Thursday, 24 February 2011

Super League - Round 3

Another week has passed without a blog post; the truth is that finding time is proving as difficult as finding something to write about!

However, it’s Thursday evening and so it is time to look ahead to the upcoming Super League weekend, although time dictates that this post should be sort, not even by my standards but by general standards.

A quick word on last week which proved to be the exact opposite of the first weekend, and my trading was pretty woeful. On the Friday night game, I found myself struggling to find an opening until the 1.1 rule was deployed. The problem I have always had with this approach is finding the right point to trade out. At first, I would trade out in the mid 1.1s, which would give me a very small green and proved highly aggravating when a comeback was completed, so I switched to letting it run – which proved highly aggravating when a comeback wasn’t completed.

However, as the whole purpose of the trade is to find value, I have decided to trust my judgement on when to trade out, although the size of the potential green is still ensuring that I take a medium approach to risk.

In this game, the opportunity never realised itself. Now, Hull are without doubt a side who are woefully underperforming and who are poorly coached. However, on the back of some 50/50 calls going against them and with Leeds down to one substitute, I always felt that with just one or two bounces of the ball, they could mount a serious comeback. Sadly, that never quite happened – leaving me with a maximum loss which was quite frustrating as the opportunity had been there briefly to take a reasonable profit. As someone who tends to be risk averse, the loss in the profit was felt more than the no score draw on the net scoreboard.

As a result, I then traded the Castleford Huddersfield game rather more conservatively and backed out of my initial bullish opinion to a more moderate one. In fact, I owed more of my profit to a crazy first half draw price than to my pre-match thoughts. It is wise not to overcommit before a SKY game as opportunities do present themselves during the game, but when you do have an opinion, you should look to utilise it.

Onto this week and the televised game on Friday is between St Helens and Warrington and despite this being not only an excellent game and myself being a Saints fan, this is one game that I am set to miss which is more than a bit gutting.

Usually, I prefer to look for value in play but that will be quite hard. However, the market has been extremely generous in giving me a pre play value.

I’ve discussed my main reasons for this on the Betfair forum, but suffice to say I had expected St Helens to start around 1.8 – their current price of 1.5 is one that baffles me. I won’t go over old ground, but I will say that this appears to be an overreaction based upon results and form, not ability, and a nod to “Home advantage”.

My view, on a very basic level, is that Warrington are the better side and therefore Warrington should win. Now, I won’t be shocked if Saints win and I wouldn’t look to overly commit before you see how the game is playing out, but 1.5 is a price which looks to be too low, massively too low although usually the best value can be found during the game.

The other two SKY games this week look to be fairly even games and I definitely will be waiting to see how they evolve before taking a position; with Sunday’s World Club Challenge especially true of the above comment – you really need to see how the Australians are treating the game.

That leaves us with four non televised games this week, and all games seem to produce a potential opening.

Leeds v Harlequins will see the home side start in the 1.1s. As a general rule, that is too low a price. Now, Harlequins’ good form should come to an end soon and they are a very limited side. However, Leeds have not been producing superb displays this year and whilst they are strong favourites, their current price is much too short for my liking. The Wildcard in all this is that Leeds’ coach is Harlequins’ former coach and their coach is the former assistant so both sides will know each other well. So whilst I’m not sure Harlequins are great value, if I had to choose one, it wouldn’t take me any time to answer.

The same approach should therefore be taken in Hull KR v Catalans. Now, whilst I have said I don’t take much stock in form, I do take stock in performance and Catalans’ two games this year have shown a real dearth of talent at halfback which is the most crucial position in Rugby League. Now, I am not convinced that is a large enough sample to write Scott Dureau off, but the Australian quickly needs to considerably up his performance levels. Meanwhile, Hull KR have impressed so far this season and in Blake Green, look to have a creative outlet to support Michael Dobson. Still, a price in the 1.1s should practically never be backed in Rugby League.

Huddersfield v Hull FC is another similar game where the home side do look too short. However, both sides are coming off disappointing results which can look to improve a team’s focus and so Huddersfield should be able to guard against complacency and ease home. 1.3 should be too short for Huddersfield given Hull’s natural skill levels, but they have so far shown nothing this season to suggest that they should challenge Huddersfield. However, again, I feel that Hull would be the better value here, although I won’t be running to back them.

Finally, we have last week’s 1.1 winners, Wakefield, hosting Salford. And Wakefield are currently trading in the 1.5s. This reminds me of a series of games in 2009 where Bradford hosted Harlequins at home and were around 1.3 to win. They lost. The very next weekend the game was played at Harlequins, and the Quins were the favourites. They lost.

One result does not necessarily make a team any more or less likely to win the next game. It can show indicators of why a team may win, it may even help to improve confidence but it should not produce the swing that it does.

