AS A NEW SPORTING year commences, it can mean only one thing. That the premier European rugby league competition is merely a month away. That’s right sports fans, Super League is about to kick off.
Despite boasting the top try scorer of the 2012 season, in Josh Charnley, and winning the league leaders shield for good measure the Wigan Warriors were unable to win, or even make the Grand Final. That honour was bestowed on Leeds Rhinos, in a repeat of their 2011 title win which saw them lagging behind their heated rivals for much of the season before hitting the higher gears at the most opportune time to seal yet another championship.
Meanwhile, Bradford Bulls were rescued from the brink of extinction, though they had to play much of the season with the spectre of club liquidation hanging over their heads. Former Head Coach Mick Potter remained part of the team until the conclusion of the league stage, before heading home to coach the Wests Tigers of Australia after a no doubt draining experience.
So now that readers are caught up on past events, let us delve into the preview section of this piece.
For reference, here is a quick summary of how the Super League competition works. Each team play a total of 27 matches in the league phase, from which the top eight sides progress to a playoff format mini-tournament. The top side at the conclusion of the league phase is awarded the Shield, while the eventual winner of the playoffs are awarded the Super League Trophy.
It is rather annoying as a reader isn’t it when a season hasn’t even started, yet the know-it-all previewer has a hunch who’ll win the season ending game? Well tough, here are the candidates.
Without doubt, the attacking exploits of Wigan Warriors’ squad, most notable Josh Charnley and Sam Tomkins (or ‘marmite’ as he should be nicknamed) allow them an automatic tag amongst the favourites. Yet they also happen to have a stern defence, missing only 5% the amount of successful tackles last season, the lowest total in the league. Only arch-rivals St. Helens came close to that sum. Often spotted observing the Warriors are players of local football club Manchester United, and much like the Red Devils or the New England Patriots of the NFL, expectation on the DW Stadium based side are of a Grand Final place at the very least. Assuming they can keep their star player Tomkins healthy when it counts, it is hard to argue against them sealing that spot in the final.
Elsewhere, one cannot reasonably rule out current title holders Leeds Rhinos, mainly due to their uncanny ability to show up when it matters. From what appeared to be a perilous position midway through 2012, the Yorkshire club gradually fought upwards in the standings and even managed to make a Challenge Cup final appearance as well. Given their proven resilience, it would be unwise to eliminate them from title contention.
It was thrilling duel between the Warrington Wolves and Wigan to clinch the top spot in 2012, and the former were perhaps a shade unfortunate to lose it. The cliché of talisman is nonetheless an appropriate term to attribute to Lee Briers, though the contributions of Stefan Ratchford, Joel Monaghan and kicking dynamo Brett Hodgson were also pivotal for the Wolves who finished semi-finalists in the playoffs and winners of the Challenge Cup. Such a squad, with so many assets means that they are well capable of getting over the final hurdle and clinching that title which has so far eluded them.
At one stage in 2012, the Huddersfield Giants were the best team around, then arguably the worst. Levelling off in time to progress to the playoffs, they appeared overwhelmed by the challenge. It hardly helped their cause that the coach was due to leave for another club come the season end. Thankfully for the Galpharm side common sense prevailed and the distraction of Nathan Brown’s impending departure ended sooner than anticipated. In theory, current coach Paul Anderson gained time to evaluate what is a pretty decent squad, capable of challenging for a top-four spot and perhaps even a Challenge Cup win.
When discussing St. Helens, I am drawn to reflect on the views of my Huddersfield supporting uncle expressed en route to day two of the Magic Weekend in Manchester. Nathan Brown, said my noble and wise uncle, ‘will go to the Saints organisation and he will turn it upside down to try to build success.’ Or something along those lines. If this is to be the case, perhaps best that he waits until next season to do so. After a patchy season, the Saints could do with a solid and consistent league performance. They may have made the Grand Final, but that looked unlikely at various stages last season. They are certainly likely to be in the hunt in 2013.
The Catalans Dragons were the newest of the Super League sides until last season, and in the short period they have been a competitor, have been elevated from strugglers to a team which is hard to beat, particularly in the heat of their home ground, the Stade Gilbert Brutus. However, for every exceptional aspect to their play and form, there remains a negative to counter-balance. Homesickness may still be an issue, yet the win away to Hull KR on a blustery night last season, which featured a stunning long-range drop goal by captain Scott Dureau suggests this particular problem may be diminishing somewhat.
While the Dragons can finesse their way past teams often enough, they lack the stamina of the more seasoned clubs, and appear to recoil when their favoured tactics of attack are proving ineffective. The Dragons are bereft of influential former coach Trent Robinson- the man who was so instrumental in taking them from new entrant also-rans to serious contenders –and will look to the experience of stars such as Leon Pryce and the leadership of captain Scott Dureau to maintain the progressive elements which were key to their playoff run in 2012, and strive to improve on them under the guidance of Laurent Frayssinous. A semi-final berth would be a deserved achievement for them, and I for one have my fingers crossed in hope.
Part II: The Playoff Hopefuls and the Basement Battle will follow shortly
A fan on fitba, NFL and ruggerby league in that order. Dundee exile, based in Perth. A journalist as well apparently.