Super League XXI will see Leeds Rhinos attempt to defend all three major rugby league trophies on offer after what was a memorable season for the Headingley side. Not that this writer saw it coming, ludicrously predicting instead that 2015 would be a year too far for their ageing side and that they would miss the final four.
A year on from that nonsense the champions face a tough test of their credentials as they prepare for life without Jamie Peacock and Kevin Sinfield. Both were massively influential in Leeds’ march to the treble, but in the spirit of not making the same mistake twice I will not be writing off the chances of Brian McDermott’s side just yet.
So in this the first part of my season preview I will instead be assessing the chances of the first three sides in the competition, alphabetically speaking, which are Castleford Tigers, Catalan Dragons and Huddersfield Giants. The more astute among you will therefore have worked out that you can reasonably expect the focus to be on Hull FC, Hull KR and Leeds in the next part, followed by Salford Red Devils, Our Super Saints and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, and concluding with Warrington, Widnes and Wigan. Wigan are last only on alphabetical order, although I am sure you will join me in throwing all of your coins into the nearest fountain and making a wish that they finish in exactly that position. We can dream. So……
It was always going to be difficult for the 2015 vintage Tigers to replicate the heroics of the previous year. Then, they were in the race for the League Leaders Shield right up until the last day of the regular season, and fought their way through to the Challenge Cup Final for the first time in 24 years. Yet despite not quite matching that performance, Daryl Powell’s side made a reasonable fist of things in Super League XX. Only Leeds and Wigan scored more tries than the Tigers (although Saints and Warrington matched their tally of 103) while defensively nobody missed fewer tackles than the side from the Mend-A-Hose Jungle. All of which translated into a fifth-placed finish in both the 23-game regular season and the subsequent Super 8 stage. Of course, fifth is the worst possible place to finish in a competition which hands out playoff spots to its top four sides, and so the Tigers were forced to watch the semi-finals on television. They could not replicate their Challenge Cup form of 2014 either, going down to a chastening 40-14 defeat to Hull FC in the last 16 which for them was the very first hurdle. Yet the Tigers were competitive throughout 2015 and we should expect them to be so again in 2016 under one of the shrewdest coaches in the competition.
The back end of Castleford’s 2015 campaign was blighted somewhat by the controversy surrounding Justin Carney. The Tank On The Flank was suspended by the club pending an internal enquiry in August and never played for the club again. His subsequent move to Salford Red Devils came as little surprise under the circumstances but it leaves a bit of a dint in the Tigers’ backline. It won’t be easy to replace a man who notched 18 tries in as many appearances, and 72 in 67 appearances since joining the club in 2013. Charged with that task is former Warrington star Joel Monaghan, who arrives after a try-laden five seasons with the Wolves during which time he played in two Grand Finals and picked up a Challenge Cup winners medal in 2012. Monaghan will turn 34 in April which suggests his best days may be behind him, yet he is a man proven at this level who will bring vital experience to the squad.
Following Carney through the exit door is Liam Finn, who has signed a two-year deal with Wakefield Trinity Wildcats. However, the on-loan acquisition of Ryan Hampshire from Wigan gives Powell options in the halves remembering that Finn was starting to find it difficult to dislodge the preferred pairing of Ben Roberts and Luke Gale. The latter can consider himself unlucky not to have been given an opportunity with England in the autumn Test series with New Zealand, while Saints fans will need no reminder of Roberts’ abilities following his match-winning performance when the two sides met in Castleford in June. The brilliantly vowel-less Jy Hitchcox has climbed on board from Featherstone Rovers and the backline options are further boosted by the signing of Ben Crooks from Parramatta Eels. Crooks was frozen out at the Eels in 2015, failing to make a single first team appearance, but looked easily good enough for Super League when he burst on to the scene with Hull FC in 2012. Still only 22 years old, Crooks has both talent and time for improvement on his side.
