Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Super League 2018 Preview - Wigan Warriors

For the first time since Shaun Wane were a lad, wearing short pants and just getting his first taste of pie and pea-wet, nobody fancies Wigan to do well in Super League this year. The Warriors missed the 2017 semi-finals, eventually finishing a disappointing sixth. Disappointing for them, that is. I’m still chuckling. As a result they are expected by everyone but the bookies to struggle again in 2018 but you know, it’s them. You can’t write them off.

Unlike the similarly useless Warrington, the baby has not gone out with the bath water in Wigan. Changes have been kept to a minimum in terms of the playing staff and Wane remains in charge. In fairness to the Pie Minister 2017 was an injury ravaged campaign with all of Sam Tomkins, Dom Manfredi, Oliver Gildart, Ben Flower, Joel Tomkins, John Bateman and of course the permanently crocked Sean O’Loughlin spending significant amounts of time on the treatment table. That allowed youngsters like Tom Davies, Liam Forysth and Liam Marshall to come through and gain first team experience which will be invaluable to them for the challenge ahead. Yet it also placed too much of a burden on the puddings in the squad, with Taulima Tautai, copy and paste’s Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Willie Isa perhaps not of the required quality that is synonymous with the name on the badge. Yet this is a squad which it should be remembered is still the World Club Champions having beaten Cronulla Sharks 22-6 on home soil last February.

All those mentioned remain, with only Michael McILorum and Anthony Gelling the really significant departures. McILorum has surprisingly been allowed to join Catalans Dragons, which you hope for their sakes doesn’t turn out the way that Matty Smith surprisingly being allowed to return to Saints from Wigan did in 2017. McIlorum will be joined in the south of France by Lewis Tierney following his loan spell with Steve McNamara’s side.

Gelling needed to return home to New Zealand for family reasons and is replaced by former Wigan…no wait….current Wiga…what….oh I don’t know, he’s replaced by Dan Sarginson. You remember him? He had three decent seasons with Wigan between 2014-16, making 81 appearances and scoring 27 tries before flopping hopelessly in a one-year stint with Gold Coast Titans which yielded just six appearances. As is the tradition honoured by the likes of both Tomkins brothers, Thomas Leuluai and Joe Burgess he returns to the DW Stadium to save the man in charge of recruitment from having to think too hard. This being Super League, he’ll probably go ok. This being Wigan, he’ll probably get picked for England. Joining Sarginson is 20-year-old utility forward Gabriel Hamlin who arrives from South Sydney Rabbitohs. However, most of his experience is with the NRL side’s under-20s side so it may be that he is one for the future and not somebody that we will see slot straight into the side for the season opener on February 2 at the AJ Bell Stadium.

That opener is followed by the controversial Round 2 fixture with Hull FC, which for reasons best known to Ian Lenaghan’s vanity has been moved to WIN Stadium in Wollongong. The Warriors will get a weekend off after that as the World Club Challenge takes centre stage before they have to visit what should be a rejuvenated Warrington on February 23. Widnes will probably provide a gentler assignment in Round 4 before last year’s surprise package Wakefield Trinity visit Wigan on March 11. The last meeting between these two was on the final day of last season’s Super 8s when, with Wigan fans taking out their calculators to try to work out how many points they would need to win by to oust Saints from the final semi-final spot, Chris Chester’s side instead handed the cherry and whites a rib-tickling 32-0 shellacking.

With key players coming back into the fold and perhaps staying fitter for longer periods the Warriors should make a better first of things than they did in 2017. Yet there is still a major style issue particularly with their attack which has become almost as tired and predictable as a joke about Wigan in one of my opening paragraphs. Sam Powell is being tipped by many to partner George Williams in the halves this year with Sam Tomkins hopeful of a return to form at fullback and Leuluai filling in for the absent MciLorum at hooker. Powell played a lot of junior rugby in the halves but playing there in Super League is an altogether different proposition. Wane does have the option to use Morgan Escare at fullback and inject Tomkins back into the halves but the feasibility of that plan depends very much on Sam’s crumbling knees and how much he wants it versus how much he’d rather just be in the Sky Sports studio. He’s fast becoming the Jon Wilkin of Wigan, although to be fair to the crust munchers he is unlikely to get booed off any time soon. For shame, Saints fans, for shame.

So will Wigan make the four? Well obviously we hope not. Nobody wants to go through the rigours of a Super League and Super 8s season only to find that you have an away semi-final at the Pie Dome refereed by Ben Thaler who has forgotten that he is still holding his Wigan rattle as he walks out on to the field with his cherry and white whistle. However, they cannot be ruled out as there is enough quality within their squad to turn around last year’s underwhelming performance. If they cannot, it might be that Wane’s career path displays eerie echoes of that of Keiron Cunningham.

Super League 2018 Preview - Warrington Wolves

Not only was 2017 not Warrington Wolves’ year, it was an unqualified disaster. Highly fancied by many (including this idiot tipster who backed them to carry off the League Leaders Shield) Wire showed early promise with an impressive World Club Series win over Brisbane Broncos before falling in a stupendous heap once the league programme kicked in. Tony Smith’s side missed the top eight, albeit only by a point, and had to rescue their Super League status via the Qualifiers.

That embarrassment was Smith’s cue to leave the building. After an eight-year spell which had brought with it three Challenge Cup wins and three appearances in the Grand Final, Smith parted company with the Wolves to be replaced by former St.George-Illawarra Dragons coach Steve Price. Though Smith never won a Grand Final he arguably leaves the club in better shape than it was when he found it and still, despite the struggles of last term, in a reasonable position to challenge for major honours.

Not that there wasn’t a need for a little bit of fresh blood and some new ideas. Smith had gone stale at the Halliwell Jones Stadium and so had many of his squad. A whole pack of Wolves have departed, two of whom will join another Wolf pack as Joe Westerman and Ashton Sims head for Toronto. Brad Dwyer is one of the brightest prospects at hooker in all of Super League but he will now ply his trade for Leeds Rhinos, while Rhys Evans (Leigh Centurions), Peta Hiku (New Zealand Warriors), Ben Pomeroy (Lezignan Sangliers) and Sam Wilde (Widnes Vikings) are among the other big names to board the Good Ship Do One. Kurt Gidley’s guile and experience in the halves will be missed after his retirement while Matty Blythe also calls time on his career. Enigmatic winger Kevin Penny has been released. Again. He’ll probably be back. It’s like Fatal Attraction.

So who has Price brought in to replace this raft of rugby league revolutionaries? Tyrone Roberts from Gold Coast Titans is probably the headline capture. Roberts has picked up an injury and may miss the start of the season but with 138 NRL appearances to his name in spells with Newcastle and the Titans the 26-year-old halfback is proven quality and should light up the Super League when fit. If Roberts can form an exciting halfback partnership with Kevin Brown then things could get exciting in Cheshire, what with the three-quarter line now including Bryson Goodwin who joins after making 99 appearances and scoring 33 tries for South Sydney Rabbitohs. Goodwin is a former New Zealand international and certainly one to watch in an area where Warrington looked a little short of options last time around. Ryan Atkins may not be everyone’s hot beverage of choice but the two of them could form an impressive attacking partnership for the Wolves with Tom Lineham and Matty Russell offering further options ahead of Stefan Ratchford. Mitch Brown has joined from Leigh Centurions also and will look to challenge for a spot in the backs also.

