The end of the regular season means the Dream Team will soon be announced. Here’s who I would pick…
Full-back: Ben Barba (St Helens)
Barba disappeared off the face of the earth for several months, so can he still be in the Dream Team? You bet he can.
If you look at the course of the season, he’s still the outstanding candidate ahead of Warrington’s Stefan Ratchford, not least in topping the try scoring charts (26) and having the third-highest number of assists as well (24).
Ratchford is considered the more consistent and while he missed less tackles than the Saints man, he also made more errors (32 to Barba’s 25), and when it comes to getting their side on the front foot, there is no competition with Barba making more tackle busts, clean breaks and having a greater average gain.
For all the stats, when he returns to the NRL he will have left great memories with a highlight reel of stunning tries that have lit up this campaign. It seems he will still need another incredible moment in the play-offs to prove the hype, but he’s done enough over the year to make the Dream Team.
Winger: Tommy Makinson (St Helens)
It’s a tough pick for the right wing spot, but I would just give it to Makinson over the course of the season.
He’s not the most prolific of the lot, scoring only 11 tries on Saints’ weaker edge, compared to the 17 of Ben Jones-Bishop and Bureta Faraimo – with the Hull man coming very close to being my choice after a great debut campaign from the powerful USA international.
Few wingers do more work for the team than Makinson though, making more tackles as well as carries and tackle busts than any of the main contenders, which are all attributes that will please England coach Wayne Bennett and strengthen his chances of staying in the England team after his debut in June.
Centre: Bill Tupou (Wakefield Trinity)
There are no doubts about this spot, with ‘the most underrated player in Super League’ finally getting his share of plaudits in the last few months.
One simple stat alone underlines why he deserved his place, sitting top of the metres chart with a mere 3997 made ahead of the final round of fixtures, when he should pass the 4000m mark that only Alex Walmsley has reached since 2014. To compare, teammate Reece Lyne is the only other centre to have made more 3000.
He’s not the only massive bloke at Wakefield but there is no player in the whole of Super League that uses their size as well as he does. He’s also scored 14 tries and assisted seven in a season that has ensured he isn’t underrated anymore.
Centre: Mark Percival (St Helens)
The other centre position shouldn’t require too much debate either, after a brilliant season for Percival.
Few Saints players have been more consistently exceptional, with Percival registering 20 tries (third-highest) and 17 assists (joint-best for a centre), and surely now there is no way that Wayne Bennett can choose anyone else in this position for England.
He’s made just the 179 tackle busts – 40 more than the nearest challenger – and his 40 clean breaks are bettered only by one player. The full-back and half-backs get plenty of credit for St Helens, but Percival’s influence in attack can’t be understated.
Winger: Tom Johnstone (Wakefield Trinity)
His hopes of finishing top of the try-scoring table may have been dashed but Johnstone has had a brilliant season after his injury nightmare over the previous year.
There are plenty of potent left wingers in the competition, with Josh Charnley a contender after a fine return from union and Greg Eden pushing despite his lengthy lay-off, but Johnstone has outshone them all and should take the spot left by Ryan Hall in the upcoming Test series.
He’s notched 24 tries this year, many of them memorable ones from the most spectacular finisher in the league, and he also leads the way in clean breaks – and once he’s gone, there’s usually no stopping him.
Stand-off: Jonny Lomax (St Helens)
It’s a tough choice at stand-off with the likes of Robert Lui, Jacob Miller and George Williams all impressing in the creativity department, but none have been able to lead their side so consistently this season as Lomax.
Barba’s arrival has seen him moved from full-back but he has proven himself to be even better in the halves, where he sees far more of the ball and usually does something with it.
He’s scored 17 tries this season – no other half-back has registered more than seven – and created another 16 as well, while no half has made as many clean breaks either. He’s taken his style and brought it into the heart of their play with stunning results, and he’s been key to St Helens’ fantastic year.
Scrum-half: Josh Drinkwater (Catalans Dragons)
Perhaps a more outlandish choice, but no player has had a bigger impact on a Super League club this season than Drinkwater.
When he arrived, Catalans were bottom of the table with just four points from 11 games, and staring down the barrel at another almighty scrap for survival. Within four months, they were safe in the top eight with Drinkwater leading their charge to Wembley and a historic Challenge Cup final victory.
In the league he has assisted 20 tries in just 16 matches, but just as crucial has been his ability to control games in a way that few half-backs can so consistently. It’s a mystery why the Dragons are letting him go, but whichever team he signs for next season will have a brilliant footballer on their hands if they can use him well.
Read my pick in the forwards on page 2…