New deals for Mike McMeeken and Nathan Massey will please Tigers fans and they retain the core of the squad which has performed so effectively over the last two years. Former Saint Michael Shenton leads the side superbly and should probably have played for England in November also, while Denny Solomona and Luke Dorn provide some serious try-scoring threat. Up front, Andy Lynch leads the pack with the talented Adam Milner featuring alongside Massey, the ever-improving Matt Cook and the dependable Paul McShane.
A top four spot must be the aim for Powell’s side and is within their reach if they can find the consistency to go with their obvious attacking flair.
2015 was largely disappointing for the Dragons. Having come within 80 minutes of the 2014 Grand Final they only secured their top flight status for 2016 by a single point at the end of the 23-game regular season. In addition they departed the Challenge Cup scene at Hull KR in the quarter-finals after scraping through the previous round with the narrowest of wins over Championship Featherstone. They fared a little better in the Super 8s, including one particularly embarrassing towelling of Saints in Perpignan, but never seriously threatened a playoff appearance. Their commitment to free-flowing rugby, especially at home, was admirable but it probably led to them topping the Super League error count in 2015. On the other side of that ledger, only Leeds made more offloads than the Dragons in Super League XX. Coach Laurent Frayssinous had made some changes as he looks for his side to do better in 2016.
As much as Castleford had problems with a man named Carney in 2015 so did Catalans. The problem with Todd Carney, their key signing for 2015 from NRL side Cronulla Sharks, was getting him on the field. Carney made just 12 appearances for the Dragons in an injury-plagued year, forcing Frayssinous to rely on veteran Thomas Bosc to partner Scott Dureau. The latter announced his intention to leave the club as early as July in order to return to the NRL, so Frayssinous has moved to fill the void by acquiring Richie Myler from Warrington Wolves. Myler has spent six seasons with the Wolves but has not always been Tony Smith’s first choice half in that time. He may relish a fresh start here with the Dragons. If Carney can stay fit then he and Myler may be a formidable partnership, with Bosc still around to back up when needed. Former Wigan star Pat Richards arrives from West Tigers to bolster the backline options and no doubt kick plenty of goals. Only Leeds and Saints kicked more goals than Catalans in 2015 while only Salford missed fewer. Opposite Richards on the other wing could be former Salford star Jodie Broughton, a genuine speedster who will be looking to get his career back on track after an indifferent spell with Huddersfield. On a negative note the outstanding and versatile Benjamin Garcia has been snapped up by Penrith Panthers, while Willie Tonga has dropped down a division with Leigh Centurions after just one season with the French outfit. Michael Oldfield also leaves France after two seasons, hooking up with the South Sydney Rabbitohs for 2016
It’s in the pack though where the Dragons look uncertain after almost starting from scratch. Elliott Whitehead and Zeb Taia where the form second row partnership last term but both have headed for the NRL with Canberra Raiders and Gold Coast Titans respectively. Australian one-cap wonder and eight time Queensland State Of Origin representative Dave Taylor has moved in the opposite direction from Taia, while Glenn Stewart arrives after a season with the Rabbitohs. Stewart is perhaps best known for a decade-long spell with the Manly Sea Eagles during which time he played in two NRL Grand Final wins. Now about to turn 32 he arrives in France in the autumn of his career, but if he can offer the Dragons anything like the service of another former Manly star Steve Menzies then there will be few among the Dragons’ supporters complaining. Wily hooker and master of dark arts Ian Henderson has also moved on to Sydney Roosters, but that could provide further opportunities for the explosive Eloi Pelissier to show his qualities.
Further reasons to be cheerful are the continued presence of jet-heeled fullback Morgan Escare, emerging force of 2015 Tony Gigot, former New Zealand Warriors and Canterbury Bulldogs threequarter Krisnan Inu and powerhouse prop Remi Casty. As ever with the Dragons it is a question of whether their handy-looking recruitment translates into a successful unit on the field of play. Their poor away form has dogged them for some time now and only the fact that they were so difficult to beat at home kept them out of the indignity of the Middle 8s last time around.