The main addition to the pack is Ben Murdoch-Masila, snapped up from Salford Red Devils after some stellar performances for the AJ Bell Stadium side over the last two seasons. At 26 he is another entering the peak of his career and who has NRL experience having played over 50 times in spells with Wests Tigers and Penrith Panthers. Sitaleki Akalu’ola is slightly less NRL experience in his career with those two clubs but could be another useful addition to the Wolves back row. Those two are added to a forward group that already includes my annual Man Of Steel tip Chris Hill following his excellent World Cup with England, 2014’s Daryl Clarke at hooker and the fit-again Ben Currie. The 23-year-old missed almost all of last season with a serious knee injury and was a huge miss for the Wire pack. If he can get back to his pre-injury form then he is another who could inspire Warrington to better things in 2018.

Warrington host the first game of the new Super League season when they welcome Leeds Rhinos to the Halliwell Jones Stadium on February 1. They couldn’t really have asked for a tougher start than a visit from the champions, before they make the journey to West Yorkshire to take on Rick Stone’s Huddersfield Giants. Then it is a Cheshire derby with what looks a sub-standard Widnes Vikings side in Round 3 (which they’re calling Round 12 as it has been brought forward from that date to allow Widnes to slum it Round 5 of the Challenge Cup) before Wigan Warriors visit in Round 4 (which they are calling Round 3 because…yeah, you get the picture….). The Warriors may be vulnerable as they will be just back from their needless and vain trip to Australia to face Hull FC in the game that the locals are already calling A Rugby League Match. Wigan aren’t really Wigan at present with nobody but the bookmakers fancying their chances of making the top four. Bookies are rarely wrong but in rugby league they seem to just sit with their feet up watching Jeremy Kyle while writing the Warriors’ name at the top of their list because well…..they’re Wigan.

Back to Warrington. It’s probably not their year again. They will go a lot better than they did in 2017 but there is just the nagging suspicion that there has been just a little too much upheaval at the club for a genuine tilt at the title. They may be a reasonable tip for the Challenge Cup, however, depending on the draw and whether they can afford any major injuries along the way.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Super League Preview 2018 - Wakefield Trinity

Two years on from a season in which they won just three of 23 regular season games Wakefield Trinity pushed more traditional giants all the way for a top four spot in 2017 before just missing out.

It wasn’t until Scott Grix’s infamous air-swipe allowed Jonny Lomax to touch down and earn Saints a last-gasp win on September 7 that Chris Chester’s side saw their hopes start to go slightly awry. Before then impressive Super 8s wins over Salford Red Devils and Leeds Rhinos had put Trinity in pole position to oust both Wigan and Saints for that final semi-final spot. Defeat by a single point at Hull FC a week on from the Saints loss took it out of Trinity’s hands and despite a resounding and giggle-inducing 32-0 walloping of Wigan on the final day of the Super 8s the team formerly known as the Wildcats came up short.

Yet that hasn’t stopped many from tipping them to go just as close if not closer this time around. Recruitment has been shrewd, with Australian giant Pauli Pauli so good they named him twice and hopeful of making a big impact after an injury hit spell with Newcastle Knights. Also on board are Leigh Centurions’ former Wigan and Castleford utility back Ryan Hampshire as well as forward Jordan Baldwinson who joins from Leeds Rhinos but having played much of his rugby league on dual registration with Featherstone Rovers. However the most impressive addition to the squad is perhaps New Zealand-born back rower Justin Horo. The 31-year-old impressed in a two-year spell with Catalans Dragons, scoring 12 tries in 45 appearances and providing plenty of go-forward for the French outfit. The prospect of both he and the enigmatic David Fifita running at the line is not one that many Super League defences will relish.

Horo will more than make up for the released Micky Sio, while former Hull KR prop Mitch Allgood also leaves the club having made just eight appearances. In the backs Sam Williams may well be missed after he decided to return to Canberra Raiders but in Jacob Miller, Liam Finn and Hampshire Trinity retain a good mix of experience and creativity in the engine room. Tom Johnstone is one of the fastest and best wingers in the competition and will be like a new signing for Chester following his return from a long-term injury, while in Mason Caton-Brown, Bill Tupou and Reece Lyne there is pace right throughout the Wakefield backline.

A good start will be essential for Wakefield who have been given one of the kinder schedules to start the season. They kick-off at newly-promoted Rovers on February 2 before hosting a Salford side not expected to repeat the heroics of last season which saw them finish the regular season in the top four before fading away in the Super 8s. Then it is a trip to a Catalans Dragons side which was one game away from the Championship at the end of last term before things heat up a little with a West Yorkshire derby at home to improving Huddersfield Giants in Round 4. It is not until the March 11 visit to Wigan Warriors in Round 5 that Wakefield have to mix it with one of the traditional heavyweight sides in Super League so no doubt Chester will be looking to pick up as many points as possible in that early run to set his side up for another tilt at the final four.

A good start eluded Wakefield in 2017 as they lost to both Hull FC and Huddersfield in their opening fixtures, finally earning their first win on one of the most wretched nights of Saints season in Round 3. That set them on a run of five wins from their next six and they never really looked back from then on, but how different their tale could have been had they picked up a win or two more at the start of the season. They have the perfect opportunity to put that right with the 2018 schedule.

Although the Trinity squad looks deeper than in recent seasons there has to be a doubt about whether it can sustain another top four challenge. If the opening looks gentle they face all of Leeds, Saints and Hull FC in the final five games before the end of the regular season. That will be tough enough, but added to that is the fact that their performance last term has ensured that they have lost that element of surprise. No longer will anyone take them lightly. They’ll be considered a genuine contender for the four, and as such will be a target for fallen giants such as Wigan and Warrington in particular as they try to get back into the after-show party.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Super League 2018 Preview - St Helens

Cautious optimism. Drudgery. Despair. Cautious optimism. Disappointment. Wild joy. The cruellest despair since Roy Haggerty forgot that he had been dropping goals at every opportunity in 1987 and so neglected to attempt one with Saints trailing Halifax by a single point at Wembley.

That was a brief summary of the events of the 2017 Super League season from the point of view of a Saints fan. Before it began we were all cautiously optimistic that Keiron Cunningham would have learned the lessons of the snooze-fest that was 2016, and that he would not be merely happy with another top four finish and a semi-final exit. He’d endured some bad luck in the semi-final that year when Warrington Wolves failed to score a single fair try against his side yet still managed to progress to the Grand Final at our expense. But for the most part Cunningham was failing. The rugby was boring and we weren’t even winning.

Then came the drudgery. Learning precisely nothing from 2016 Cunningham continued on his not so merry path as he attempted to lead Saints into the promised land on the back of five drives, a kick and building bloody pressure. By April there was despair as a 14-0 half-time lead at home to Huddersfield was blown as the Giants, themselves absolutely no great shakes at the time, came back to secure the 14-14 draw that sealed Cunningham’s exit.

An interim period ensued during which Jamahl Lolesi, Sean Long and Derek Traynor handled first team affairs until the appointment of Justin Holbrook in early May. Not many of us had heard of the former Sydney Roosters halfback but he had coached the junior Kangaroos with some distinction and since he promised never to be Keiron Cunningham, cautious optimism returned. Under Holbrook Saints went on a run of 11 wins from 17 games across the regular season and the Super 8s which was good enough to secure a semi-final spot thanks largely to the outright mediocrity of the competition. However, Holbrook had tweaked a few things to instil a visible improvement in his side and with the stunning capture of Ben Barba from French rugby union there was a sense of positivity around the stadium with the silly name once more.