A quick look at Wakefield’s squad listings show several young players who do not have the talent to consistently play at this level. Yes, they do have the ability to win and yes they do have a coach who is excellent in the underdog situation and historically gets his team off to a good start. However, when the whistle is blown, it comes down to the 17 individuals taking part in thousands of random events and whilst anything can happen which is why the underdogs are usually a good blind position, more often than not, it is talent that shines through.

As for Salford, they have been dreadful this season, conceding 96 points. However, it is too soon to tell whether this is as the coach does not have the dressing room (which would be a massive factor) or whether they have just had two bad games, which can happen.

On paper, Salford are the far better team and therefore I would make them favourites although the wildcard of Wakefield’s new owners and an expected bumper crowd would usually make this game one worth avoiding. However, if Wakefield can be laid in the region of 1.5, then that is a price which screams overreaction and usually, that is where money can be made.

So there are my quick thoughts on the upcoming weekend of rugby league. As always, there’s a chance I could be totally wrong, and I would not be surprised, but if you throw enough mud, sometimes something can stick.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


Something I have noted over the past three seasons of trading Rugby League is a tendency to overreact. Be it from a try, a penalty, a refereeing decision or a run of form, a blind opposer of the market would be in a pretty healthy position I suspect.

For me, that is what makes Rugby League so tradable and there are few greater examples than the second week of a season where prices more than ever are set by the performance of the team on opening weekend. The fact is however, performance in the last match is often a factor which I negatively rate. No side can perform at 100% every week and with alarming regularity, a team can mentally ease off after a great performance or find an extra 5% after a poor performance. Of course, that is not always the case – every event is dependant upon thousands of random stand alone events.

After last weekend, I immediately noted that I would look for Salford as a potential proponent of the above theory but the odds haven’t quite gone as expected. The City Reds were highly rated going into the season and considering Saints’ dire performance for 65 minutes at Millennium Magic, the Reds are available at around 4. A price which I consider fair and not offering too much value either way.

However, there is most definitely a candidate if you look hard enough. Going into the season, many people believed Huddersfield could take the next step and they delivered in Round 1, defeating a highly rated Warrington side.

However, I am very surprised to see them below 1.5 when they travel to Castleford Tigers at the weekend. Home advantage is usually a concept I look to oppose but in this case, it feels like the market has forgotten who the home team is.

Now, I have Castleford rated much higher than most and have them solidly as the 7th best squad in the competition and whilst the first performance is never conclusive, it can help to affirm or reject some initial thoughts about how a team could perform and I believe Castleford’s performance strongly affirmed my key thought on them. That being the addition of Danny Orr will sufficiently free up Rangi Chase to enable the halfback to return to his form from 2009 when he was one of the best players in the competition.

Obviously, in Super League anything can happen and with this game being televised, it is quite likely that the best value will be found in play. Huddersfield do remain the better side on paper as well so a Giants victory would not be a shock, but at 1.5, this is a price which I find utterly incomprehensible.

As for the remaining games this weekend, Hull v Leeds is the Friday night televised game and as per usual, I won’t look to take a position until the game kicks off. Hull have one of the greatest ranges in performance ability and it would be unwise to take a view until you see how they approach the game.

Alongside the Saturday night televised game is Catalans v Wakefield and this has the potential to cause an upset. Wakefield’s administration saga, which included rumours of the entire squad being made redundant, appears to be over and they are facing a side who against Harlequins, looked likely to never score. Of course, Wakefield’s squad however is severely depleted and they are understandable heavy outsiders. However, unless Scott Dureau can produce a considerably better performance, the Wildcats could be celebrating a most unlikely victory and if the price does drop to around 1.1, then that would be a position well worth taking.

Sunday sees three games with Harlequins v Crusaders looking to be a potentially even game. Having only one performance to consider is insufficient to form an opinion on either side and so this is one to avoid – although the Crusaders did look the better team last week.

Bradford v Wigan has the potential for an upset if the Warriors were to divert their eyes towards next week’s World Club Challenge. However, their capitulation against Saints last week should result in a more determined focus for this week’s game whilst it is difficult to see Bradford repeating their mammoth effort from last week although the sour taste that will exist from their late defeat could serve as sufficiently strong motivation; especially if the crowd can get behind them.

The final game of the weekend is Warrington v Hull KR where overreaction seems to be setting in slightly following Warrington’s injuries and generally lacklustre performance from Millennium Magic. However, even at 1.5, I don’t see sufficient upside to back the home team, although it does rule out Hull KR as having potential value.

Therefore, it appears another weekend where the best course of action is to follow the games and look for further trends in teams’ performances. There is no Leeds v Castleford or Warrington v Catalans this time. At least, not one that is obvious yet…

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Returning to Action

When I commented on the need to be bold and consistent in trading yesterday, I did not expect it to be tested so early on in the season as it was following St Helens’ stunning comeback against Wigan to cap an excellent first day of the Rugby League season.

