Hodges: My award winners of 2016
The season is drawing to a close and the awards season is in full swing with the Dally Ms on in Sydney next Monday night and Jason Taumalolo crowned the Players' Champion by his peers and the Rugby League Players Association.
So here are the inaugural 'Hodgos' for the players, coaches and teams that have caught my eye in 2016.
Favourite Player of the Year: He may not be the favourite for the Dally M next week but the guy I've most enjoyed watching this year has been Joey Leilua. His combination with Jordan Rapana has been terrific and you can see by the way he's playing that he's happy off the field. He's always had the potential but I'm not sure he realised what it took to reach the heights he's at now. He's been far more consistent this season and that only comes from making sacrifices and working hard.
Rookie of the Year: I'm a big fan of Latrell Mitchell at the Roosters and Ash Taylor had a great season for the Titans but I can't go past young Nathan Cleary at the Panthers. The confidence he has shown to lead the side around at such a young age is very impressive. There's a lot of pressure down there in Penrith but he's handled it really well and played some really good football.
Coach of the Year: Brad Arthur did a great job to keep the Eels together and obviously Craig Bellamy and Shane Flanagan did well to get the Storm and Sharks to this point but I'm going to pick Ricky Stuart as my coach of the year. He hasn't got a roster full of big-name players down there at Canberra but he's improved their defence and still allowed them to play an exciting brand of football that has got them to one game from the grand final. They've had a massive turnaround in my opinion.
Surprise packet of 2016: It was great to see Benny Barba get back to his best this year and Suliasi Vunivalu at Melbourne has been a sensation but the guy that really caught my eye this year was Bevan French at Parramatta. We saw a bit of him at the Auckland Nines at the start of the year but I probably didn't expect him to fit into first grade as quickly as he has. To score 19 tries in 13 games is incredible and when he went to fullback later in the year he scored hat-tricks two weeks in a row. The Eels have got a special young talent in Bevan.
Most Improved Player: There have always been plenty of raps on Ryan James but this year he really showed us what he is capable of producing on a weekly basis for the Titans. He has obviously worked hard in the pre-season the past couple of years to build his engine up to the point where he can play 80 minutes in the middle and has been a great asset to the club. He's in the running to be the Dally M Player of the Year and to be honest, I don't know why he hasn't worn a New South Wales Origin jersey yet. If he can keep this up I'm sure he'll be a definite starter for them next year.
Best Signing of 2016: James Maloney at Cronulla, without a doubt. He was a part of that Roosters side that won two minor premierships in a row and teams seem to have success wherever he goes. He can be annoying to play against because he's always up in your face and challenging you and nine times out of 10 he comes up with the right play. The Sharks are getting a lot more repeat sets and things like that and I've got no doubt he's brought a winning culture with him to the club.
Game of the Year: It's still hard to think about losing the grand final last year to the Cowboys but the three games they played against the Broncos this season are for me a three-way tie for game of the year. All three games were incredible and the semi-final last week brought back some memories for a lot of people but if I had to separate one I'd go with the game in Round 4 where Anthony Milford kicked the winning field goal. It's always nice to win those ones.
Moment to Remember: Once again we had an NRL season that produced some incredible moments but in terms of sheer magnitude the return of Jarryd Hayne is hard to go past. Considering what he had achieved in America and trying to make the Olympics with the Fiji rugby sevens team, having Jarryd come back to the NRL was massive. You saw ticket sales and memberships pick up straight away and there are only a very few athletes in Australia who can generate the publicity that 'Haynesy' attracts. Kicking the winning field goal against the Wests Tigers that proved the difference in the Titans making or missing the finals I'm sure will be a moment we see replayed many times in the future.
Game on. Data off.
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