THE RUGBY League season for 2016 begins on Thursday 4th February at Headingley Carnegie as Treble winners Leeds Rhinos take on Warrington Wolves. Here is what to look out for between now and the grand final at Old Trafford in October.
The true test of the Super League, both as a brand and a league, will come on the third weekend in February as the Minor Premiers (The leaders of Australia’s NRL during their regular season) Sydney Roosters, Brisbane Broncos (NRL Runners Up) and North Queensland Cowboys (NRL Premiers) come around the world to face off against St. Helens, Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos in the 2016 World Club Series.
Rugby League royalty will be at this showcase; including James Maloney, Corey Parker, Sam Thaiday, and Johnathan Thurston (the reigning Dalley M Medal winner, World Player of the Year and arguably greatest of all time) being the very best the game has ever seen.
In the Super League, it is hard to argue the teams who were in the top four last season will be anything less than consistent once more. Leeds Rhinos have retained the nucleus of the side that became only the third team in the Super League era to sweep the honours board in a single season. Kallum Watkins is the finest exponent of rugby skills in the nation, “Man of Steel” Zak Hardaker is still yet to reach his peak, and the acquisition of Brett Ferres in the forwards replaces Jamie Peacock in physical size albeit not in stature in the game.
Peacock, twice a Treble winner, has now taken up the Director of Rugby role at Hull Kingston Rovers. 2015 for JP represented rage against the dying of the light as a Rugby League player. It says everything about the game that he has been retained in an administrative role. Never knowingly outworked, he remains the standard for all who stand together in the Kirkstall Amber and Blue this year.
St. Helens will be in and around the top two. John Wilkin remains untarnished by the ravages of time, and James Roby is the best Dummy Half in the competition (arguably the best of his generation), having taken over from his predecessor turned coach Keiron Cunningham. Jonny Lomax is still only 25 at Full Back and Prop Alex Walmsley lead the league in carries (531) and metres gained (4092), and was also on the shortlist for the Steve Prescott Man of Steel award last season. But is it their year?
Saints and their chairman Eamonn McManus should be applauded for already announcing any money they would have set aside for the new ‘Marquee player rule’ (You can pay ONE designated player whatever you wish, it does not count towards the salary cap), will be invested back into the club. The in-house policy will bear fruit soon, but their Under-19 Academy will have to go one better than last term after losing out in the grand final to Wigan 22-10.
It does feel like Wigan’s year. Sam Tomkins has returned from the NRL’s New Zealand Warriors, George Williams will be looking to build on his Young Player of the Year award of 2015, and the conveyor belt of English talent coming through at the DW Stadium is nothing short of impressive. Liam Farrell, Dominic Manfredi and John Bateman alongside Williams will be looking to secure Wigan’s first Super League title since 2013 after losing successive Grand Finals.
Lower down it is this season or never for Dr. Marwan Koukash’s expensively assembled misfits also known as Salford Red Devils. After losing Rangi Chase, Harrison Hansen and Gareth Hock to nearby Leigh Centurions for a variety of reasons in recent times, it is time for Salford to crack the top eight of the table lest they be fighting for survival against Championship up-and-comers. Warrington Wolves always flatter to deceive but have recruited well and have looked sharp in pre-season, dismantling Widnes Vikings 40-0 in a friendly at the Select Securities Stadium on 27th December as well as Leigh 46-4 in the Simon Grix Testimonial this month.
As for Castleford, they play the best-running rugby in the competition and have strengthened an already strong squad with veteran Joel Monaghan and have offloaded Justin Carney to Salford for off-field indiscretions with a colleague’s wife. They retained the services of Denny Solomona, and Ryan Hampshire has returned from Wigan. Look for them to finish in the top half of the table without trouble.
In the Championship it would be patently unfair if Leigh did not earn promotion this year, falling foul of the biased qualifiers, finishing bottom, after winning the Championship at a canter thanks to a run of more than 20 games unbeaten at the start of the campaign.
Playoffs, answers on a postcard.
Super League Winners: Wigan Warriors
Challenge Cup Winners: Leeds Rhinos
League Leaders Shield Winners: Wigan Warriors
Grand Final: Wigan vs. Warrington
Championship Winners: Leigh Centurions
Relegated: Salford Red Devils, (Widnes Vikings, Hull KR and Wakefield Wildcats to save themselves in the Qualifiers)
Promoted: Leigh Centurions