On paper they do not have a bottom four squad, but proving that they do not have a bottom four team might be an altogether different proposition.
The Giants have been threatening a genuine assault on the Super League crown since the tenure of Nathan Brown, but have somehow never managed to get over the line. After a solid season in 2015 which saw them secure fourth spot before the Super 8s split and improve to third after it, they bowed out at the semi-final stage with something of a whimper in a 32-8 defeat at Wigan. Their Challenge Cup adventure ended even more ignominiously as they were drubbed 48-16 by the eventual conquerors of everything Leeds Rhinos. The Giants’ preparations for 2016 have been hampered somewhat by the controversy surrounding Brett Ferres, who was suspended by the club pending an internal investigation (in the style of Todd Carney) before being officially placed on the transfer list in mid-December. At the time of writing he looks set to join Leeds Rhinos subject to a medical and the agreement of personal terms. Whether that deal goes through or not, he is highly unlikely to wear a Giants shirt again.
For all that the un-publishable whispers about the Ferres situation must have had an effect on the players, his impending departure leaves them without a recognised England international in the second row. Larne Patrick’s return from a loan spell at Wigan will help in that area, but a lot will be expected of veteran pack-star Ryan Hinchcliffe after he joined following a six-year stint with the Melbourne Storm. Hinchcliffe appeared for the Victoria side in their 2012 NRL Grand Final victory over Canterbury Bulldogs and having another player around with experience of playing in a title winning side can do no harm to Paul Anderson’s side. Whether he can offer the same dynamism and skill factor displayed by Ferres in recent years remains to be seen. Prop forward Sam Rapira, recruited from New Zealand Warriors, also has NRL Grand Final experience having played in their losing effort of 2011 against Manly. The 28-year old has 13 caps for New Zealand, and featured in their 2008 World Cup Final victory over Australia. He could be one of the best signings of 2016 in Super League and his front row partnership with the tireless and skilled Craig Huby will be one to watch. As may the first time Huby comes into contact with Ferres, which could be as early as Round 4 if Ferres’ move to Leeds is finalised.
Defensively the Giants worked hard in 2015. No side made more tackles than they did (a whopping 7,852) with only Leeds, Warrington and Wigan making more tackles at marker. To put this into some kind of perspective only Castleford and Wigan missed fewer tackles than Anderson’s men. Where they perhaps need to be more threatening is in hitting the ball up, as they ran dead last in the number of average metres gained per carry in last season’s competition (a paltry 6.68 metres per carry). For a side featuring mercurial talents like Danny Brough, Luke Robinson and Jamie Ellis in its pivotal positions this seems alarming. On the plus side, Brough’s seven 40-20 kicks was a Super League best. Still it does not hide the fact that only Salford Red Devils made fewer clean breaks in 2015. Anderson was probably doing an awful lot of work on his side’s attack this pre-season, and working on the fact that his side’s error count with ball in hand was only bested by the Dragons.
The Giants will no doubt continue to be workmanlike in their approach. Anderson demands nothing less of his players and is quick to let them and the public know if he isn’t satisfied with the team’s work-rate. With the core of the last few years still together, added to the NRL experience that has been added, it is a philosophy which is likely to see them in contention again in Super League XXI. Yet there remains the nagging suspicion that they will find a way to avoid heading to Old Trafford for the big show in October.
The black and whites have been loudly under-achieving for some considerable time now. When this writer was slightly shorter than he is now, Hull were one of the most feared teams in the land. Their appearances in Challenge Cup Finals (the one game of the year that could be relied upon to be screened live in those days) seemed to be fairly regular, and in men like James Leuluai, Garry Schofield and Peter Sterling they had some of the best players of the era. There have been flashes since, with a memorable Challenge Cup win in 2005, a Grand Final appearance the following year and a return to Wembley for a 28-16 defeat to Saints in 2008. Yet they have drifted over the last few seasons, only just avoiding the Middle 8s in the first year of the new structure in 2015.
