With the new season kicking off this Friday, I thought we could take a look at the clubs competing and what we have to look forward to. Are we going to see the best superleague ever?
The fallen giants. Bradford’s season is one I’m going to watch with real interest. I think a lot of us expected a bit more from them last year, with Slick Mick Potter replacing the much maligned McBanana. Matt Orford’s withdrawal late in the off-season probably didn’t help and the year certainly had more lows than highs for the Bullmania Massive.
I have slightly more hope this year, mainly due to heavy recruitment in the backs, including halves Jarrod Sammut and Luke Gale, especially Gale, who impressed greatly at Quins last year. They also have some up and coming forwards in Kopczak, who was impressive for wales in the 4 nations and the likes of Whitehead, Donald and the humungous Burgess, who will all be a year older. I reckon they may creep into the play-offs this year, which will be welcome relief for the fans, for whom the 2005 success must feel a very long time ago.
For me, the re-signing of Karl Pryce epitomises the potential for both success and disappointment this season. We’ll have to wait and see how he and his new(old) team fare.
Star Man: Luke Gale. Someone to boss things in the middle could really make a difference for this team.
One to Watch: Tom Burgess. Big as a house, surely the mark IV model can only get better.
Classy Cas started last year like a house on fire before slipping down the table in the second half of the season to disappointingly miss out on the playoffs. They’ve started a decent conveyor belt of young players coming into the team, highlighted by exciting talents like Arundel and Owen in their backs and Clarke at hooker, as well as more established Cas boys like Huby and Orr. They also have the often irresistible Rangi Chase, who adds a real element of danger.
Making sporting predictions isn’t often easy, especially when Ian Millward is involved. I’m sure he’ll get them playing some exciting rugby, but his skills at Super League level were never really tested against a fully affective salary cap. I predict quite an emotional season for the Cas faithful. They’ve not been very busy in terms of big transfers, but have lost some real experience in the likes of Fozzard and Widders. Whilst they may get some memorable victories, Cas fans should brace themselves for at least a couple of 60 point spankings.
Star Man: Rangi Chase. Reigning Man of Steel, he’s got some some real magic up his sleeve.
One to Watch: Daryl Clarke. The young hooker showed a lot of guile last year playing in a difficult position.
A slow start last year was washed away with a strong second half of the season which saw the Dragons drag themselves into a play-off spot and regain the prominence they had before the disappointment of the 2010 season. The theme with signings has been quality and not quantity with two very big names coming in. Louis Anderson will add some appreciated, if hardly needed, biff to the pack already bustling with Gallic charm, and if Leon Pryce can recover from last year’s injury woes he’ll return to being arguably the most dangerous individual in Super League. Combine that with a hopefully fit again Thomas Bosc and you have some mouth-watering combinations on the field. The only problem will be finding space for both of these alongside Dureau and Henderson.
Another boost for the Dragons is that they’ve finished some work on their ground, which means the capacity has been increased for the upcoming season.
Star Man: Scott Dureau. Really pulled the strings for them last year, getting himself a Dream Team selection.
One to Watch: Jason Baitieri. Abrasive and strong running, this young forward is going to cause the opposition problems for years to come. Interestingly, the young Frenchman was on the books of, and had 1 first grade appearance for, the Sydney Roosters.
I like Huddersfield. They have tough forwards, clever half backs and exciting three quarters. They have a seemingly astute coach and they promote young British players. So what’s missing? Consistency, for one; they seem to have a wobble most seasons and last year’s lasted longer than usual. I wonder if Nathan Brown’s bag of tricks is looking a little bare the longer he’s been away from the NRL, but I’m always reasonably impressed with not just their recruitment, but also their ability to get the best out of players who other clubs don’t fancy. I feel it will be another year of competing well, but still lacking enough to grab a trophy. They’ve knocked off some big names in the past couple of years, with notable victories like the one over Wire at MM, but they need to turn a corner in order that they’re still doing it at the business end of the season.
Star Man: Danny Brough – the little general. Has a swagger that harks back to the likes of Goulding and Gregory.