When Luke Gale and Adam Milner crossed to give Castleford the lead in the semi-final at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle (on the subject of stadia with silly names….) there was disappointment, but a feeling that we had done remarkably well to even be at that stage of proceedings. The talk in April before the departure of Cunningham had been of whether we would even make it into the top eight, or whether we would follow the example of Leeds in 2016 and end up mixing it with Fev. And Fax again, although this time Haggerty wouldn’t be around. In the event, while Saints soared up the table it was Warrington who suffered that fate. And in their year aswell. Hilarious.

And so to wild joy. Ryan Morgan crossed in the dying minutes of the semi-final to put Saints in the lead at 22-20 after Tommy Makinson and Mark Percival had also crossed. Crucially the England centre couldn’t add the extras on to any of those scores. It would cost them as this bizarre rollercoaster of a season took another putrid downturn. That it was Morgan who gave away the penalty which allowed Gale to land the two points which sent game into extra-time is somewhat ironic. He went from hero to zero faster than OJ Simpson as he instinctively blocked the run of Michael Shenton as the pair turned to chase a Castleford grubber close to the Saints line. Cruel despair. The extra-time seemed a formality after that downer, and there was an inevitability about Gale’s winning golden point drop-goal. At the end of it all we could reflect on how far we had come since the darkness of the early part of the season, amid the trauma of realising that our statued hero wasn’t much of a coach and had to go, ending a 24-year-association with the club. When Gale’s kick sailed over all that was left was to look forward to a new era under Holbrook.

That era starts in earnest next week when Saints face Castleford in Round 1 of the 2018 season, a rematch of that gripping, stomach-churning semi-final. Holbrook has been unable to strengthen the squad significantly owing to some interesting decisions on contract extensions before his arrival at the club, but he has managed to add Bradford Bulls back rower James Bentley to his staff. He has already made an impression with a hat-trick in Saints’ 64-6 pre-season friendly win over Sheffield Eagles just last weekend, while Barba has had a full pre-season to get back the fitness and sharpness that was just starting to appear in the last couple of his five appearances of last season following his 12-game ban for a positive cocaine test.

Out of the door have gone Greg Richards who reunites with Cunningham at Leigh Centurions, Matty Fleming who has joined London Broncos and the much maligned Tommy Lee who will be taking two steps too many at dummy half for Hull KR this term. The policy of little change in personnel and just keeping things ticking along has led many to believe that Saints could be a serious contender for the League Leaders Shield and the Grand Final in 2018 and there certainly should be no excuse if the team lacks cohesion. They know each other well enough by now.

One conundrum that Holbrook still needs to solve is that of who will make up the regular halfback partnership. Danny Richardson had a breakthrough year in 2017 but wasn’t always consistent while last year’s major signing Matty Smith spent much of the year proving that his doubters know exactly what they are talking about with his own brand of uninspiring catch and pass. Theo Fages and Jonny Lomax complicate things further in that area, with all the signs pointing to a starting role at six for the latter. That will mean a straight choice between Fages, Richardson and Smith for the halfback role with one of them perhaps earning a spot on the bench and the other finding something else to do on a Friday night. Or more likely another club.

In the pack James Roby gives you eight out of ten every week and that consistency has been recognised with the award of the captaincy to the England hooker. He takes over from Jon Wilkin who, Holbrook says, will play less minutes in 2018 as Bentley, Morgan Knowles and even Dominique Peyroux offer competition for his place. Alex Walmsley is still the major threat in the front row amid suggestions that 2018 will be his last season for Saints before he tries his luck in the NRL. If that is the case it is important that Luke Thompson continues the great progress he made towards the end of 2017 when he was often Saints’ best prop. Kyle Amor, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook and Zeb Taia all remain but they also fall into the category of players who may need to be replaced sooner rather than later.

Following that opening skirmish with the Tigers on February 2 Saints have an early season visit to Perpignan in Round 2 before they travel to Huddersfield on February 23 following the Wold Club Challenge break. Salford come to town following that in Round 4 before a visit to a new look Warrington side under new head coach Steve Price. This being Super League and this being Saints, all of those opening five fixtures are entirely winnable and entirely losable. If losable is indeed a word.

Refreshingly Holbrook has talked of the importance of a top two finish which brings with it the comforts of a home semi-final at playoff time. That’s in stark contrast to the noises coming out of the club when Cunningham was in situ, when we were constantly reminded of how difficult the league is and how finishing somewhere above Trafford Borough would be an achievement. If top two is the aim, and a realistic aim, then a top four spot should be the minimum expectation for a side that went so close to another Grand Final in 2017.

Super League Preview 2018 - Salford Red Devils

Salford Red Devils were one of a number of teams to surprise everyone in 2017. While Castleford were streaking away with the League Leaders Shield and Wakefield Trinity were pushing Saints and Wigan all the way for a semi-final spot, the Red Devils spent much of the regular season on course for the semi-finals themselves.

They fell away during the Super 8s, winning just one of their seven matches in that stage of the competition but still a finish of seventh overall represented a much better performance than most people thought Ian Watson’s side was capable of given that they had only just squeaked past Hull KR in the 2016 Million Pound Game. Eight points down with just two minutes to play they produced a miraculous recovery before Gareth O’Brien’s golden point kept them in the top flight at the expense of the Robins. They didn’t waste the opportunity, at least not in the regular season.

Now as they enter the 2018 campaign they are being widely tipped once more to struggle. The loss of Ben Murdoch-Masila to Warrington Wolves was always going to be a heavy one, while midfield schemers Michael Dobson and Todd Carney have also departed in the off season. Both have been released while the Walne brothers Adam and Jordan have left for Huddersfield Giants and Hull KR respectively. Robert Lui has been retained so that the loss of Carney may not be so keenly felt as that of Dobson, while Jack Littlejohn is the man brought in by Watson to take over the halfback role. The 26-year-old has 21 NRL appearances to his name during spells with Manly Sea Eagles and Wests Tigers but has never really established himself in the Australasian competition. As well as operating at seven he can also fill in at hooker should Logan Tomkins or Kriss Brining need any help in that department.

Luke Burgess is known mostly for being the only one of the famous rugby league brothers who doesn’t appear to make either women or England coaches swoon at the very sight of him. Nevertheless he is a very capable player and arrives in Salford after an injury hit spell with Catalans Dragons. He has amassed 70 NRL appearances in spells with South Sydney Rabbitohs and Manly Sea Eagles and played 80 times for Leeds Rhinos after emerging on the scene in 2007. If he can stay fit his experience will be invaluable but that if is a very very big if. The sort of if that would struggle to get through the door.

If the halfback partnership of Littlejohn and Lui gels then the Red Devils could surprise people again. In O’Brien they have one of the more dynamic fullbacks in the league who can also operate in the halves, while in Greg Johnson, Junior Sau, Niall Evalds and Manu Vatuvei Watson has plenty of pace at his disposal. A posse of former Saints look after things up front, with top offloader Josh Jones joined by Mark Flanagan, Lama Tasi and the recent addition of former academy starlet Levi Nzoungou. Thirty-one year old Welsh international prop Craig Kopczak will go around again despite persistent rumours that he would either retire or else finish his career elsewhere and he could be hugely influential in the pack also.