So here’s a quick question for you. Who was the only side to lose to Hull FC during the Super 8s phase of last season? Sadly, somewhat embarrassingly actually, it was Saints. When they weren’t playing Saints, FC spent the rest of the Super 8s feeling relieved not to be in the Middle 8s but showing little belief in their ability to challenge for a semi-final berth. A massive win over their city rivals Hull KR in July secured their place in the Super 8s and was the signal for the cue to be placed immovably on the rack. There was no shame in losing out 24-6 to the Rhinos in the last eight of the Challenge Cup, but all in all it was another underwhelming campaign for Lee Radford’s men.
The stats on Hull FC’s attack for 2015 are perplexing. Only Salford Red Devils and Wakefield Wildcats managed fewer than their 87 tries, but at the same time only Leeds Rhinos made more than their 31410 metres and only Warrington and Saints mustered more than their average of 7.08 metres per carry. Only Leeds and Wigan bettered their 143 clean breaks. Hull FC can move the ball down the field but they have a spot of trouble plonking it down over that white line. Tellingly, no other Super League team kicked as many as their six drop goals in 2015, while they were the only team to fail to produce a single 40-20 over the campaign. Attacking effectively is both a strength and a weakness for Radford’s side.
So how does Radford go about producing an upturn in fortunes for 2016? Worryingly, in the time-honoured Hull FC fashion of heavy recruitment from the NRL. Four more stars have been drafted in from Australia’s premier competition in a bid to strengthen the airlie birds’ squad. Tongan international three-quarter Mahe Fonua arrives after making 50 appearances over four seasons for Melbourne Storm, while Sika Manu moves from Penrith Panthers. Second row forward Manu turns 29 before the season starts but hopes are high that he still has the kind of quality that got him into the New Zealand side which won the World Cup in 2008, and which gained him a place in the Melbourne Storm’s 14-4 NRL Grand Final triumph over Canterbury Bulldogs in 2012.
Frank Pritchard also played in that New Zealand World Cup win of 2008 and has NRL experience by the proverbial bucket-load. He has made 248 NRL appearances in 13 seasons at that level with Penrith Panthers and Canterbury Bulldogs. At 32 his star is fading but if he comes to play for his no doubt considerable salary he could be a big success on Humberside. Less impressively, Carlos Tuimavave made only 5 appearances at stand-off for Newcastle Knights in 2015 and only nine in three seasons with New Zealand Warriors before that. His acquisition has something of the unknown about it, yet with Jordan Rankin headed to Wests Tigers for 2016 there was a need to introduce another option into the halves.
Aswell as Rankin, Hull FC will surely feel the sting of Joe Westerman’s departure to Warrington. The 26-year old found himself in the England team at the end of 2014 and despite a less impressive 2015 he still did enough to convince the decision makers at the Halliwell Jones Stadium to prise him away from the KC Stadium. Gareth Carvell has retired but there is better news in the shape of new deals for veteran centre and fans favourite Kirk Yeaman aswell as promising three-quarter Jack Logan. The latter signs a four-year deal which at 20 years of age should see him mature into a top player while on Humberside. Thirty-two year old Yeaman offers vital experience and know-how and a new one-year deal seems beneficial to both parties.
Jamie Shaul is one of the most exciting prospects at fullback in Super League but was in and out of the side in 2015, making just 14 appearances, while in Logan, Steven Michaels and Curtis Naughton there looks to be sufficient threat in the backline, on paper at least. Former Saint Leon Pryce enters his 19th Super League season with his fourth different club and, while he lacks the consistency of his youth, there are still moments when he seems to just answer a bell in his head and take over a game completely. Alongside him in the halves Marc Sneyd did not quite replicate his form of 2014 with Castleford but did enough then to serve notice that he is more than capable of leading a side around the field if he gets it together.
