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?

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