With three rounds of the Charter Hall Shute Shield season to be played following the enforced COVID hiatus, attention turns to the prestigious Ken Catchpole Medal and the players likely to feature in the final votes.
The 2021 crop of Catchpole contenders are as diverse as ever, with an accumulation of spritely young talent and seasoned Shute Shield professionals making up the construct of our still unsettled top ten.
Gordon’s Mahe Vailanu topped off a stellar 2020 Shute Shield season by taking out the Catchpole Medal last year, ahead of Manly lock Max Douglas and Warringah fullback Ben Marr. Vailanu was the first Gordon player since Dave Harvey in 2008 to take home the exclusive honour.
A similar story would need to be rewritten if Marlins flyhalf, B J Hartmann, was to take home the top honour in 2021. Hartmann would be the first Marlin in 15-years to be awarded the prestigious medal, with Peter Hewat landing the award in 2006.
Hartmann has been a welcome leader at flyhalf since joining the First Grade side in 2021, accumulating strong Catchpole Medal votes in an otherwise defeated side.
The Marlins have tallied just two wins through the home and away season, with a 38-27 victory over the Two Blues in Round Four their last win in 2021.
But Hartmann believes it was execution, rather than squad potential which limited his sides progress throughout the Shute Shield season.
“We just struggled to reach our potential all year,” he said.
“I don’t feel like we were too far off our competition, but there were small moments in each of our matches which got away from us.
“It’s frustrating when it is very fixable errors like that but reassuring to know that it’ll be a much-improved Marlins side announced when things get up and running.”
Amazingly, Hartmann finds himself within the elite crop of Catchpole contenders having only played four games of Shute Shield rugby in 2021.
The experienced flyhalf was elevated to the Marlins top side for their Round Seven clash with Southern Districts, a match they would eventually lose 42-30.
But Hartmann recalls the messages given to him by Marlins coaching staff ahead of the clash were very simple.
“I was brought into the First Grade side to provide clear direction out on the field,” he said.
“Goldy [Matt McGoldrick] said it wasn’t important for me to be an attacking five eighth. He’d placed greater emphasis on my ability to direct everyone out on the field and give good service to our backs.”
The 31-year-old admits his ability to poll Catchpole Medal votes comes as a surprise given he’d all but submitted to playing lower grade Club rugby prior to the season.
“When preseason started there was definitely a question in my head whether I’d be out there at all in 2021,” he said.
“I’d all but submitted to just playing lower grades, but there was an honest conversation with Goldy at about Round Six where he asked if I still had it in me.
“I was pretty beaten up by the time we got to the COVID break, but it’s really pleasing to know that I have it in me to compete in Shute Shield quality rugby.”
While Hartmann acknowledges his time in the Shute Shield spotlight may be limited, a man who is certainly towards the beginning of his Club rugby tenure and expected to poll well in 2021 Catchpole Medal votes is Marlins breakaway Hunter Ward.
The 22-year-old may only be in his first season of Shute Shield rugby, but is compiling an excellent year in which agility, fitness and ball skills have been emphasised as real assets.
However, Hartmann believes the young breakaway is still full of untapped potential.
“Hunter will be featuring in the Marlins First Grade outfit for a long time,” he said.
“But by the same token hopefully not, as we’d love to see him recognised in higher honours.
“For a back rower he’s incredibly fit and has exceptional ball skills, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him feature in a Sevens program here in Australia.
“The fact he’s only played a handful of Shute Shield games and is polling Catchpole Medal votes is amazing.”
With Shute Shield Finals rugby inconceivable for Marlins fans in 2021, there is no doubt focus will shift to the progress of Hartmann and Ward in the hope of an illustrious Catchpole Medal returning to Manly Oval.
Revealed Catchpole Contenders:
B J Hartmann – Manly
Hunter Ward – Manly