At 16-0 down, I had developed a very green position on both St Helens and the draw – at the maximum my green was showing four figures for a very small liability on Wigan. However, this was very much an unintended position. Unintended in so far as I was not entering the trades with a view of Saints making a miraculous come back but rather looking to trade the market to keep building profits.

Now I am a firm proponent that anything can happen in Rugby League, and St Helens have more form in this area than any other side in Super League. However, that form is based on the magic of Sean Long, the incision of Paul Sculthorpe, the brilliance of Jamie Lyon and the endeavour of Keiron Cunningham. However, with all those players having departed the fact was that St Helens looked dreadful and even at 1.02, Wigan looked to be good value given the proceedings of the previous 60 minutes.

Therefore, I did not keep the green solely on St Helens but rather kept trading building small gains whilst keeping the green relatively level. Obviously, the game ended as a draw and my profit, whilst still pleasant, was nowhere near as large as it could have been.

However, I believe it to have been Green All Over who said it best when discussing 1.01 and value in his Goal Famine post. A price is and can never be value in isolation. Therefore, despite being Mr Hindsight at the best of times, I am more than happy with the approach I adopted and even happier with the results – for once I feel ahead of the net scoreboard.

In all the games that I traded today as I traded with a conviction and fluidity that, whilst far from perfect, was much lacking in 2010 but more akin to my 2009 performance. Of course, with only four games having been played it is far too early to make any sweeping statements about the performance of either myself or the teams involved.

The markets, the late game excepted, were not overly liquid but were certainly tradable which was far better than I had been expecting and offers hope for the remainder of the season.

As for the games played today, it is more than fair that some of the games may have been of a reduced quality and could have caused much frustration if watched during the middle of the season. However, and maybe because Super League has been a large void for the past four months, all the games were immensely enjoyable.

Huddersfield and Warrington kicked the season off as the Giants completed a victory that was unexpected. However, the major cost for Warrington could be that Matt King, Lee Briers, Chris Bridge and Simon Grix all left the field injured which could test Warrington’s strength in depth should any of the injuries prove to be significant.

Next up was Harlequins who looked to play an expansive game on their way to an 11-4 victory over Catalans. However, despite Harlequins looking solid and providing much endeavour in defence, the Catalans looked toothless in attack and in desperate need of some creativity. It is especially harsh to judge a player on debut, but Scott Dureau was particularly underwhelming and will need to significantly improve should Catalans look to make a trip to the playoffs this season.

Following that was Wakefield v Castleford, where Wakefield’s spirited efforts were no match against the class of Castleford. The addition of Danny Orr in particular freed up Rangi Chase to display the form that made him such a hot commodity in 2009.

Sadly, the main talking point of the match was referee James Childs whose whistle appeared to have got lodged in Mr Childs’ mouth. Personally, I am a big fan of clamping down at the play the ball early in the game, but most of the penalties awarded were little more than pedantic involvement. It is true that you can penalise nearly every play the ball or tackle for something and Childs seemed to be on a mission to do so, calling 37 penalties and ordering 3 sin binnings. One can only hope that he is advised to show more restraint in the future.

Saints v Wigan proved an exceptional ending to the weekend and whilst there were obvious flaws with the scheduling and issues with the seeming decline in quality, there is little doubt that starting the season with such an event is a welcome idea and is an excellent return to action for league fans who have been sober for a very long time.

I can only hope that the rest of the season is as entertaining and that trading wise, my judgement is as sound tomorrow and for the season as it was today.

Super League - Round 1 Preview

My blog posts are kind of like buses; you wait around for ages and then two appear at once. Only, I hope this blog post is of more use than a trailing bus.

And whilst I won’t be loaning anyone £250 in the imminent future, hopefully the below might help you to earn £250 in a more cost efficient way than visiting a loan shark.

So with the first slate of games due to kick off in around thirteen hours, I thought it may be useful to do a general preview of the upcoming games although obviously such previews will be “blind” – this is the opening game of the season and you never know what will happen.

I would also note that there is much to be gained from just watching. Seeing all 14 sides in action in the first week will offer valuable clues and every year, the operation of the market changes a little. Whilst liquidity is likely to be low due to competing events, there could also be some clues as to how it will operate throughout the season.

It all starts at 1 PM with Huddersfield v Warrington, which has the potential to be an outstanding match with the added spice of former Huddersfield fullback Brett Hodgson set to make his Warrington debut. Currently, Warrington are the favourites on Betfair, trading in the 1.5s, and with neither side having significant injury concerns, such odds are to be expected.

Previously, value in the first week has been readily apparent, but with all games set to be televised and with home advantage having been wiped out, pre play value may be tough to spot. However, liquidity is to set to be a major question mark this season. It dipped significantly last year and with this game being played at the same time as Manchester United v Manchester City in the football, it may be practically non existent.

