THIS year, at least, the minor premiers are getting their due.
There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to do justice to what Melbourne have achieved in 2011, so soon after being stripped of two premierships and denuded of players. It’s nearly miraculous, not in the sporting cliché way but in the loaves-and-fishes way.
But there’s still something about the aftermath of Round 26 that irks your correspondent. So many of the season’s awards and milestones are recorded in the regular season and yet with all the excitement of the finals, people completely overlook these teams and individuals. If they are not involved in the play-offs themselves, they become almost anonymous overnight.
So, in our own vigilante way, we’ll try and redress the balance.
BEN BARBA AND NATHAN MERRITT: Joint top tryscorers (23). A fantastic feat (and feet?) for two men whose teams finished outside the top eight. Merritt once won the title when South Sydney finished last. Barba battled plenty of doubters early in his career and was held back in Under 20s longer than many fans would have liked. But his success is a testament to those – some now gone from the club – who resisted the temptation to promote him too early. Barba also topped the list for linebreaks with 12. Merritt’s five tries against Parramatta was a highlight of the season.
CHRIS SANDOW: Top pointscorer (195). Again, a fellow who has been maligned at times and who is heading to a new club next season. Sandow seemed to grow in confidence with the decision to join Parramatta, almost as if he was gratified that he was wanted. Not that Souths didn’t want him – people’s minds work in mysterious ways. Heading into last weekend, his goalkicking percentage was an impressive 84 per cent as well, so he had to do a fair bit to get this title. He kicked seven field goals – more than anyone else.
MELBOURNE STORM: Best defensive team. After being denied the opportunity to earn any competition points late last season, the Storm started letting in a few tries. But they also started scoring some in spectacular fashion as they became the Harlem Globetrotters of the NRL. This year the brick wall is back with just 308 points against – while their offence was the second best in the League. Gold Coast and Canberra each conceded twice as many.
MANLY SEA EAGLES: Best attacking team. The Sea Eagles tend to get credit for being effective and dangerous and aggressive but the fact is, according to the stats, they are an offensive superpower. With 539 points scored, they just shaved North Queensland (532) and .... South Sydney (531). Given the ages of halves Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans, that’s a very encouraging sign indeed for the Brookvale faithful.
PAUL GALLEN: Most runs and metres (429 and 3670): These stats are raw measures of athletic capacity and desire. The NSW captain can do things aerobically, and with a higher pain threshold, that the rest of the players in the National Rugby League simply can’t. Gargantuan. Worthy of a plaque, a statue, a book, a mini-series. He came third for offloads, too!
NATHAN HINDMARSH: Most tackles. Gawd knows plenty of people ran at Parramatta this year. So Hindy tackled them – 1198 times. Just one of the reasons he’s so widely respected. They might have finished with the spoon had he not been around.
FELETI MATEO: Most offloads. The Warriors were hoping Feleti would bring back the days of Ali Lauitiiti – the “Michael Jordon Of Rugby League” – when he arrived from Parramatta this year. And he did, topping the league for offloads with 74. A man to be overlooked during the finals at the peril of his opposition.
DARREN LOCKYER, JARRYD HAYNE, BENJI MARSHALL: Most try assists. Who would you most like to play inside/outside? If you want to score tries, it’s these three excitement machines. They are equal on 24 try assists.
COOPER CRONK: Warren Ryan Medal. The first individual award to be given this year, the Warren Ryan Medal goes to the player of the year as judged by ABC commentators. There are many more gongs to come. The Dally M Medal will be given in Sydney on Tuesday night. The Rugby League Writers Association Player Of The Finals will be presented for the third time after the play-offs. In November, the Golden Boot will be given to the best player in the world following the Four Nations final at Elland Road.
So just for a moment, let’s forget the finals and pretend our competition was still first-past-the-post like it was in the first half of the last century. Being the best over 26 weeks is, after all, no mean feat.