Salford start the season with a home date with a Wigan Warriors side looking to bounce back from suffering the indignity of missing the playoffs in 2017, before they go to Wakefield in Round 2. Chris Chester’s side are much more fancied than perhaps at any time in the Super League era and will represent a difficult test for the men from the AJ Bell Stadium. Round 3 sees Hull KR visit at the end of February which means a return not only for Jordan Walne but also for Rovers coach Tim Sheens who had a consultancy role with the Red Devils up until 2016. Tough away games follow in Round 4 and 5 as Watson’s side go to St Helens and Castleford in early March and it doesn’t get any easier when back to back Challenge Cup winners Hull FC rock up at the AJ Bell in Round 6. You get the feeling that wins against Wakefield and Hull KR are imperative and if the Red Devils can snatch a win over one of the more illustrious sides on the schedule in that early run of fixtures it will set them up nicely for the rest of the season. A continuation of their Super 8s form from the back end of last season could however see them slapped bang into the middle of a relegation fight before we get into April.

It really could go either way with Salford this term.

Super League Preview 2018 - Leeds Rhinos

The Leeds Rhinos last defence of the Super League crown was a complete and utter disaster. Treble winners in 2015, Brian McDermott’s side failed to even make the top eight in 2016. They had to scrap for their very survival in the top flight in amongst the Championship sides and the rest of those who hadn’t cut the yellow stuff in Super League that year.

They breezed through that as you might expect of a side which had swept up everything before it just a year previously, but still few people would have expected the Rhinos to be carrying off an eight Super League title by October of last year. That’s exactly what they did, beating Castleford Tigers 24-6 in the Old Trafford Grand Final at the end of a season which had seen the Tigers dominate the league. Leeds had finished second but they were 10 points adrift of Daryl Powell’s side when the semi-finals got under way. Leeds, as Leeds do, had played the system perfectly.

That eighth Grand Final win was Danny McGuire’s last as a Rhino. The former England half has joined his old team-mate Jamie Peacock’s project at Hull KR and with the retirement also of Rob Burrow McDermott is going to have to find creative spark in midfield from elsewhere. To that end he has picked up former Salford and Warrington man Richie Myler from Catalans Dragons. Myler didn’t have a great spell in the south of France and was part of the side which needed a Million Pound Game victory over Leigh Centurions to secure its Super League status, but he is a player capped six times by England and whom many are tipping to return to that sort of form within the Rhinos’ winning culture.

Another ex-Warrington man joining the Rhinos is hooker Brad Dwyer. Dwyer has made 89 appearances for Warrington and also appeared for Huddersfield Giants in their League Leaders Shield winning year of 2013. At 24 he should be entering the peak years of his career but he may have to be patient at Headingley. He’ll likely be sharing the hooking duties with the excellent Matt Parcell who scored 19 tries in his first season with Leeds and was an integral part of their title winning side after joining from Manly Sea Eagles.

The front row is further boosted by the addition of Nathaniel Peteru from Gold Coast Titans. The 26-year-old has made 23 appearances for the NRL side in a three-season spell since 2015. At 6ft 5 inches tall he should be a real handful for Super League defences and perhaps compliment the always excellent Adam Cuthbertson. Brad Singleton and Mitch Garbutt add further weight to the front row options.

With McGuire gone the captaincy has gone to Kallum Watkins. The England centre has racked up 224 appearances for the Rhinos since 2007 and yet is still only 26 years of age. He has played 25 times for England and is tipped to prosper now that he has the extra responsibility of leading the Leeds side. His appointment has raised a few eyebrows and perhaps caused Ryan Hall to spit out the odd evening meal in disbelief, but if Watkins can continue the form that has helped him score 123 tries for the Rhinos and 12 more for England he could well be one of those who lead by example to make a success of the role.

McDermott will also need to make a decision on who his starting fullback is going to be. Ash Golden has been handed the number one jersey but he will be challenged by 18-year-old Leeds born starlet Jack Walker. The teenager has already played 14 times for Leeds in what was his debut season last term and we will surely see a lot more of him in 2018 even if he doesn’t quite manage to oust Golding every week. Long term he looks the brighter prospect of the two in a position which Leeds have been finding difficult to fill since the departure of Zak Hardaker midway through the disappointment that was Leeds’ 2016 campaign. Given subsequent events involving Hardaker it could be argued that McDermott knew best when agreeing to let the former England fullback go firstly on loan to Penrith Panthers and then finally to Castleford Tigers on a permanent basis.

Leeds help kick-off the whole Super League shebang for 2018 when they face Warrington Wolves at the Halliwell Jones Stadium on February 1, before McGuire makes an early return to the club with Rovers due to visit in Round 2 on February 8. That game will be played at Leeds United’s Elland Road Stadium while work continues on the new stand at Headingley. After that it is a trip to Widnes Vikings before Myler’s old club Catalans Dragons visit on March 2. In Round 5 the Rhinos face a repeat of last year’s semi-final when the much fancied Hull FC come to town while Round 6 sees McDermott’s side travel to St.Helens.

For many there are fears for Leeds in the wake of the departures of McGuire and Burrow in particular. We saw in 2016 how the loss of key players can affect the side when the loss of Kevin Sinfield and Peacock saw the Rhinos sink like the proverbial stone in defence of their title. Expect lessons to have been learned from that and for Leeds to make a stern defence of the Super League trophy. It’s highly likely they will be in the top four come the end of August.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Super League Preview 2018 - Hull KR

After a year away from the top flight Hull KR are back and hoping to make a big impression on Super League in 2018. It took a miracle to land them in the Championship. They led Salford Red Devils 18-10 with two minutes to play in the 2016 Million Pound Game only to be pegged back by two very late tries before Gareth O’Brien landed the golden point which kept the Red Devils up and condemned Rovers to the second tier.

If they were unfortunate to be relegated (and maybe they weren’t because despite that narrow loss to the Red Devils they had finished the 2016 regular season in 11th out of 12) they set about proving that they didn't belong in the Championship almost straight away. Rovers lost just five times in the whole of 2017, two of which came at the end of the Qualifiers to Super League opponents Catalans Dragons and Warrington Wolves when Rovers’ return to the big time was already secured. They breezed back up to Super League without the need for a second consecutive appearance in the Million Pound Game and all of the perils that brings with it.

But that was the Championship, and it is well documented how big the gap is between that competition and the Super League. What is it about Rovers this time around that will help them compete at the top level? The major addition to the squad is former Leeds Rhinos whitewash botherer Danny McGuire. The former England half has crossed the try-line a mind boggling 212 times in his career, picking up Grand Final winners medals on no less than eight occasions. That kind of experience will be extremely valuable to Rovers but at 35 years of age there has to also be a question mark about whether Rovers Football Manager Jamie Peacock’s old mate can still produce it at the very highest level.

Jordan Walne is another recruit who has Super League experience though he only managed four appearances for Salford Red Devils in 2017, while another former Salford man Tommy Lee joins after a disappointing year with St Helens. Former Saints Adam Quinlan and Mose Masoe return to Super League also, while Justin Carney scored 18 tries for Castleford in 2015 before a less productive spell with Salford. The links to the Red Devils crop up seemingly at every turn when discussing this Rovers outfit. In addition Nick Scruton, Shaun Lunt, Maurice Blair and Liam Salter all have Super League experience along with George Lawler and Chris Clarkson but there remains the nagging feeling that this is a squad which lacks that little bit of star quality needed to survive. Relying on a veteran like McGuire at this stage of his career looks a risky strategy.

Tim Sheens’ side is not helped by the loss of Danny Addy. The former Bradford Bulls man suffered a serious knee injury during the recent pre-season derby with Hull FC and is likely to miss the whole of the 2018 season as a result. It’s cruel luck for the Scottish international who played in all of his country’s group games at the recent World Cup in Australia and seemed primed for a big season with the Robins.

