Looking back on the remarkable year that was, NSWRL.com.au counts down the 10 biggest stories from the 2018 Intrust Super Premiership NSW season. At No.4, a young Panther emerges as the season's best player.
Penrith Panthers' No.1 Caleb Aekins caught plenty by surprise in 2018 – not least himself – claiming the Intrust Super Premiership NSW's highest personal honour at the end of a break-out season.
Named the competition's 'Player of the Year' at the annual NSWRL Brad Fittler Medal Awards, the New Zealand-born Rugby Union-convert starred in the 2017 premiers' run to within one game of defending their title.
Second only to Dragons fullback Patrick Herbert, Aekins broke 111 tackles throughout the 2018 campaign and ran for more metres than any other player in the ISP this season.
"I couldn't be happier with how this year has panned out, personally. I didn't expect to be where I am," Aekins told NSWRL.com.au of the Player of the Year award.
"I'm so humbled by this, I'm so thankful for it... I got my [NRL] debut this year, it was awesome.
"I really enjoyed the pre-season, it was my first time doing an NRL pre-season, training at that professional level. I've built off that – I wasn't even expecting to play this much (Intrust Super Premiership NSW), let alone make an NRL debut.
"It was only six or seven years ago that I started playing League... I was playing up in the North [of New Zealand]. After one of my top-age games at school, my manager got in contact with the Panthers and it just went from there. I feel very privileged."
Following on from his individual success at the Brad Fittler Medal, Aekins was later named the Panthers' ISP Player of the Year, and hopes figure in the club's first grade 17 more often next season.
"Last year was my first year at fullback, ever. I'd never played there, I'd always been a centre. Round 1, last year in '20s, I started at fullback – it was actually a late decision. I haven't looked back since," Aekins said of developing his game.
"Ball-playing has been a big focus for me throughout the year. It's the one area of my game that I am continually working on... I know I can and need to improve on that, that sleight-of-hand out the back."