However, if there is sufficient liquidity, then I would probably look to lay Warrington. With no form to speak of, 1.5 looks slightly too low. Yes, Warrington should be favourites and they will be keen to avenge last season’s playoff loss to Huddersfield but if Huddersfield can beat Warrington at Warrington, then with just Brett Hodgson switching sides, is 1.5 a fair starting price?

Following this, Rugby League adopts its own 6 Nations game as Harlequins take on Catalans. Again, with football matches in full flow and with England playing Italy in Rugby Union, liquidity may be sparse. With both sides having new coaches, much will be unknown in this game and identifying value before the match may be difficult.

That said, it says a lot that I would be reticent to lay Catalans from the off. On paper, the French outfit look a far superior side to the English team but the first twenty minutes will provide much information and it may be worthwhile keeping out of the market until then.

Two hours later there is further conflict as Sunderland take on Tottenham in the football and Wales play Scotland in the Six Nations. Of course, my eyes will solely be focused on the spectacle that is Wakefield v Castleford.

On paper, this looks a knockout and at 1.3, Castleford’s odds reflect that and may even appear generous. However, there is much to suggest that this local derby could go the other way.

Firstly, Wakefield are traditionally quick out of the blocks before stumbling pre-season. Indeed, they have won their last three opening matches. Add in a “backs to the wall mentality” and a lift from the takeover of the club, and an upset is not a too unrealistic possibility.

However, every time my eyes are brought back to the squad listings, the sheer gap between the talent levels of the two teams looks too big to be bridged. However, this is rugby league – where anything can happen.

After this, comes Saturday’s main event, and Grand Final re-run as Wigan Warriors take on St Helens. Wigan look set to field a settled squad and the only changes are likely to boost their already strong forward pack whilst Saints are without stand off Leon Pryce, who controlled their attack in many games last season before a late season injury ended his campaign early.

1.6 for Wigan would therefore appear to be fairly generous. They were by far the dominant side in the Grand Final and despite the return of Kyle Eastmond, there is little in the Saints side to suggest a dramatic improvement. That said, with a new coach in Royce Simmons – as I am keen to say, you never know.

As someone who only focuses on the match markets, my strongest feeling on this would be to take the unders on the points market. Neither side have dynamic pace out wide and both have strong forward packs. It is very easy to see the game developing into an arm wrestle type affair where points are at a premium.

Moving onto Sunday and whilst some will be waking up with a Rugby League hangover, I’ll be rooted in my chair waiting for the games to begin.

At 12, Crusaders take on Salford which, in fairness, is unlikely to be a mouth watering prospect for most, although locals will be interested in the return of Gareth Thomas. However, Salford have made several off-season acquisitions and it will be interesting to see if they are able to gel as a side. Certainly, their acquisitions look better on paper to the declining players that the Crusaders have been able to sign.

1.7 for Salford does appear to be a good price, but given the number of off-season signings, there is a possibility that they may take time to gel and consequently, the best approach could be to just watch the first twenty minutes.

The next game – Bradford v Leeds is likely to go one of two ways. Either the Bulls come out fired up and play with the intensity that you would expect in a derby match when debuting for a new coach, or Leeds’ superior skill levels shine through.

I have been unimpressed by Bradford’s off-season recruitment in general, and with halfback Marc Herbert missing, there will be enormous pressure on the talented but inexperienced Kyle Briggs who will be trusted with the duty of controlling the Bulls against a side who has won three of the last four Super League Grand Finals.

It should be too much, but the odds of 1.5 represent that Leeds are without star players Danny McGuire and Jamie Peacock and that the Bulls should have much motivation for the clash, although Leeds too cannot rest on their laurels with a new coach to impress as well.

Finally, the weekend ends with the match that looks the toughest to call as Hull FC take on Hull KR and despite my criticisms of FC in my season preview, I would agree with this game being an even one as the criticisms related to FC’s lack of strength depth.

However, everyone will be raring to go in the first week and so it is really difficult to compose a starting position for this game. Indeed, after the previous 8 hours of Rugby League, I don’t think anyone would blame you if you took this one off.

Obviously there was a lot of indecision in the above, but that’s to be expected in Week 1 and one of the strengths needed when trading Rugby League is the ability to hit reverse gear instantaneously. The bounce of the ball, the ball of the referee’s whistle, slipping on the turf, taking your eye off the ball as you make a carry, and misjudging a tackle are all so important. It’s no overreaction to say that such events are what decide rugby league matches these days, and if you know that No. 16 is going to knock on at 69:23, well, congratulations on your lottery win.

So that is how I see, or fail to see, this weekend developing. However, what of my aims for the year?

If liquidity continues to decrease, then my trading style will have to become less frenetic and more managed – with longer term positions adopted which I can struggle with given the random sequence of events which make a rugby league match.

