Dave Craven: Hard to split 2017 Man of Steel contenders

IN THE RUNNING (from left): Zak Hardaker, Albert Kelly and Luke Gale
IN THE RUNNING (from left): Zak Hardaker, Albert Kelly and Luke Gale
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THERE are no great surprises when it comes to the shortlist for the 2017 Steve Prescott Man of Steel award.

Super League players are no mugs; they know quality when they see it and, in Castleford duo Zak Hardaker and Luke Gale plus Hull FC’s Albert Kelly, there is quality in abundance.

Certainly, it was inconceivable that the Castleford pair would not be on the list.

In what has been a remarkable season for Daryl Powell’s side, complete with some remarkable performances and players, such has been the brilliance of Hardaker and Gale that they have still managed to stand out.

Kelly, too, has been splendid for Hull in his first season after joining from Hull KR, producing some dazzling performances that have lit up Super League at times and taken the Airlie Birds to a new level.

Castleford winger Greg Eden, with his immense try-scoring feats, could feel a little aggrieved to not make the top three but it is hard to imagine those that have the final say agreeing to three players from one club.

Super League players are no mugs; they know quality when they see it and, in Castleford duo Zak Hardaker and Luke Gale plus Hull FC’s Albert Kelly, there is quality in abundance.

Dave Craven

Similarly, St Helens prop Alex Walmsley, colossal again the other night to get his side into the semi-finals, could not have done much more to get in and Leeds Rhinos’ dynamic No 9 Matt Parcell has won plenty of fans.

Nevertheless, any of the trio would be a worthy winner.

Personally, I think it has to be between Hardaker and Gale and it could be a close, close call.

Each has been super in bringing so much to Castleford as the club finished top for the first time in its 91-year history. Hardaker has been a revelation since initially joining from Leeds on a season-long loan.

He had so much to prove and there was plenty of pressure on his shoulders.

Let us not forget, he claimed Man of Steel in 2015 after helping Leeds win the treble only to see things unravel the following season, moving to Penrith Panthers on loan under a bit of a cloud and subsequently losing his England place.

Many would have failed to recover but Castleford, with their free-flowing rugby and under the guidance of his former Featherstone coach Powell, have been the perfect fit.

Hardaker, who had scored 11 league tries and added 18 assists heading into the final round, had big boots to fill in the shape of Luke Dorn’s.

However, he has adapted his game to be able to bring the same sort of attacking quality as the much-loved Australian and, with a series of thrilling breaks and all his usual dominance in defence, proved he must be Wayne Bennett’s No 1 at the World Cup.

Indeed, Hardaker, 25, believes he is a more rounded player now than when he last won Man of Steel and it is hard to argue.

He could quite conceivably become just the fourth player to claim the prestigious award more than once, following three of the sport’s greats in Ellery Hanley, Andy Farrell and Paul Sculthorpe.

That said, Gale would be a welcome winner, too, for the way the England scrum-half has masterminded so many wins this term.

At 29, he is playing better than ever and has so many strings to his bow with his wonderful kicking repertoire, leadership quality and that unerring ability to pick out a piercing pass at the opportune moment.

Huddersfield’s Danny Brough, in 2013, is the only scrum-half to win Man of Steel since Saints’ Sean Long as long ago as 2000 but Gale will look to change that.