One to Watch: Jermaine McGillvary. Some outstanding performances brought him to our attention last year, but can he kick on a level to challenge the likes of Ryan Hall?
Fairly busy transfer activity and a new coach will give the Hull fans hope that they can return to the competitive level they reached in 2005-6. Since then its felt like Hull have under achieved, given the alleged talent they have had in their ranks.
Despite the departure of Fitzgibbon, Dowes and club champion Radford, the new recruits, led by the indomitable Andy Lynch, should bulk up the pack well and lay a decent platform for new boys Brett Seymour, Aaron Heremaia and a man who I believe could prove to be a very interesting long term signing – Jamie Ellis. Released by St Helens, it didn’t take long for a Super League club to notice him starring at 7 for Leigh and re-ignite his topflight career.
The usual suspects Manu, Yeaman and Briscoe will mean a lot of threat out wide, but, again, the biggest influence is going to be the new coach. A few years ago, the prospect of a visit from the Black and Whites could put the shivers up any team, but I feel like it’s a long road back to that stage and I worry that if the new coach doesn’t settle in well they’ll miss out on the playoffs in the coming term.
Star Man: Willie Manu. Extraordinarily hard to pull down when he taking the ball in, he’s a real danger out wide.
One to Watch: Jamie Ellis. Has a look of an old-school scrum half general and impressed at Leigh. I wonder whether he’ll get the chance with new signing Seymour around, but if he does, I’m sure he’ll take it.
Traditionally one of the most famous names in rugby league, the Robins have received a fair bit of flack over their recruitment policies over the past few years, favouring imports over British talent, but they certainly can’t be accused of not adding to SL since their promotion. The Hull derby itself is a massive day in the sport and there’s plenty of big clubs that have been turned over at Craven Park.
As well as some solid additions to the squad, this year they’ve imported Mickey Paea, who comes with a ferocious reputation and classy fullback Shannon McDonnell, who impressed in the friendly derby match. I think it’s fair to say things had gone stale under the amiable Justin Morgan, so perhaps the squad will flourish under the fresh approach of the amusingly named Sandercock.
They have some big game players, do HKR, and a smart driver in the form of Dobbo, so they’re another team that should not be underestimated.
Star Man: Michael Dobson. No surprise, but this guy is the brains behind all the Robins do.
One to Watch: Kris Welham. He can really rip it up in attack, so if he tightens up the defensive side he could perhaps threaten the international squad.
Written off by us all as contenders by midseason 2011, people ridiculed McDermott’s appointment and consigned the Rhinos to the scrap heap as has-beens. The decision to release two of their first team props half way through the campaign seemed madness, but whatever strategy Brian Mac applied worked incredibly, as they knocked favourites Warrington out of the playoffs after being chosen in the club call, and went on to give Saints yet another kick in the proverbials.
Brent Webb summed it up for me; after a season full of gaffs and penalties for descent, the full back burst through Chris Bridge’s tackle to break the game against the league favourites when it counted. The JJB inspired squad seem like they’d walk across hot coals for the Blue & Amber shirt and should never be underestimated on the big day.
A modest off-season of transfer activity, but Griffin and Moore will be solid acquisitions to replace the dead wood they shipped midseason. More interesting will be the development of Zak Hardaker, along with the other promising youngsters like BJB and Watkins.
Can they continue to pull it out of the bag? I’d say no, but I did the same last year, so what do I know?
Star Man: Danny McGuire. Following a season decimated by injury last year, he’s back and striking a formidable partnership with Sinfield in the halves.
One to Watch: Zak Hardaker. Took his chance in the centre last year and was mighty impressive. Let’s see if he can kick on. There’s some big boots to fill since the departure of Keith.
Another year, another set of wholesale changes, including the acquisition of Michael Witt from the Crusaders, Julien Rinaldi from Wakey, the return to rugby league of former Penrith bad boy, Craig Gower and two NRL Grand Final winners in Robertson and Rodney.
