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.