More than ever however, I need to be more consistent. Where I identify value, I must be bold. I must hold onto value – even if means I am wrong for the feeling of losing £50 is far better than the feeling of missing out on £500. Being right 100% of the time is meaningless if you are merely adding 1 + 1. It is far better to be right 63% of the time when trying to multiply 42 * 33 * 6 * 12. The problem is, that for a perfectionist, the trend is to add 1 + 1. However, there can be no more “What If” posts even if hindsight is a beast that never sleeps.

So I hope my earnings to have a higher range than before but to provide the highs and the lows. And if I can do that, maybe I can get back to the approach I adopted in 2009 which resulted in a huge enjoyment of trading as opposed to the constant feeling of regret and annoyance which was the mainstay of 2010.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Super League XVI Preview

Today is a bit like Christmas Eve for me. Only, instead of getting ready to open presents tomorrow, I am getting ready to watch 7 Super League games on SKY as the 16th season of Summer rugby league commences. For all the faults of the event, having seven games shown on the television over two days is fantastic for a league nut like myself.

To celebrate the start of the season, I have written a very quick preview. It may read more as a collection of thoughts than a structured article so to speak but even my quick writes are fairly long so excuse me if I don’t dwell over the editing as I usually would.

It’s fair to say that these days, I don’t have the time to follow the game as intensely as I used to in the off season and I keep no eyes on the NRL but I have decided that neither of those factors shall stop me going on record with some season predictions – even if such long term predictions have never been my forte. Anyway, onwards I shall go, starting at the floor of mediocrity before rising to the ceiling of excellence. (Yes, my analogies are as bad as my prediction powers.)

And starting at the bottom are the Wakefield Trinity Wildcats who for the off season have been a club in turmoil although the takeover announced today will offer a glimmer of hope to their long suffering fans.

However, the turmoil off the field has definitely affected their squad recruitment and the Wildcats line up with one of the weakest squads in Super League history. At least unlike the 2008 Crusaders however, their squad is full of British youth and if one or two of these players take their opportunity the Wildcats could surprise.

Certainly, in coach John Kear, Wakefield have a man who knows how to get the best out of his squad and who can coach and motivate a team to a higher level than paper suggests.

That said, the Wildcats problems start up front where apart from journeymen props Paul King and Michael Korkidas, Wakefield lack the grunt needed to provide foundations for their halfbacks to succeed although the endeavour provided by Ben Jeffries and Sam Obst can never be questioned. However, Wakefield’s backline does look full of pace and finishing ability and for that reason alone, I don’t think you will ever be able to count the Wildcats out.

However, at the end of the day the Wakefield squad does look to be paper thin and most of their youth talent is that which has been discarded from other clubs and in all honesty, given their impending points deduction, finishing 13th would be a significant achievement.

Next up is another side who have to start the season on negative points, the Crusaders. Massive favourites for the wooden spoon last year, the Crusaders overachieved in a large way making the playoffs for the first time. However, with Brian Noble having departed and with their only recruitment consisting of veterans whose careers are entering the twilight zone, the odds of a repeat performance are small.

Rookie coach Iestyn Harris was an excellent player in his prime, but that is no guarantee of success as a coach and with three players still stranded in Australia due to visa issues, the Crusaders are sure to start the season in a difficult way.

Last year I struggled with the Crusaders all year – I always seemed to underrate them and there is a distinct possibility that I may make the same mistake this year. Certainly their halfback pairing of Michael Witt and Jarrod Sammut is one that can unlock any defence. However, the standard of the middle clubs in Super League has improved so much that their points deduction will likely be a key factor in their ultimate league position.

The next stop on the line is at Harlequins who, for me, complete the “back three”. The Quins are continuing to blood young talent but their squad size indicates a small budget and with the exception of Rob Purdham, who is entering a well deserved testimonial year, they do look short of sheer quality. When your first choice halfback pairing is an Australian hooker and an inexperienced Luke Gale, you may find chances hard to come by.

That said, when they do, in Mark Calderwood and Karl Pryce, they do have two outside backs who are amongst the best finishers in the league when they are at top form whilst for all Luke Dorn’s inconsistencies, his finishing ability has never been questioned. Sadly, neither have approached such a level for quite some time.

The fact is the more I look at the Quins squad, the less I like what I see and am tempted to rank them lower. However, I have a gut feeling that coach Rob Powell could turn out to be a great hire. At 30 and with no Super League playing experience, to have even made it as an assistant coach is a great achievement and the noises coming out of London quietly support this although I do think the Quins have the least chance of securing a playoff spot.

Next up is a team who I have rated significantly lower than everyone else and that is Hull FC. If the title was decided on paper and was held in 2005, then Hull FC would walk away to the title. However, it is decided on grass in 2011.

The first thing that screams out to me is the weakness of the squad. Aside from their first 19, I think the remainder of the squad have 5 -10 Super League games experience. Now, that is not to say that the youngsters named in the squad will be poor, but it takes time for any young player to find their feet and that could hurt the black and whites.

