As the dust settles on another entertaining and rip-roaring year in the sport of Rugby League, there remain just two months to go before the start of the new season in February 2018. Anticipation and optimism are high amongst most fans following the 2017 season, but, what exactly did we learn from Super League XXII?

Never write off the Rhinos

Leeds endured a miserable 2016 season - finishing ninth and having to secure their Super League status via the "Middle 8s Qualifiers" - and began 2017 in the same fashion with a 66-10 thrashing at the hands of eventual League Leaders' Shield winners, Castleford Tigers, the lowest point of their season.

However, the loss also proved to be the catalyst for Leeds to finally kick into gear. From that point, the Rhinos found form and made it clear that 2016 was just a minor blip; eventually finishing second in the table, Leeds once more made it to the Grand Final after a year's absence from the big stage.

Castleford, after a stunning season where they finished top by a record ten points, were bookies' favourites going into the final. However, quite obviously distracted by the news - revealed just two days before the match - that Zak Hardaker had failed a drugs test, the Tigers could just not get into their stride. And, with the outgoing Danny McGuire pulling the strings and winding back the years for the Rhinos, Leeds took control and never looked like losing as the Tigers made error after error.

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A 24-6 victory for Leeds was their eighth Grand Final success and was a perfect send-off for McGuire and the retiring Rob Burrow, both of whom have been vital in Leeds' success over the past decade.

Zak Hardaker is an embarrassment

Zak Hardaker is one of the most talented fullbacks in Rugby League, but, off the field, he is one of the most disruptive and controversial figures in the sport. His career with the Leeds Rhinos had been full of misdemeanours including on-field homophobic abuse and the assault of a student in Leeds. And, after Leeds decided to finally cut ties with the former Featherstone Rovers' star, Hardaker moved on a season-long loan to local rivals Castleford Tigers ahead of the 2017 season. In doing so, he profoundly claimed that he had "turned a corner" from his bad-lad ways. Well, Rugby League can see now that this was yet another lie.

Despite playing a starring role in the Tigers' best-ever season in the top flight - which included finishing top for the first time in 91 years and a maiden Grand Final appearance - and despite signing a four-and-a-half-year deal with the club, Hardaker just could not help himself.

Just two days before Castleford's biggest match in their history - the Grand Final - it was revealed that the fullback would be dropped from the side for a "breach of club rules". Just two days after the Grand Final, the news broke that Hardaker had failed a drugs' test - for cocaine - taken after the Tigers' Super 8 fixture, ironically against the Rhinos. It was a cruel and bitter blow for Castleford and Rugby League in general; a player who had played a massive role in Castleford's best-ever season had brought the game into disrepute just days before the sport's annual showpiece event.

Not only did he destroy the buildup for the most important match in Tigers' fans history, his absence was also a major factor in the Tigers' defeat at the hands of the Rhinos. And, if ruining a Grand Final wasn't bad enough, Hardaker also spurned any chance of appearing at the World Cup for England, and, in many ways, hurt the national side's potential of winning the Paul Barriere Trophy. A fantastic player on the field, but a walking disaster away from it.

All good things come to an end

Warrington Wolves' head coach Tony Smith had been at the Cheshire club for nine seasons, overseeing three Challenge Cup Final victories, two League Leaders' Shields and three Grand Final appearances. Smith, since taking over, brought a period of stability to Warrington after forgetful seasons under Paul Cullen and James Lowes and guided the side to a Challenge Cup triumph in 2009 for the first time in 35 years. As such, he was - and is - held in high regard by the Wolves' faithful for taking the club from perennial strugglers to silverware contenders.

Yet, 2017 was a season to forget for Smith and Warrington. After finishing ninth in Super League, the club was forced to play in the "Middle 8s Qualifiers" in order to secure their top-flight status. Although the Wolves finished 2017 with ten wins on the bounce, it was, on the whole, a dismal year and one which Smith paid for with his job. With things appearing stale behind the scenes and rumours of discontent within the squad, owner Simon Moran felt he had no choice but to part ways with the veteran coach and, in the process, end the Wolves' most successful era in the British game.

Shaun Wane is under pressure

Despite starting the year as World Champions following a 22-6 victory over Cronulla Sharks, Wigan seriously underwhelmed in 2017. Though the Warriors reached the Challenge Cup Final they lost out to the holders Hull FC, 18-14, whilst their league form left a lot to be desired. After finishing seventh in the regular season, the Warriors could only move up one place to sixth by the end of the Super 8s. Although most Super League clubs would give a lot to be victorious in the World Club Challenge as well as make it to the Challenge Cup Final, the brand of Rugby League that head coach Shaun Wane has instilled into the Wigan side is getting more unpopular with the Wigan faithful as time goes on.

The majority of Warriors' fans believe that Wane is void of ideas, that the style of rugby that Wigan play is boring, unattractive and far from inventive. And, despite adding two Super League trophies and a Challenge Cup trophy to the already-brimming Wigan cabinet, Wane's win percentage since taking over at the end of 2013 stands at just 69%. His predecessor - Michael Maguire - won 76% of the games he coached, whilst the sacked Tony Smith left Warrington with 68% despite being in his job double the amount of time as Wane. The former Wigan forward needs to input new ideas and drag the Warriors back up the table, or, chairman Ian Lenagan may follow in Warrington owner Simon Moran's footsteps.

The video referee continues to blight the sport

Ahead of Super League XXII, the RFL adopted a rule used in the NRL concerning the video referee. This is that the on-field referee claims he has a "try" or "no try" and then the video referee has to find “substantial evidence” to be able to reverse the referee’s initial verdict. This may seem thorough, but, it is too thorough and has sometimes led to a farcical amount of time being spent trying to find this “evidence”. In fact, the 2018 season will see - for the first time - Thursday and Friday night matches, live on Sky Sports, kicking off at 7:45pm rather than the usual 8pm slot, to account for the lengthier stoppages in play.

Sure, the whole of Rugby League wants video referees to make the right decision, but, surely it is not unreasonable to expect that the "man upstairs" can reach a decision within a few replays. In taking so long with endless reviews, fans on the terraces and those watching at home actually get bored and it ruins the game as a spectacle.

The fact that the video referee also has to find the evidence to overrule the man in the middle is undermining the technology concept. The video referee has to practically rely on the referee's decision - even if the on-field referee is unsure and perhaps even guessing when giving a "try/no try" verdict. As such, in an attempt to find the "substantial evidence" needed to reverse the referee's initial decision, time and again in 2017, the video referee submitted to the referee's call, despite there being little "substantial evidence" that the trial had been scored or not scored.

And, 2017 also highlighted just how unfair the system is. Why are four teams (two on a Thursday and two on a Friday) scrutinised so intensely, whilst the remaining eight that are not on Sky have their games refereed basically on a whim? The video referee should either be at all games or none at all.