Up front, Mickey Paea’s decision to join Newcastle Knights is a blow but with the excellent Mark Miniciello around aswell as former England superstar Gareth Ellis and 2013 Grand Final winner Scott Taylor there is quality in the black and whites pack. Add in a dash of Danny Houghton, for this writer one of the very best number nines playing anywhere in world rugby league, and Hull FC really should have a sniff of a playoff spot, and should secure a top eight berth and Super League status for 2017 with a little more ease than they did last time around. They should, but will they?
Reaching the Challenge Cup Final was a first grade example of crack-papering, masking as it did what was an otherwise disappointing 2015 for Rovers. In many ways their 50-0 Wembley thumping by Leeds Rhinos summed up just how bad they could be at times as they stumbled towards a fairly desperate 10th placed finish. The nadir was a 60-0 pounding at the hands of Wigan in May, although they did somehow turn that around completely to knock the Warriors out of the Challenge Cup at the quarter final stage just a fortnight later. When they were hot, they were hot, but Rovers did not have nearly enough good days at the office to reach the safety of the top eight after 23 rounds. That they breezed through the Middle 8s with 7 wins out of 7 to preserve their Super League status showed that there is still something of a gap between the bottom of Super League and the top of the Championship. In their first Middle 8s encounter Rovers trailed Leigh Centurions 24-6 before roaring back to win the game 36-26 in the second half. They were pushed close by Wakefield and Widnes in their remaining qualifiers, but of the Championship sides only Leigh and Sheffield got within 10 points of them. So, are Rovers too good for the Championship but not quite good enough for Super League?
The fact that no Super League team missed as many tackles as Rovers during 2015 seems to serve as evidence that they find the top flight a struggle. Scrum-half Albert Kelly was a sensation at times with the ball in hand, but he spent large parts of the season at the very top of the list when it comes to missed tackles. In the event he finished third behind both Mark Minichiello and Ian Henderson, but it should be remembered that those two are forwards and so completed hundreds more effective tackles than Kelly managed. He was also second on the individual error count behind the Dragons’ Scott Dureau, but that is often what you get with players who try to bring a bit of flair and excitement to the game. Kelly suffered with injury towards the back end of the season and when new halfback partner Terry Campese was ruled out for the rest of the season in early June with ruptured ligaments the Robins were left without what until then had looked one of the tastier halfback combinations in Super League XX. The pair made just 35 appearances between them in 2015, so hopes will be high of a more consistent team performance if coach Chris Chester can get his two key schemers on the field with any regularity.
He’ll need to rely on his established stars since recruitment has been kept to a minimum at the time of writing. Utility forward Chris Clarkson has been drafted in from Leeds Rhinos after a loan spell at Widnes, while fullback or centre Ryan Shaw arrives in Super League after making 25 appearances for Bradford Bulls in the Championship last term. Thomas Minns is another three-quarter who arrives with Championship experience with Featherstone Rovers but only fleeting glimpses of the top flight with Leeds Rhinos and London Broncos. Kevin Larroyer’s loan deal from Catalans Dragons has been made permanent but having spent the last two years at the KC Lightstream Stadium his is hardly a new face.
Of those departing Kris Welham moves on to Bradford Bulls after excellent service for Rovers. The Hull-born centre scored 102 tries in 191 appearances for the Robins stretching over almost a decade. Meanwhile prop Jordan Cox has joined Warrington Wolves on a one-year deal after making 64 appearances and scoring six tries for Rovers since 2011. So after a year of huge player turnover between 2014-15 it is pretty much as you were for Chris Chester going into 2016. Whatever happens they should be good to watch with men like Ken Sio, Josh Mantellato, Kieran Dixon and Maurice Blair in their ranks.