Indeed, given the age of some of the Hull squad, durability is a major concern. Hull looked a massively different side last year depending on whether Sean Long played and that reliance looks set to continue, especially with Richard Horne showing no signs of regaining the form from the peak of his career.

Add in a coach who is almost uniquely unpopular amongst the club’s fans and has shown limited ability so far and it’s easy to see why, over a 27 round season, they could struggle. However, make no doubt about it, Hull are capable of beating any team on their day. It’s just that day may not come around all to often.

For the next spot, we need to travel to France as Les Catalans look to rebound from a disappointing 2010 season. The Dragons look to have had amongst the most turnover from their 2010 squad but the key move could be in replacing Kevin Walters with Trent Robinson. Robinson, who has playing and coaching experience in France, was highly regarded as an Australian assistant and could provide a major boost to the Catalans fortunes.

Sadly, his recruitment appears underwhelming with much set to stand on halfback Scott Dureau who I must confess to being in the dark on. However, his pedigree does not suggest that he will be the force at halfback to make defences account for someone other than Thomas Bosc.

However, the rest of the squad does look strong enough to pose a strong challenge, especially at home although they will need someone to produce the form of their lives if the Dragons are to make the end of season playoffs.

In ninth and therefore just set to miss out on the playoffs are the Bradford Bulls who welcome former Saints coach Mick Potter to the Grattan Stadium. The Bulls look to have developed a completely opposite strategy to 2011 than which they adopted in 2010 and in particular deserve massive congratulations for their season ticket policy which has seen over 10,000 sales. Bullmania defined Super League in the early years and on that level alone, it would be nice to see resurgence with the Bulls running wild.

Sadly, they won’t do so on the field in 2011 as whilst they boast a very deep squad, they also boast a very weak squad with only Andy Lynch having the sure quality that would be needed at a top 4 club.

The Bulls side looks to be taking on the mantle of Mick Potter in so far as they will be workman like, solid and go about their business without any fuss. However, it is hard to see any out and out brilliance which every club needs at some level. I have no doubt the Bulls will cause an occasional upset but they will either need relatively unknown halfback Marc Herbert to produce like Michael Dobson or Willie Peters or Kyle Briggs to be able to display the same performance level as he did in National League 1 against a much higher standard of opposition.

As we move into the playoffs, we first encounter a side who has been nothing short of consistent since their return to Super League, achieving 13th twice in succession, Salford City Reds. Like Harlequins however, I am less fond of this placing the more I look at the team with the Reds looking to be reliant on declining players who may have durability concerns.

However, at the very least Luke Patten should be able to link up well with 2010’s marquee signing of Daniel Holdsworth whilst the Reds are able to rely on Super League talent with upside from 1 – 13 across the park and if key players can remain fit, the Reds should challenge strongly for a spot in the end of season party.

Unlike Salford, the team I have ranked 7th is one I want to rank higher the more I look at their squad but I don’t think I can place Castleford Tigers any higher yet. That said, I believe that the Tigers could provide a return to the form of their 1998-2000 years having made some impressive signings in Richard Mathers to patrol the back and Danny Orr, whose return to his home-town club will offer some much needed alleviation to the pressure defences applied to Rangi Chase in 2010.

With some highly promising youngsters in Adam Milner, Jonathan Walker and Joe Arundel the Tigers should be able to withstand the loss of Joe Westerman, who never looked like replicating the form from his first year, and Michael Shenton, whose strike powers were largely unused in 2010 in any case.

The biggest question mark however remains over coach Terry Matterson. The man whose right foot effectively clinched St Helens’ league triumph in 1996 has never, in my opinion, looked like a top class coach although maybe he has never had the playing talent that he does now. Either way, in a contract year, this looks set to be a year which could decide not only his future, but that of the Castleford Tigers who are locked in a battle for a 2012 Super League franchise.

Occupying the sixth spot are Hull KR. Whilst most cannot separate the two Humberside sides, I obviously have placed them well apart. The Red Robins, for mine, have developed superbly since their introduction to Super League and in my opinion, also have the best young coach in the British game.

The big difference for Hull KR in my opinion this year will be the signing of Blake Green. Whilst he may not be a household name, Green who already knows Michael Dobson, should help to take the pressure of the Rovers’ number 7 whilst also freeing Scott Murrell up to return to his more natural position of loose forward.

Obviously, the wildcard in all this is whether Willie Mason will arrive and if he does, what form he will bring. However, even without Mason, KR definitely have the ability to cause problems to any team in the league even if their three quarter line is without a true game breaker.

My choice for fifth may appear odd at first. St Helens are my hometown club and did overachieve last year in an injury hit season but I keep thinking that the dismantling of the squad that achieved so much success in the 2000s must hit them eventually, and that this may be the year.