Rovers start with a home game against a Wakefield side which looks as strong as it has ever been in Super League and which missed out narrowly on the top four last term, before Sheens’ side travel to Leeds Rhinos in Round 2. They then host a much changed Catalans Dragons under Steve McNamara and face a Million Pound Game rematch with Salford at the AJ Bell Stadium at the end of February. March begins with a visit from last season’s high flyers Castleford Tigers before acquaintances with the Dragons are concluded at least until any possible Super 8s or Qualifiers match-ups with the return fixture in Perpignan in Round 5.

By that stage Sheens should have a good idea of how competitive his troops are going to be. Is the top eight a genuine ambition for his newly promoted side or will they be thrust into the Qualifiers for the third August in a row? Most observers probably believe that it will be the latter. As we sit here now just eight days before the season’s big kick-off Rovers’ squad looks like one of the weakest in the division. Yet thanks to the salary cap there seems to always be a team that over-achieves. Nobody expected Castleford to run away with the league last season, while fewer still would have predicted that Salford would finish in the top four at the end of the regular season. It is to the achievements of those sides that Rovers should look for inspiration and with the experienced and canny Sheens at the helm they probably have one of the few coaches who can raise a limited squad to that level.

Sheens coached the Australian test side in a six-year spell between 2009-15, winning the World Cup in 2013. His storied career has also seen him take in spells at Penrith Panthers, Canberra Raiders, North Queensland Cowboys and Wests Tigers before he arrived in England to take up a consultancy role at Salford. There’s that link again. If Rovers find themselves in relegation trouble again in 2018 it will not be down to the lack of experience of the coach.

Super League 2018 Preview - Hull FC

Back to back Challenge Cup wins have brought the good times back to Hull FC. Their 2016 win over Warrington ended an 11-year period without a trophy for the black and whites and they backed it up by beating Wigan and making all our August Bank Holidays that little bit brighter in the 2017 final. Now, they go in search of the Super League title that has still managed to elude them despite their cup heroics.

Lee Radford’s side have made the last four in each of the last two years but have not reached the Grand Final since they were beaten by Saints in 2006. It remains their one and only appearance in the end of season showpiece. Their 2018 vintage looks strong enough to mount a serious bid to put that right despite the loss of one or two key players.

Chief among these is Gareth Ellis. The former Wakefield, Leeds and Wests Tigers man has finally retired after a glorious 18-year career at the highest level. Ellis picked up 17 Great Britain caps and 16 England caps along the way, and was a Grand Final winner with Leeds Rhinos in 2007 after winning the World Club Challenge with the Headingley club in 2005. He has made 82 appearances for Hull FC since joining the club in 2013 and there is no doubt that Radford’s side will miss his leadership qualities and outstanding work rate.

Also on the way out of the KCom Stadium is winger Mahe Fonua. A try-scorer in both of FC’s Wembley final triumphs (he bagged two in the 18-14 win over Wigan in 2017) Fonua has joined Ellis’ old club Wests Tigers for 2018 after scoring 31 tries in 58 appearances for the black and whites. He will be as sorely missed as Ellis but Radford will hope that his replacement, former Parramatta Eels USA international Bureta Fairamo will be good enough to fill the void. Fairamo did not manage a single appearance in his short spell with the New Zealand Warriors in 2017 and will arrive on Humberside keen to make up for that lost time. How well he goes will be one of the keys to whether FC can either repeat their Challenge Cup success and win it for a Wigan-esque third year in a row, or finally make that final step towards a Grand Final.

The pack is boosted by the return of Micky Paea. The 31-year-old played for Hull in the 2014 and 2015 seasons before opting for a two-year stint with the Newcastle Knights in the NRL. He made just 20 appearances in that time and returns to the city where he made 96 appearances having also spent two seasons with Hull KR before crossing town. Paea should still be among the premier front rowers in Super League and should provide at least some of the power up front that they will need in the absence of Ellis.

Elsewhere it is very much the same Hull side that has been steadily improving under the watchful eye of Radford. Albert Kelly was a Man Of Steel nominee in 2017 after he made the switch from Rovers, while halfback partner Marc Sneyd may consider himself unfortunate to have missed out on selection for Wayne Bennett’s England World Cup squad. Those two will again form one of the most formidable halfback partnerships in the competition. They’ll be supplying a three-quarter line that although missing Fonua, still has the likes of Carlos Tuimivave, Josh Griffin and Fetuli Talanoa in its ranks. Tuimivave scored 12 tries last term splitting his time between centre and stand-off, while fullback Jamie Shaul managed 17 and was another unfortunate not to make the plane to Australia for the World Cup.

The go-forward will be provided by not only Paea but also Scott Taylor, Liam Watts, Mark Minichiello, Sika Manu and of course the irrepressible Danny Houghton. The 2016 Man Of Steel was superb once more in 2017 and will be absolutely pivotal to the airlie birds’ hopes of success in 2018. Everything goes through him in attack and defensively he has been a rock, leading the team with 1123 tackles last season.

FC open their campaign with a home meeting with Huddersfield Giants before they face a trip down under to play Wigan in the first ever Super League game to be played on Australian soil. Notwithstanding the pointlessness of the whole preaching to the converted exercise, it could have a massive effect on how they start the year. When they return home their first Super League assignment will be away to 2017 runaway league leaders Castleford Tigers before the revamped Warrington Wolves head to the KCom at the start of March. After that it is Leeds away before things get perhaps a little gentler with a trip to Salford on March 16. It’s a fearsome start for FC who will have to hope that it doesn’t take too much out of them either in terms of their energy levels or their confidence should the results not go their way.

Despite the tough start you should fully expect FC to be in the mix for a top four place come the end of the regular season and the Super 8s. Whether they will have enough to reach the Grand Final or even win it will depend largely on fitness and form at the back end of the season as it does for all of the major players. Yet with a slice of luck, and if Radford can keep the team focused regardless of the trials and tribulations they are likely to endure in the early part of the season, it could just be their year.

Roby To Lead By Example

If you had any doubts that things were going to be different at Saints under Justin Holbrook then the announcement of James Roby as the new club captain should erase them.

Having joined Saints in early May, slap and indeed bang in the middle of a Super League season Holbrook wisely chose to keep things ticking along without any drastic changes. He made a few tweaks here and there to instil a bit of confidence in the side after the trauma of the Keiron Cunningham era but for the most part he was merely trying to right the ship. The ship had not so much veered off course under Cunningham as ran completely aground. Despite that the most significant change Holbrook made was perhaps the impressive signing of Ben Barba from French rugby union. Yet it would be months before the Australian star could have an impact on the side thanks to a 12-game ban picked up for testing positive for cocaine following the 2016 NRL season. Holbrook would have to go with what he had for the final months of the season.

Holbrook’s approach worked to a degree as Saints found themselves just seconds away from the Grand Final. Before Ryan Morgan’s unfortunate aberration and before Luke Gale’s extra-time drop-goal behind a couple of NFL offensive linemen cunningly disguised as his Castleford Tigers team-mates. Yet despite the heroism of that performance it was clear that Holbrook was going to have to stamp his mark on the side in order for it to complete the transformation from bumbling top four hopefuls under Cunningham to self-assured two-two contenders. This was a side that needed to get its swagger back.