Another team that started 2011 well before dramatically losing form, the players inbound look of decent ability and have respectable reputations, but the London club has failed to put things together over the past few years and with a very young coach, improvement could be slow and steady, which is no great disaster in the grand scheme of things for a club still trying to fulfil its potential in the capital. I’m happy about the return of the Broncos moniker and, given the apparent success of the sport at grass roots level in London, hope that the senior club can get themselves on a decent footing as the ambassadorial club outside our traditional heartlands.
Star Man: Craig Gower. Rightly or wrongly, Gower’s going to command a lot of headlines this year. I hope this character can still cut it in the faster paced game of League.
One to Watch: Michael Robertson isn’t the biggest name import we’ve had, but with a try every other game during his 5 years at Manly, he’s obviously a winger of some talent.
Given they’ve just moved into a brand spanking new home, there didn’t seem an awful lot of positivity about the Salford speccies, and you can’t really blame them, given all the palaver over their new coach. A decent showing in the friendly against Wigan seems to have buoyed them somewhat, however.
With The Dingo now in charge, I certainly hope they do well, but I’m not sure if they’ve been busy enough recruiting to make a dent in the league this season with such an inexperienced coach.
It’s been a less than inspiring round of signings, although from what I’ve read about Shannon McPherson, he sounds like a real rough competitor (despite having a girl’s name) who could be a much needed boost to their pack. They’ll also be marshalled steadily by the trio of Smith, Holdsworth and Patten.
The new stadium means they’ll go on my list for away visits this year, but I reckon 2012 is going to be a tough slog for them.
Star Man: Shannon McPherson. If the reputation is true, this guy could be the driving force behind their pack. Watch for him on the “tackles made” list and expect to see him towards the top.
One to Watch: Jodie Broughton. A very exciting young winger, the like of which we don’t see an awful lot of these days. Give him the ball and a bit of space and you’ll get some real excitement.
An interesting season in prospect with a lot of focus away from the pitch and onto the shiny new stadium they’ll be playing in and the encouraging season ticket sales that have followed.
Over the past few years, Saints have turned from the ultimate big game club into perennial runners up, annually falling at the final hurdle. The loss of James Graham is a massive one, although with the recruitment of Anthony Laffranchi and Mark Flanagan, Coach Simmons will be hoping Graham’s massive work rate will be shared around with no detriment to the team. I’m not so sure, but they should still have enough firepower to end somewhere near the top.
The other big-name signing they’ve made is World Cup winner Lance Hohaia, apparently signed to play half back. Unfortunately for him, since he put pen to paper, Saints unearthed the wonderfully talented double act of Lomax and Gaskell. Will Hohaia’s big name get him picked before the impressive and in-form youngsters? Thinking ahead to the next World Cup, I’d be wanting those two to be getting all the game time possible.
The young guns at Saints excite a lot of people, but they don’t have the most robust squad, especially in the forwards.
Star Man: James Roby. Not only is he nigh on unstoppable if Saints get a quick play the ball, but the guy is a machine in defence.
One to Watch: Lee Gaskell. Flew under the radar last year due to the exploits of Johnny Lomax, and Saints fans are expecting a big season for this mercurial young half back.
To be honest, who knows!? Their transfer activity is vast, with players of varying ability coming and going. There’s some gooduns on the list, Fox is a proven winger, Mellors is a danger in the centre and the like of Raleigh and Kirmond coming in from Huddersfield are tough additions to a seasoned squad, but there’s some questionable ones too, most notably Tim Smith, a man with a chequered career who I know is not well remembered by Wigan fans following his stint there earlier in his career, despite glimpses of talent. There’s also a few Aussies I know little about, which hinders any comprehensive analysis of their chances from me.
The biggest change though, surely, is the coach. Out goes lovable Penfold and in comes Richard Agar. The general consensus from the Hull fans didn’t seem a good one and I do wonder whether he’s the man to pull Wakefield up the table. They’ve given local rivals Cas a good hiding in the pre-season friendlies, though, so a fresh start may see his plans unfold better.
Star Man: Tim Smith. The jury’s out, but if he holds it together, he is a man that could really shunt the Wildcats up the table.