Certainly, the appointment of Royce Simmons as coach bucks the usual trend of hiring younger coaches and whilst this may raise queries, it would be folly to dismiss it at such an early stage.

Personally, I just worry about Saints’ speed out wide. Michael Shenton looks more of an accompanying piece than the true star that Saints have been accustomed to in that position. Add in doubts over the durability and long term future of their halfbacks and the possible second season syndrome of the young players that performed so well last year and it is easy to see a situation where Saints, homeless for 2011 and playing at Widnes, could underachieve by recent standards.

That said, placing them 5th probably has more to do with my faith in the side I want to place 4th. Nathan Brown received a lot of criticism in Australia as a coach, but he has done a terrific job at Huddersfield turning an average side into one of the most consistent squads in Super League.

That’s where Huddersfield have failed previously. At times over the past two years they have resembled a schoolyard bully who picks on the smallest guys but avoids the tougher ones but last year’s playoff success was an indication that they could challenge the very top teams.

Their squad from 1 – 19 is bursting with talent whilst they have also shown that they have plenty of talent in the youth ranks. If they do want to reach the next level though, they will need to fit Danny Brough into their system. Whilst I do not see a great player in Brough, there is no doubt that he is a player who can compete at a high level and if he can form a halfback partnership with Kevin Brown, who is finally displaying the talent he showed as a youngster, then the Giants could walk out at Old Trafford on the final day of the season.

At three, come Leeds Rhinos who seem to be being overlooked this year. The late coaching replacement of Brian McClennan with Brian McDermott does look a negative, but McDermott is a widely respected figure at Leeds, and if you look over the coaching history of Super League winners, most tend to have a new coach.

They are another with tremendous strength in depth with 1 – 24 all capable of playing in Super League on a regular basis whilst Zak Hardaker could eventually turn into everything that Kevin Penny was thought to be.

Yes, the early season loss of Danny McGuire and Jamie Peacock will hurt, but if Rob Burrow and Kevin Sinfield can find their form, and there is no reason to suggest they won’t, then Leeds have the strength in depth to cope with such losses and after all, it’s the end of the season that really counts.

And now for number two and believe me, this was a placing that I kept changing my mind on and in the end, maybe to make a statement and maybe because I am a St Helens fan, I am placing Wigan here.

My main issue with Wigan is their outside backs. Darrell Goulding was a fringe player until he started walking in tries, Amos Roberts is a confidence player and that shattered at the same time as his leg whilst Man of Steel Pat Richards is out for two months. At centre, Martin Gleeson, whilst an excellent player, is a shadow of when he was at his best whilst George Carmont is primarily a defensive centre who is more solid than spectacular.

All of the above is one sided and on a balanced viewing, Wigan’s backline is very good but it is by far the weakest area of their squad as their forward pack is as good as any I can recall seeing in the Super League era, bar hooker where there could be a slight weakness if Thomas Leuluai has to move back to the halves for long periods.

That said, with Wigan and Warrington it is more 1a and 1b than 1 and 2 but I have long championed the Wolves as being a side capable of being excellent so why stop now. Especially when Warrington have somehow managed to improve their squad more than Wigan have, in my opinion.

Brett Hodgson may be aging, but he offers a solid defensive presence despite his size and his goal kicking will be a major boost to the Wolves whilst Joel Monaghan is more skilful than Chris Hicks even if he will be less reliable. The Wolves also have some very good young players in Tyrone McCarthy, Lee Mitchell and Rhys Evans who will all prove worthy Super League players if afforded the chance.

If the Wolves do have a concern it would be that they will need Richie Myler to improve on a disappointing first year and to justify his price tag whilst Garreth Carvell was another who disappointed last year but kept his place over Mike Cooper, despite Cooper showing the talent to become as good as James Graham.

With both Wigan and Warrington, when fully healthy, there will be two or three guys in the stands who could get a game for almost any team and over 27 rounds, that quality should shine through.

The playoffs however, are another thing.

As for pre season bets, it’s hard to find any that I love. I was all set to place money on Adam Milner as Rookie of the Year at the 33/1 price displayed in Rugby League World but he is only 10/1 (and has never been anything but according to Oddschecker!)

Salford or Castleford at +20 at 10/1 in the handicap markets look appealing but they don’t scream value.

Some outside bets for Man of Steel look nice including Daniel Holdsworth at 66/1 (If Salford do make the playoffs it will be on the back of some individual performances and Holdsworth at 66/1 is better than Patten at 25/1), Danny Brough or Luke Robinson at 50/1 (If Huddersfield do as well as expected, then they could have a contender) and Michael Dobson or Jon Wilkin at 33/1 (Dobson is likely to be a stand out performer again, and Wilkin has been played at loose forward in the Pre Season and I have always championed Wilkin as being potentially as good as Paul Sculthorpe – although that looks unlikely now.) However, there is nothing to scream value and so I think I may leave these alone.