Holbrook hasn’t been able to add many more faces to his squad for 2018. A plethora of confused decisions over player retention under Cunningham has tied the new coach in knots in that regard. Only James Bentley from Bradford Bulls joins Barba in the list of new boys for 2018. Yet with Danny Richardson, Luke Thompson, Regan Grace and Morgan Knowles having all gained valuable experience throughout 2017 the side should still look somewhat different than it did a year ago. In addition to those emerging talents Holbrook has managed to mould the squad slightly by offloading a few of those who were unlikely to feature in his plans. Two-step anti-Roby Tommy Lee has joined Hull KR, Greg Richards heads for Leigh Centurions and Matty Fleming has signed for London Broncos.

There will be tactical changes as the philosophy that Holbrook started to introduce last term evolves further, but the appointment of Roby as captain sends out a message that there may be a cultural change on the way. Roby replaces Jon Wilkin in the role, with Holbrook explaining that the decision was taken based on the fact that the latter will be playing less minutes in 2018 while Roby will be on the field for the majority of the time provided he stays fit. He also pointed out how much Roby deserves to be promoted to the role having served the club with such great distinction over the last decade or so, turning in man of the match performances so regularly that they become almost unnoticed. Nine out of ten from Roby is a given every week.

Which contrasts slightly with the form of Wilkin who has been shunted around the side from the halves to the second row and loose forward positions whenever there has been a gap to fill. His performances in those roles have not always dazzled and he was the victim of some pretty unnecessary abuse during the last home game of the 2017 Super 8s against Huddersfield Giants when he was substituted and walked off to a chorus of boos from the less discerning element of the support. It was always a little unfair. Wilkin seems to have been paying the price for some years now for the crime of simply not being Paul Sculthorpe. Comparisons early in his career to the oft-injured Saints great have set Wilkin up for a fall. He has always given his all in whatever position he has been shoe-horned into. When he eventually does retire he will be remembered perhaps not as a great in the class of Sculthorpe, Cunningham, Sean Long or Paul Newlove, but as a very very good player and a loyal servant to the club he joined some 16 years ago.

Yet the decision to replace Wilkin as skipper looks a positive one. There’s still an argument that the role of captain is not as complex as some suggest, but that’s exactly why Roby might flourish as a leader. There were those that said he should not have the role because he is a quieter presence on the field but he can lead by example. He does not need to be bawling everyone out for every little mistake, or pumping them up for a response with an impassioned rant behind the posts every time a try is conceded. Great sides contain players who are responsible for their own game, who operate within and so cultivate a winning culture. Wilkin prospered in that kind of environment in his early years at the club and that is perhaps one reason why his leadership style was a tad more relaxed than some fans would have liked. Yet Chris Joynt was a very successful captain for the club without the need for what Cunningham might have described as tubthumping. Roby offers similar qualities and his level of consistency should ensure that if he does have to have a quiet word with any under-performing players he is not open to the classic retort that he should look after his own game. Be assured that he will, and an armband on his sleeve will be no hindrance to that.

Roby was left out of the recent friendly win over Sheffield Eagles as Matty Smith was tried in the hooking role. Clearly Holbrook wants to keep this in mind as an option but in making Roby captain, and doing so partly because he expects him to be on the field for much of the time, Holbrook has perhaps indicated that Smith will only be used in that role if it is absolutely necessary. All of which may worry those who think that Roby should be protected as he ages. He’s 32 years old now and may only have a season or two left in him at Super League level.

There is some merit in the theory that a season or two could become three or four seasons if Saints had managed to pick up a reliable, quality hooker to come in and share the load. Smith may turn his hand to the role in the way that Rob Burrow did in his later years at Leeds but perhaps the more likely outcome is that Saints will need to make a genuine number nine top of their shopping list at the end of the current season.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Super League 2018 Preview - Huddersfield Giants

It’s been a period of steady decline for Huddersfield Giants since they carried off the League Leaders Shield back in 2013, but there were signs in the second half of last season that under Rick Stone the Giants could be back on track.

Stone took over the reins from Paul Anderson towards the end of the 2016 regular season after the former Bradford and Saints prop had begun to stagnate in the role. Slowly, surely the Giants have improved under the stewardship of Stone and after a run of nine wins in 14 outings were in contention for a semi-final spot entering the final weeks of the 2017 Super 8s before falling away again. Now they will look to produce their best form from the get-go and banish any suggestions that they may slide back into obscurity and the indignity of the Qualifiers.

Stone hasn’t changed much in terms of personnel for 2018. Only prop Adam Walne from Salford Red Devils and utility forward Colton Roche from Bradford Bulls have been added to the Giants squad, while the only major losses are halfback Jamie Ellis who has joined Castleford Tigers and 2008 World Cup winning front rower Sam Rapira who has taken up an offer from Toulouse in the Championship. There’s an argument that Stone’s squad could have done with a little more reinforcement to turn it into a genuine semi-final contender but there are still reasons for the Giants to be confident this time around.

Chief among those is the presence of Jermaine McGillvary. The 29-year-old winger was the man of the tournament for England at the World Cup recently, and has scored 142 tries for the Giants since joining the club in 2007. His next appearance for the Giants will be his 200th, a figure that is particularly pleasing for the West Yorkshire side considering the amount of interest in McGillvary from both NRL and Super League clubs following his exploits with England. McGillvary is one of the home grown stars of Super League at a time when fewer and fewer seem to be coming through and can be relied upon to be in the vicinity of the top of the try-scoring charts year in and year out.

Complimenting him in the backs is fullback Jake Mamo. The former Newcastle Knights man scored 12 tries in just nine appearances for the Giants in 2017 before a foot injury ended his season prematurely. He looks a genuine star, and a player who excites fans who should add something special not just to Huddersfield but to the competition as a whole in 2018. The problem is that the rest of the backline looks a little stale, with doubts about whether Leroy Cudjoe, Jordan Turner and company can still have a significant impact on Super League. Aaron Murphy is an under-rated performer but you get the feeling that if injuries hit in the three-quarters it could prove fatal to the Giants’ semi-final hopes and even their top eight prospects.

If there are doubts about the three-quarter line then the same questions must be asked of the halfbacks. Danny Brough is one of the best scrum halves of the Super League era, but is not getting any younger at 35. He also enters the season under the added pressure of having disgraced himself in being sent home from Scotland’s World Cup squad having been deemed too inebriated to board a flight to travel to the team’s crucial final group game with Samoa. He can hardly put that down to lack of experience or immaturity so disciplinary issues are never an unlikely outcome with Brough. Alongside him Lee Gaskell and Jordan Rankin are both capable but suspiciously limited players who have it all to do to prove that they can help Brough make the Giants truly competitive at the top end of the table. Brough’s kicking game will always be a major asset to the Giants but at some point Stone is going to have to come up with another solution to the midfield puzzle.

A lesson from last year might be to make a better start to the season. The Giants won just two of their first nine games last term, although that run did include draws with both Wigan and St.Helens. Their tenth outing was a 31-12 victory over eventual champions Leeds Rhinos at Headingley and signalled a run of five wins in seven outings which hauled them back into the top eight mix. An away trip to Hull FC in their opener might not be conducive to making that good start before both Warrington and Saints visit the John Smith’s Stadium and March begins with a visit to Wakefield. At least a couple of wins on the board by then are essential if the Giants are to give themselves a reasonable platform from which to mount a realistic challenge for the top eight and so give themselves a shot at the semi-finals.

In all likelihood they will come up short of that, but should have enough to stay clear of the bottom four and the August crap shoot with the best that the Championship has to offer.

