HAVING examined briefly the prospects of the clubs likely to dominate the top of the 2013 Super League, it is now appropriate to discuss the teams of playoff calibre, and those teams which are looking to make progress on previous campaigns.
As there is no relegation per se, (Super League member clubs are granted a three-year licence to compete, and any prospective new entrant club may replace them, depending on the strength of the respective business plans they present when licences are due for renewal) this allows scope for clubs to build a franchise, develop towards playoff success or a title challenge in a way which many other British sports do not accommodate.
Securing bragging rights in the city of [Kingston-upon] Hull is an intensely competitive spectacle for fans of the two Super League clubs in the city.
After winning both derby games held in the city against their heated rivals, Hull FC were involved in the playoffs. However, their journey didn’t last long as they succumbed to defeat at Warrington. On the road to the post-season, the Black-and-Whites dealt heavy defeats to the beleaguered Bradford Bulls, Widnes, and even managed to humble the Leeds Rhinos at the KC Stadium. Yet they were prone to frustrating lapses, none more significant than in a regular season defeat at the Halliwell Jones against WIRE, and away to Widnes.
Nonetheless, FC play a brand of rugby league, under coach Peter Gentle, which mean they are a potent attacking force, and have the reliability from the boot of Danny Tickle to convert penalties and conversions when it counts. Having made some decent acquisitions in the off-season, they are well-positioned to drive towards another playoff entry come the end of the season, but must ensure they cut out uncharacteristic defeats on the road.
Although Hull Kingston Rovers (Hull KR) lost out in the derby stakes by a tally of 2-to-1, the single derby they did win came at Magic Weekend in Manchester, and saw them mount a scintillating comeback in the dying embers of the game.
The style of ‘KR is very much more big hitting and steely, and this combined with the Spartan nature of their home ground often makes them a difficult proposition for many teams in the league. That is not to say they are not without merit in the flare aspect of the game, and captain Michael Dobson is one of the best in the league with the boot in open play, completing 185 attacking kicks to lead the rest in this particular statistic. With the exception of a defeat at Warrington early in the 2012 season, the Robins managed to stay competitive in every game they played, with opponents often eking out narrow wins. Their demolition of bitter foes Castleford at Craven Park, and their double over breakout team Huddersfield exhibited their best elements when on form. Yet a run of defeats in the final stretch meant they were denied a top-8 finish, and thusly a playoff opportunity. By virtue of their intensity and being hard to beat by any great margin, ‘KR are likely to keep the playoff race alive for much of the season. Consistency and converting narrow defeats into narrow wins will be the pivotal difference in them making it past the league phase.
When they weren’t being linked with falling into a black hole or apparently risking being thrown out of the league, the Bradford Bulls were playing some brilliant rugby. Whether this was just a great team doing what they do, or playing for their livelihoods, it was admirable to watch either way. Now, the Bulls are on a steadier ship, with a new owner. Throughout the turmoil, commentators were keen to reflect on the Bulls side which lifted the Super League trophy not so long ago. While the long-term ambition will be to repeat such achievements, a more sensible target for the moment may be trying to get a top-half finish, and make it gradually towards the latter stages of the post-season.
The Odsal based club have virtually the same squad to work with as they did in 2012, when Wakefield spoiled their romantic dreams of a heroic season by taking the coveted eighth place in the league standings. It is more than likely the Bulls will hit the ground running, determined to make the most of the reprieve granted to them, and I suspect that the Wildcats will not be on their minds for long if they can repeat the magnificent rugby that felled Wigan towards the end of 2012. Expect the win tally and the loss tally from last year to be flipped upside-down this year. If I’m wrong, you can say ‘I told you so.’
Penultimate in my sights for contention to the all-important sixth to eighth positions are Salford City Reds. For periods of the 2012 campaign, the Reds were on a hot streak, and seemed to excel in irritating their opponents by winning when they weren’t fancied. Alas, it was the less excellent periods of form which cost them, and perhaps unfairly saw them ranked rather lower in the final standings than those admirers they had won over during the season were hoping. From May to the end of June in 2012, the Reds dispatched three contenders for the top-4 in some style, but were found wanting when it came to facing the more prestigious of the top teams. Though progress in their winning percentage, and lessening the magnitude of the scores when they do lose should be the priority, this is a team which can move from being an irritant to the elite, to a genuine top-eight contender to be reckoned with.
Finally for the playoff punters, the Wakefield Wildcats. They may seem plucky, they may seem unfashionable, but they can certainly play the game with the best of them. In a late surge to squeeze into the top half, ‘Wakey saw off Huddersfield, St. Helens, Leeds, Hull KR, Widnes and Salford in consecutive games; though the Rhinos brushed them aside come the playoffs. Under the motivational stewardship of the affable Richard Agar, the Wildcats had a bit of trouble with the bigger sides earlier in the year, and even drew a bust in London against the lowly Broncos, but this is tempered memorable wins over Catalans and Hull FC. Punching above their weight, or merely a win away from a glorious run? You decide. Keeping their 2012 success in mind may help to drive them on early into this season. If they can keep that unbeaten league phase run going into double-digits, they are in with a shout. However, should they start the season the same as the last, then it may be a disappointing anti-climax.
The Basement Battle
For the Castleford Tigers the aim will no doubt be to win their games against Hull KR. Though whether they can reach the heights of their rivals in recent years is uncertain. For Coach Iain Millward, progress always appears to be an important factor, it something he emphasises as a regular guest on the BBC Super League highlights show. It appears the mercurial Rangi Chase will still be at the Coliseum for the coming season, due to a rather peculiar work permit situation scuppering previous attempted transfers (for the record, Chase is a Maori who has chosen to represent England as an international). Notwithstanding a few distractions, he is a key asset to the Tigers, their heartbeat when in the team, but it is time for the young charges with ‘points to prove’ which Millward shows faith in so often to step up and work as a unit to win games on a persistent basis. Finishing above the two outsiders in the ranks at the lower end of the league will be a necessity for ‘Cas at the very least.
Without a permanent home, the London Broncos are a regular enigma for observers. In a squad burnished with young stars and a not-too-modest squad value, the Broncos (formerly Harlequins RL, formerly the original Broncos) may use 2013 to show their credentials as a genuine rugby league entity and not a touring fancy for the south-east fans of the ‘league’ format of the sport. There were some glimpses of talent in the 2012 season, with a few shock wins and a few spectacular wins, though the most important thing for the Broncos will be to finally earn their stripes, and silence the naysayers.
The upstarts of the league, Widnes Vikings are not short of passion. In their first season in the league after replacing the Crusaders, they were in a tense battle with the Broncos and ‘Cas to avoid the bottom spot. Not that it stopped them from recording some magnificent results, and highlighting the skills and guile of players such as Patrick Ah Van. Endeavour and hard-work once more are likely to be on display, but the Vikings may well fancy a dalliance with mid-table now that they have shown their potential.
Thus concludes the preview which most will probably disagree with…no seriously, I expect to get slated for every word of this. I would appreciate your constructive criticism, or even just insulting feedback in the comments section below.
To all Super League fans, good luck for the season, have fun! Allez Les Catalans!
A fan on fitba, NFL and ruggerby league in that order. Dundee exile, based in Perth. A journalist as well apparently.