So that’s my quick runthrough of the season. Now, what do you think?

Monday, 7 February 2011

Millennium Magic? More like Millennium Madness

Decision to start the season alongside the 6 Nations is symptomatic of the issues facing the game.

The curtain is raised on Super League XVI this weekend with all fourteen teams in action to kick off the sixteenth season of the top British rugby league competition – a welcome alternative to the launch of the previous two seasons which have both seen Leeds v Crusaders start the year.

If you were unaware of this fact, then you will have plenty of company for the event has been scarcely publicised and has drawn even less media attention. However, unlike other Super League seasons, the opening also has the disadvantage of being entirely localised in an area even smaller than the M62 corridor which the game is often parodied as belonging exclusively for all seven games are being held in Wales’ fantastic Millennium Stadium.

The concept of a Magic weekend was born in 2006, when the clubs elected to hold one weekend where they would all play in the same stadium from 2007 onwards. Initially scheduled for the May bank holiday, the clubs elected to hold it at the Millennium Stadium. Partly as an attempt to raise the profile of the game in Wales and partly to afford the possibility of a Challenge Cup style weekend away in the Spring at a venue which fans had taken to their hearts following the Challenge Cup being held there in

From 2009, the venue was switched to Scotland and Murrayfield stadium. However, the somewhat antiquated venue never proved to be popular amongst fans and with little local public interest alongside derby games being replaced with a seeded draw,
the event lost momentum and the 2010 spectacle ended with complaints from players and fans alike.

Back to the drawing board the RFL and Superleague went and the concept of kicking off the season at the Millenium Stadium was born.

A great idea in principle but it has one fatal flaw. For Wales’ national sport, Rugby Union, and their national team, are also playing on the same day, at the same time. And this is no ordinary fixture clash.

For this opening of the Super League season is in direct competition to the Six Nations. A competition which, helped by the BBC and the Southern leanings of the national press is publicised to the high heavens, all but taking over the sporting media. Let alone in Cardiff, where the entire city can seem to stop as one and tune into the game.

It need not have been like this. For the Six nations does offer respite and the next weekend would have been free. Not only that, but even the insatiable football Premiership takes a break that weekend, albeit for the FA Cup quarter finals but with a fairly limited sporting schedule that weekend, the RFL could have capitalised on a comparatively empty sporting press agenda and used this to effectively promote the Super League season and get the season off with the bang that it deserves.

And whilst it is undoubtedly true that the season schedule is packed more tightly than ever, surely the benefits that would be created by delaying the season by a mere seven days, could have lead to finding room for an extra week.

However, even if at the end of the day, Super League has missed an empty goal to promote itself, then at least this is what the fans were wanting and it is they who count.

If only it were that simple. In the middle of an inflationary recession, how many fans are able to afford the approximately £70 round trip. Even with ticket prices a reasonable £35 for the weekend, given the cost of accommodation and general living costs for the weekends, this is one weekend get away that most families could like to do without. After all, even with the roof closed for the matches, the Welsh weather is unlikely to be hospitable and provide a welcoming weekend to its guests.

Indeed, given all this, it is no surprise that at least one English based club has reportedly sold less than 100 tickets and that, in all likelihood, less than 33% of the teams will make up more than 66% of the total attendance.

In my opinion, the best bet would have been to attempt to launch Super League XVI with a Magic weekend, but in the North of England. Whilst such an event does not provide fans with a weekend get away, the present recession should not be underestimated and fans that do want to get away will still have the prospect of weekends in London and France to look forward to.

Whilst hiring a stadium in the midst of a football season could prove to be nigh on impossible, the thought of 70,000 Rugby League fans over two days, packed together, cheering on seven competitive matches is too appealing to overlook.

However, in fairness to the event organisers, they were definitely in a difficult situation. The Millennium Stadium could have been made unavailable for the next weekend, there could have been no viable alternatives.

Yet, we have ended up with an underwhelming sporting event which has been effectively crowded out from the public’s imagination by the sporting media and which runs the risk of being little more than an embarrassing footnote.

Still, at least it’s not Leeds v Crusaders again.

As for what this means to the betting markets, well it won’t be good news. Liquidity in 2010 was hugely down from 2009 and I suspect that’s a trend that will continue in 2011. As for this particular weekend, most of the money is bound to be traded on Rugby Union at the expense of Rugby League. I would guess that the St Helens v Wigan and Bradford v Leeds games should be good but I certainly don’t hold out much hope for the rest of the games.

It’s also disappointing that the advantage from the first game of the season is likely to be missing. Usually, there are some massive opportunities in the market as home advantage and team strength is massively overrated. However, with all games at neutral venues and having a derby element, the chance of these is low. Still, hopefully there will be sufficient in play liquidity to make a reasonable profit.