Up front Tom Symonds will be like a new signing after missing much of 2017, while Sebastine Ikahihifo made more tackle busts than anyone else in Super League last season and was among the Giants most consistent performers in the pack. Ollie Roberts will look to build on a great World Cup with Ireland while stalwarts like Ryan Hinchcliffe, Ukuma Ta’ai, Dale Ferguson, Paul Clough and Daniel Smith all remain.

Super League 2018 Preview - Catalans Dragons

As we get set for what seems like the inevitable addition of Toronto and Toulouse to Super League it is tempting to wonder what would have happened had Catalans Dragons not overcome Leigh Centurions in last season’s Million Pound Game. Relegation for the French side would have been a metaphorical knee in the nuts for the expansionists who insist that our game needs to have a presence in France, Canada, USA and South West Nigeria in order to validate itself. As it was the Dragons survived and, under coach Steve McNamara, look well placed to make a better fist of the Super League campaign in 2018.

The Dragons have made two late but potentially important signings in the off season. Fullback David Mead has joined from Brisbane Broncos after an impressive World Cup with Papua New Guinea, while the capture of Michael McIlorum from Wigan looks a real coup. That is if the 30-year-old hooker can stay fit. He missed all of 2016 with a broken ankle suffered in that year’s World Club Series match with Brisbane, and made 20 appearances in what was another stop-start season in 2017 as the Warriors toiled and hilariously failed to make the semi-finals. Yet when fit and on form there is little doubt that McIlorum will add quality to the Dragons pack, particularly in defence where his aggression and high work rate can often inspire others.

Also arriving from Wigan is utility back Lewis Tierney on a permanent deal after a loan spell last season, while Antoni Maria is back from Leigh Centurions. Benjamin Jullien also returns to France after starting out at Avignon and taking in spells at North Wales Crusaders, Rochdale and latterly Warrington.

Of those departing perhaps the biggest loss is Richie Myler who has taken up the challenge of replacing Danny McGuire at Leeds Rhinos. Another halfback has retired in the form of veteran Thomas Bosc, while powerful three-quarter Krisnan Inu has joined Widnes Vikings. In the pack the biggest loss is undoubtedly back rower Justin Horo who after 45 appearances in two seasons with the Dragons following spells in the NRL with Parramatta and Manly will start 2018 with Wakefield Trinity. Myler’s exit places further pressure on former Saints halfback Luke Walsh to try and guide the Dragons team around the field, though Tongan World Cup squad member Samisoni Langi has arrived from Leigh Centurions also. Langi was unused during the Tongans’ spectacular run to the semi-finals and managed just nine games for the Centurions last term, but if he can establish himself as a regular halfback partner for Walsh the Dragons should have something to build on in the creative department. Nineteen year-old half Lucas Albert featured less last term but is a good young prospect who should benefit from the experience of Walsh and who is a more than capable replacement should injuries or suspensions bite.

Already on board with the Dragons and going around again in 2018 the key player might be Greg Bird. The man capped 17 times by Australia made just seven appearances for the Dragons in 2017 after joining the club from Gold Coast Titans, but in those games he showed enough to indicate that he can raise the performance of the whole side. Never a stranger to controversy, Bird is nevertheless a player of proven quality and his ability to stay fit will be a massive key to whether the Dragons can improve on last season’s disappointing showing. Also huge for the Dragons will be pack stars like Remi Casty, Paul Aiton, Sam Moa and Louis Anderson, while Benjamin Garcia’s return from Penrith Panthers in the NRL is also a much needed boost. Garcia scored 10 tries in 48 games in his first stint with the Dragons between 2013-15 and after failing to make an impression with the Panthers at first grade level will be determined to prove his quality in Super League once more.

Ever since the Dragons joined Super League back in 2006 the main stumbling block to their success has been their away form. They just haven’t travelled well, and in 2017 that continued when they won just three times on the road in the regular season, and none after beating Huddersfield Giants at the John Smith’s Stadium in Round 9 in April. McNamara has already spoken about the need to address that and a different approach to the extra travelling involved for the Dragons looks likely this time around.

It’s a big season for the Dragons, not least because they are likely to be joined by another couple of non-UK outfits when the clubs and the RFL finally thrash out an agreement about what the competition will look like in 2019 and beyond. All-French clashes with Toulouse look a particularly tasty prospect while any match-ups with Toronto would have a truly international flavour whatever reservations the doubters like this writer may have. Though the likely restructure might well save them, another appearance in the Million Pound Game is not what the Catalans faithful will be looking for, and not what McNamara needs as he looks to rebuild his coaching reputation in this country following his uninspiring period in charge of the England team.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

2018 Super League Preview - Castleford Tigers

You would be forgiven for thinking there was some confusion about who the current Super League champions are. Ask anyone from Castleford, particularly those responsible for the sound system at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle, and they might leave you with the impression that it is Daryl Powell’s Tigers. Queen songs and commemorative scarves filled the Wheldon Road air after their League Leaders Shield victory was sealed in July but those pesky rules got in the way, leaving Leeds Rhinos to carry off Grand Final honours. Oh, and the actual Super League trophy.

We can argue all day about whether this is just. Of course any sane competition in sport would place greater emphasis and bestow titles on the team that finishes top of the pile at the end of the league season. But this is rugby league and Super League is not any sane competition. Rules is rules and as a consequence we can all have a good laugh at Castleford for blowing it when it really mattered, scant consolation for us for the fact that they so cruelly knocked us off our own path to Old Trafford in that extra-time thriller in September.

Powell and his troops will be looking to get the monkey off their back in 2018 then, and go one better by lifting the title. Reflecting on his side’s Grand Final defeat to the Rhinos Powell opined that you have to lose one to win one, which makes some sort of sense in as far as his side will no doubt be wiser for the experience. But it is not strictly true. Try telling it to Terry Griffiths for example, who carried off the world snooker title in his first appearance at the Crucible in 1979. Or conversely the Buffalo Bills, who appeared in four Super Bowls in a row in the early 1990s and lost them all. They still haven’t won one.

The side that dominated the league in 2017 is largely still intact apart from one rather conspicuous figure. The overwhelming black shadowy thing looming over the 2018 Cas vintage is the probable loss of Zak Hardaker who was sensationally and unceremoniously dropped from the Grand Final squad just days before the game as it later transpired that he had tested positive for cocaine. Hardaker turned in another monumental performance in 2017, every bit the equal of his Man Of Steel winning effort for Leeds in 2015 and his absence and the furore surrounding it was almost certainly a big reason why the Tigers couldn’t quite get it done at Old Trafford. Uncertainty surrounds the currently suspended Hardaker who somehow still hasn’t been dealt with. Hardly surprising given that there appears to be nobody in charge of the RFL and even when there is they will be told what to do by Ian Lenaghan, Gary Hetherington and Eamonn McManus in any case. For now, don’t expect to see Hardaker but do expect the Tigers’ efficiency to take something of a hit.

Veteran prop Andy Lynch has finally retired along with the sparsely used former Warrington winger Joel Monaghan, but apart from that the losses have been kept to a minimum and consist mostly of fringe players. Ben Crooks, Kevin Larroyer and Larne Patrick have stepped down a division with Leigh Centurions while perhaps it is with some surprise that we note that promising half Tom Holmes has been allowed to join Featherstone Rovers. Offsetting that loss both Jamie Ellis and Cory Aston have arrived to assist Luke Gale in the midfield now that Ben Roberts looks likely to convert to fullback to fill the Hardaker-shaped hole in that position. Gale was named Man Of Steel in 2017 but was widely panned for some uninspiring performances in England’s World Cup campaign. Yet for now he remains unchallenged as the best English scrum half in the competition and will again be key to the Tigers’ hopes.

