Last month’s edition of League Express saw some of the game’s most active journalists profile the Steve Prescott MBE Man of Steel contenders.
DENNY SOLOMONA (CASTLEFORD TIGERS)
Words by Matthew Shaw
The semantics of the word ‘freak’ have drastically changed in the past decade, and Denny Solomona is a prime example of what a modern day freak is.
Freakish talents and freakish tries have made him a Super League superstar in a meteoric 18-month rise under Daryl Powell at Castleford.
When Solomona joined Cas at the start of the 2015 season, he arrived as a wet behind the ears 20-year-old who had been part of a London Broncos side frequently pummelled by their Super League rivals.
But Powell had seen something in the New Zealand born star that he liked, and within two years of bringing him to the Jungle, he has transformed from a raw talent into Super League’s most prolific and most extraordinary try-scorer.
His 37 try-haul with one game remaining leaves him with a great chance of breaking the current Super League record held by Danny McGuire and Lesley Vainikolo. To even be mentioned in the same sentence as those two is high praise in itself. However, he fully merits that comparison after setting the competition alight with some of the most audacious, spectacular finishes ever seen.
But the Cas flier has added much more to his game this season, which has put him in the bracket of one of Super League’s best players.
A tough appraisal with Powell at the end of last season resulted in Solomona returning hungrier than ever this year, and it has had the desired effect.
There is so much more to Solomona’s game this year than there was last. More potently, his offensive work rate has drastically improved, making substantially more carries this season than he did in 2015, and he’s made more metres as a result.
The scary thing about the speedster is that he is still just 22-years old, an ominous indicator to the rest of the competition that he is nowhere near his best yet.
Solomona is arguably Super League’s poster boy, and he could soon become a household name the world over if his performances continue like this for years to come.
GARETH ELLIS (HULL FC)
Words by Gareth Walker
It’s fair to say that Hull FC hadn’t seen the very best of Gareth Ellis prior to this season, at least on a consistent basis.
An injury sustained in the warm-up of his planned debut at Leeds in February 2013 set the tone for a stop-start three years that saw him make a total of 50 Super League appearances, little over half of those available.
But this season has been different, and the Ellis that burst onto the scene at Wakefield, won trophies with Leeds and earned endless plaudits in the NRL with Wests Tigers has been a weekly presence.
The Hull captain has led from the front throughout, providing an imposing physical presence in the middle of the field from loose forward.
His work-rate has been immense both defensively and with the ball, setting a lead for the rest of the Black and Whites pack to follow, which of course they have.
The likes of Scott Taylor, Liam Watts, Mark Minichiello and Sika Manu have thrived, with Ells’ thirst for work taking pressure off their shoulders and helping them to shine.
“Gareth Ellis just has that effect on the team,” coach Lee Radford said in the wake of the Magic Weekend win over rivals Hull KR. “He has the ability to make others feel better about themselves.
“What he does for us is huge. I’ve only played with two players who have that ability and there are not many out there who can affect the game and their teammates like that.”
Radford didn’t reveal who those two players were after the game, but one is understood to be Jamie Peacock, and the comparisons between him and former Great Britain and Leeds teammate Ellis sit comfortably.
Peacock played some of the very best rugby of his glittering career in its twilight, helping the Rhinos to their historic treble at the grand old age of 37.
Ellis turned 35 earlier this year, shortly after committing to the 2017 season with the Black and Whites.
If he can maintain his current levels of performance and continue to flourish, Hull could even repeat the Rhinos’ 2015 heroics.
And Ellis could be in line for the sport’s biggest individual honour in this country when the Steve Prescott Man of Steel is unveiled.
DANNY HOUGHTON (HULL FC)
Words by Matthew Shaw
Super League’s most efficient defensive machine has for so long been a vital cog in the Hull FC machine.
Houghton has carved himself a reputation for being the competition’s best tackler, making 40 tackles a game without thinking twice.
However, despite his defensive capabilities, Hull had never managed to break the glass ceiling above the KCOM Stadium. A glance at the league tables over the last couple of years makes it clear why they have fallen short. Defensively brilliant, but offensively tame.
That has all changed this season. The league’s third-highest scorers have found their attacking groove this year, and their dependable hooker has changed perceptions about his game in the process.
No longer is Houghton seen as a ‘defensive hooker’. 18 assists, 1,526 metres made and two 40-20s tell you just how important the 27-year-old is to Lee Radford’s attacking structure.
Staggeringly, his defensive work rate is as high as ever, averaging well over 44 tackles per game this season in a side that has as much possession as any other team.
Houghton has been a leader throughout his time at the club, but this season more so than ever.
“The difference between his best game and worst is very minimal and that’s all you want in a player,” said Lee Radford earlier this year.
“The fact he rolls out every week, doesn’t miss a training session and doesn’t miss fixtures is a credit to how he looks after himself. I could see him playing another 250 games and not break a sweat doing it.”
It’s hard to think of a player that gets through as much work as Hull’s number nine. Inevitably, his performances have drawn comparisons with James Roby, who has been consistently exceptional at St Helens. But Houghton’s impact on his own team is as significant.
Along with Gareth Ellis, who has also made this shortlist, Hull FC could well achieve greatness in 2016.