One To Watch: Danny Washbrook. His progress as a player stuttered at Hull, despite him being a promising youngster. I hope this exciting ball player has some luck on a new stamping ground.
Seemingly invincible two months from the 2011 season end, they crashed out the playoffs to an un-fancied Leeds team. Despite the Challenge Cup wins of recent times, the year of the wolf remains somewhat an enigma, with the biggest prize consistently eluding them.
Not much of a change around of players, with Waterhouse coming in for Anderson and the exciting young Ratchford coming in for Matt King. Young Chris Hill could be one to watch for the future. So Tony Smith doesn’t have many unknowns to gamble on with his preparations for the next campaign, but let’s not forget that his squad aren’t the youngest, with star players Morley, Briers, Hodgson, Carvell and Monaghan all over of 30. People assume they’re the wrong side of the hill – there’s no substitute for experience, though.
Star Man: M. Monaghan. Saints and Wire fans will argue all day about who is the best hooker (maybe the best player) in the league. Monas’s craft around the ruck is a marvel and he’s a tough defender to boot.
One to Watch: Rhys Evans. Appears big, fast and skilful – exactly what we want from our backs if we’re to compete with them lot down under.
The promoted team in any sport always has a tough time, the majority of their recruitment normally coming from whatever clubs been relegated. However, I see a little bit more light at the end of the tunnel. They’ve gathered experience with the likes of Cross, Clarke and Phelps, a very interesting half back combination of Watts and Hanbury and some promising youngsters in the form of Ben Davies, the return of Anthony Mullally from a year at Brisbane and the late addition of a very substantial chap called Sione Kite. They’ve also given some big names a run for their money in the preseason friendlies.
Watch this space, but, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, I suspect they’ll do better than some might expect. The team may have problems gelling, but they’ll also have players out to prove themselves at a new club.
We’ve also got their super new iPitch to look forward to, don’t forget.
Star Man. Rhys Hanbury. He’ll be in the middle of pretty much anything that goes on and has a very complete game. Didn’t get the credit I thought he deserved at Crusaders, I think he’ll have a wow of a season.
One to Watch. Anthony Mullally. Spent last season impressing with Brisbane’s reserve grade. I’m not sure how much we’ll see straight away, but I’ll watch his development with a keen eye.
Michael Maguire came and went like a whirlwind, turning a Brian Noble led team of also-rans into a slick, physically dominating team of rugby machines. The announcement of his departure prompted much speculation as to whether his successor Wane could maintain those high standards as they romped to Challenge Cup victory last year. However, the season ended with a relative whimper with a double derby loss to a team they convincingly outgunned earlier in the season. I suspect things won’t be that simple for Wane as he takes that precarious step from assistant to head coach.
The playing staff haven’t changed much, the substantial hole left by Martin Gleeson apparently being filled by the signing of little known Anthony Gelling and the departing Coley and Hoffman hopefully being compensated for by the return of long-term absentees Hock and Fielden and the substantial new frames of Dudson, Flower and Luaki.
Wigan’s work ethic in the forwards, especially in defence, should see them grind their way to the right end of the table, but the obvious key to their success will be the quality and frequency of the ball getting to Sam Tomkins. However, if he stays at full back, they’ll be looking a little light in the half back area following Paul Deacon’s retirement, especially the way Tommy Leuluai has been gravitating towards hooker. Perhaps a youngster will step up – Mellor is a name banded about by the fans.
Star Man: Sam Tomkins. ‘Nuff said.
One to Watch: Gil Dudson. Massive lump of a lad, let’s see if the boyo can impress when he’s playing for a team at the right end of the table.
So there you go. I'm not going to give a prediction for every clubs finish, but I do think that, along with the usual suspects, Bradford and Hull FC will be the ones to sneak the last couple of playoff spots ahead of the likes of Cas and HKR. I see improvement in most squads, especially those from the bottom end, but someone still has to finish bottom. I do suspect, however, that it won't be the new boys Widnes.
Top spot? I think my money will be on Warrington to repeat last years acheivement. As for the Grand Final, we'll, as Leeds proved to us all, it's anyone's game.