Among the names coming in are the versatile Joe Wardle who joins from NRL outfit Newcastle Knights following the now fashionable one-year stint down of the Englishman down under. The former Huddersfield man played 17 times for the Knights and will add to Powell’s options in both the second row of the pack and perhaps in the centres. You can pretty much throw Wardle in anywhere and he will give you seven out of ten every week, but he may not be the kind of inspiring difference maker that you might expect a side looking to push on from such a successful season to recruit. Similarly Gary Lo shone brightly in Papua New Guinea’s World Cup journey but is largely untried at the highest level of the domestic game. He has spent the last two years playing in the Championship with Sheffield Eagles after starting out in his homeland with the PNG Hunters. A winger who has scored more than a try per game for the Eagles, he might just turn out to be the perfect fit for a side which loves nothing better than to give it a bit of width and watch their wide men rack up the points. Both Denny Solomona (spits) and last year’s top try-line botherer Greg Eden can attest to that.

The Tigers have it tough to start out with a visit to our very own Saints on the opening weekend. Justin Holbrook has changed the culture at Saints, talking recently of the importance of finishing in the top two and therefore getting a home semi-final come playoff time. All of which is a pleasant change from the previous philosophy under Keiron Cunningham which at times made us Saints fans feel like we should be lucky to be competing for a top eight spot in a salary capped sport. If the Tigers can past that test they have it a little easier with a home clash with everyone’s favourites for the wooden spoon Widnes Vikings before taking on both Hull clubs as February turns into March.

While it is unlikely that Castleford will dominate the regular season in 2018 in quite the same way as they did last term they are still a very realistic contender for the top four and could, with a fair wind and an opponent who isn’t Leeds, make up for their Grand Final heartbreak.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A Rugby League Blog

Are you looking forward to the new rugby league season? If you are, it is almost certainly because you are a rugby league nut who would watch endless re-runs of a 4-4 draw between Keighley and Rochdale from a cold Wednesday in 1982 if it were the only rugby league available.

If you’re not looking forward to it the first thing to say is that you should be. Despite attempts to dilute it to death with set completion and going through the processes, rugby league remains the most exciting sport in the world for me. Which may or may not be because there is a top flight team on my doorstep but regardless, the fact that the forthcoming season is an exciting prospect is inarguable to those steeped in the game, however much we may moan about Matty Smith’s kicking game. If you’re not looking forward to it then it is likely to be because you didn’t know, before you read the opening preamble of this post, that it was actually happening. It's not exactly been promoted with any great enthusiasm by its paymaster broadcasters at Sky, nor do the national press ever go out of their way to give it a push when there are perfectly good union snoozefests to blather on about. Or the latest playground tussle between Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte.

It is easy to blame the media and I often do, but rugby league is not really helping itself at present. The game is in a bit of turmoil as we prepare to enter the 23rd season of Super League in just 16 days from the time of writing. Amid whispers of yet another change of structure we don’t quite know whether the 2018 season will be the last of the marmite that is the Super 8s format, and whether those battling it out to avoid relegation at the end of it will actually be in any jeopardy at all. Whichever way they go the issue needs sorting out fast. We just can’t let the 2018 season begin without knowing exactly how the sport is going to be structured for 2019 and beyond. Well, that would be like going into a four-year parliament cycle propped up by religious zealots at huge expense without really knowing whether they are going to back you on the major issues. And who in their right mind would do that?

The great sticking point in rugby league at the moment is that it is the clubs, rather than the governing body the RFL, who are charged with making the decision. As great as it is, ours must be one of the few sports on the planet that has a governing body that is all but powerless, totally in thrall to the wishes of the self-styled giant clubs at the top of the British game. Yet even they aren’t bullish enough to do away with the concept of democracy altogether. They need to agree on a way forward and the fact of the matter is that at the moment that agreement is beyond them. Do they want to keep the present Super 8s system? Do they want to move to 14 teams in the top flight? Will promotion and relegation stay, or be deferred for a period of time? They just can’t decide, hence there has been no announcement about what will happen after the grandly titled Super League XXIII draws to a close in October.

The removal of the much maligned Nigel Wood from the top job in the RFL has been celebrated by many amid old jokes about finger buffets and the demise of Halifax, but while Wood prepares to impart the same lack of influence on the international game in his new role in the RLIF it has left the RFL rudderless and even more powerless. Andy Burnham is the kind of personality the game needs, a man who seems to carry real political weight. Yet his recent appointment to the role of RFL President seems largely ceremonial and it is unlikely that he will have any real effect on the way the organisation conducts its business and runs the game. He’ll be around to present cups and shake hands at all the right times, while offering a stream of positive vibes about the game, but he won’t stride into Leeds on horseback and order the Rhinos hierarchy to run a reserve team, nor issue any edicts about how many teams should be in each tier of the structure and whether or not there should be movement between divisions. There is nobody steering the ship and it is somewhat out of control at just the wrong time.

One of the principal reasons why the issue of structure within the leagues is so difficult to resolve is that anything outside the top tier of Super League is still viewed by most clubs as the sporting wilderness. The lack of a proper television deal for the Championship has rendered that competition a graveyard to be avoided at all costs in the minds of those in Super League. Sky currently hold the rights to Championship games but steadfastly refuse to broadcast them, with the exception of the Summer Bash in Blackpool, that one-off fixture at the Magic Weekend between Toulouse and Toronto, and the Qualifiers at the end of the regular season. You get the feeling that as long as this is the case the top flight clubs would like to pull up the drawbridge now and abolish relegation once more, but they’re in a bind over the fact that there are probably more than the requisite 12 clubs who could reasonably be expected to put together a decent Super League club. What to do with the excess?

Some have suggested that a move to 14 teams is all but inevitable, and that the decision to include the Toulouse v Toronto Championship fixture in this year’s Magic Weekend is a foreshadowing of that. But what if we kept the present structure of 12 clubs and instead worked on strengthening the second tier so that it would be a more enticing proposition to the broadcasters? If we could establish 20 clubs of a similar standing in terms of their infra-structures there could be scope for two leagues of 10 clubs, with a two-up, two-down promotion and relegation system in which the drop to the lower level would not necessarily mean the financial abyss and crowds of 500. All would be expected to run reserve and academy sides so that competition at that level would thrive also, and players coming into the game would not fall into the bottomless pit that is the current gap between the under-19s and the first team. It’s a given that we need to have solid foundations in place at the very lowest age groups, but it is just as important that we don’t lose those players who have just got a foothold in the game because they can’t quite make the jump from under-19s to Super League.

In amongst all this moaning and doom and gloom there is plenty to be positive about. Justin Holbrook is talking about the importance of a home semi-final, meaning that we won’t be entering the season with the dubious aim of just about reaching the top four as we have done in the last couple of years under Keiron Cunningham. Ben Barba is a Saints player, and in Danny Richardson, Mark Percival, Regan Grace and Luke Thompson we have some of the brightest prospects in the British game. Away from Saints Hull derbies are back on the agenda with the promotion last term of Hull KR to join what is already a formidable Hull FC side under Lee Radford, while Warrington’s overhaul under Steve Price looks interesting. Best of all, Wigan look like they are going to be decidedly rubbish and I think we can all agree that is something we can enjoy together. But big decisions have to be made about the long term future of the game and they have to be made quickly if the game is to prosper in the coming years.