watkins and he has flourished under the added responsibility of captain. He has copped some criticism for his goal kicking, but landed four from five against Trinity, three from the touchline and his nerveless conversion of Josh Walters’ late try was effectively the match winner.
Wakefield Trinity: It’s possible Matty Ashurst does sometimes have a bad game, but difficult to recall the last time it happened.
It was good to see Trinity gain some recognition when the England Elite and Knights squads were named – with Tom Johnstone and Reece Lyne getting a deserved call-up – but Ashurst’s omission was baffling.
There may be more eye-catching performers in Trinity’s squad, but Ashurst is one of their best every game.
Against Leeds, the second-rower scored a try, made 26 tackles, four tackle busts and 16 carries and is the sort of non-stop forward every side needs. A model of consistency, he would have Test honours by now if he played for a glamour team.
Overall, Trinity started well with four wins and have not been far away in their five defeats since.
They were leading at half-time in four of those losses, which have come by a combined total of 30 points.
When they get their next victory they have enough talent to turn that into a string of wins.