Jeff Dickinson-Fox reviews the campaign which saw Melbourne Storm crowned premiers in 2017.
3 days ago
Little-known Penrith forward Matthew Bell admits he basically fell into an NRL career.
He started playing just to get fit, wound up in the Queensland Cup and the next thing he knows he's landed an NRL contract at the Panthers.
Bell's rise may sound seamless but it's about to get a whole lot tougher after being called in to fill the boots of arguably the game's best forward in Test prop and Panthers skipper Petero Civoniceva for Sunday's clash with New Zealand Warriors at CUA Stadium.
Civoniceva is away on Queensland State of Origin duty, giving Bell his first start of 2008 after five games off the bench.
But the 26-gamer says it is up to all the Panthers forwards to fill Civoniceva's large void as they seek back-to-back wins and a chance to step into the top eight for the first time in over a year.
"I suppose we're a bit low on stocks in the front row and we didn't have much choice there," he says of his starting call up.
"(But) pretty much everyone in the forwards has got to chip in this week.
"It's pretty important time at the moment because we are sort of just winning one and losing one. We are 4-4 so we need to get up into that wins column and push our way into the eight and then we need to hold it.
"You can't go into any sort of cruise mode. We have to always be on the ball."
At 26, Bell is one of those hard-working props that does his job with minimum of fuss and even less recognition.
He's floated between NRL and premier league since making his debut in 2006 and readily admits making a career out of rugby league has all been one big learning curve.
It was a career he never considered until former Gold Coast Chargers coach Phil Economidis took him under his wing at Souths Logan.
Even then it was a stroke of fortune that led to an NRL career, as in just his second season of league former Panthers coach John Lang had come to watch Maurice Blair play and returned to Sydney with two new recruits.
"I only wanted to play to get my fitness up and never thought I would play Queensland Cup or anything," said Bell.
"I didn't take it seriously until I started playing Queensland Cup and got called down to play with the Panthers.
"I was probably only going to play one more season and that was it. I was going to go to university or something.
"I never really aimed to play NRL or anything like. I just sort of fell into I guess. It sounds weird. It's such a different way to go about it. A lot of these younger blokes start playing when they're like 10 and it's their dream all their life.
"I always watched footy and loved playing it, but I never expected to do it."