The one X-factor that could make the difference for Hull KR this year is the presence of Jamie Peacock in a football manager role. Now retired after a glorious playing career with Bradford Bulls, Leeds Rhinos, Great Britain and England, Peacock won’t be able to score any tries or make any tackles for Chris Chester’s side but his presence should surely have a positive impact on a squad that often drifted along in 2015. He has vital experience, knows the game back to front and upside down, and is the sort of man to go at everything he does with 100% commitment. Whether or not his presence undermines Chester’s role is something which we will have to wait to find out but it will no doubt be interesting to see just exactly what kind of influence the former Bradford and England skipper has on Hull KR in Super League XXI.
It’s hard to see how things could have gone any better for Leeds Rhinos in 2015, and how they can follow up their treble-winning exploits. The Rhinos conquered all, winning the League Leaders Shield, the Challenge Cup and the Super League Grand Final to complete the first such treble since Saints achieved it almost a decade earlier in 2006. The challenge now is to back that up, and to do so without two of the most influential players that Headingley and Super League itself has ever seen. Jamie Peacock has retired to take up a football manager’s role with Hull KR, while Kevin Sinfield has chosen to wind down his career in the lower reaches of rugby union. Both are all but irreplaceable, so the emphasis will be on others to step up and fill the void.
Answering the call is England international and luckiest man alive Brett Ferres. Transfer-listed by Huddersfield Giants after an internal investigation into some less than gentlemanly conduct, Ferres must be pinching himself to make sure he really has been picked up by the champions and not been sent to blend in with the misfits at somewhere like Salford or Leigh. Ferres’ ability to get along with his new team-mates rather better than he has at the Giants recently will be a key factor in whether Leeds can produce the same sort of form as in 2015. Disharmony in a team can be catastrophic, but if he manages to keep his head down and concentrate on his rugby then Ferres provides Leeds with a world class second row forward with bags of experience.
Also joining the Rhinos for 2016 are former Wests Tigers prop Keith Galloway, New South Wales City representative hooker Beau Falloon from Gold Coast Titans, prop Jordan Baldwinson who returns to the club where he began his career after spells with New Zealand Warriors, Bradford Bulls and Featherstone Rovers, and Anthony Mullally from Wakefield Trinity Wildcats. If all that seems a little pack heavy, then it should be remembered that Leeds already have the best three-quarter line in Super League, the reigning Steve Prescott Man Of Steel Zak Hardaker at fullback, and two medal-collectors in the halves in Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow. Liam Sutcliffe will return from a long term injury absence to further boost the option in the scheming department. That backline of Tom Briscoe, Kallum Watkins, Joel Moon and Ryan Hall is without equal and could scarcely have been improved upon under the restraints of the salary cap. There are still, despite the loss of Sinfield and Peacock, reasons to be cheerful if you are a Leeds fan going into Super League XXI.
The one significant loss to the side other than the twin peaks of Sinfield and Peacock is that of Paul Aiton. The former Wakefield hooker suffered a broken arm in early August which ruled him out for the glorious denouement of Leeds’ season. Yet until then he had played a key role for the Rhinos, leading them around the field and linking play superbly. He chose to take up an offer from Catalans Dragons for 2016, triggering the arrival of Falloon to play in that vital number nine position. The jury seems well and truly out on Falloon, so Aiton could yet be missed in a Leeds pack that also contains Man Of Steel nominee Adam Cuthbertson, the improving Brad Singleton, the dependable Carl Ablett aswell as Galloway and Mitch Garbutt. Coach Brian McDermott has options in the pack even if he doesn’t quite have the stellar quality which populates his back division.
Statistically Leeds were predictably dominant also. They scored 30 more tries than any other side in the competition, had 18 more try assists than anyone else, and also topped the charts in tackle busts, carries, metres gained, clean breaks, goals scored and offloads, in which they were a barely credible 178 ahead of the second placed Catalans Dragons. Their offloading was a feature of their game as they almost revolutionised the sport from the five drives and a kick, safety first rot that was served up by so many sides. It was this style of play which saw them hand out a couple of harsh beatings to Saints and which eventually got them through the two games between the sides that were close, the nerve shredding semi-finals of both the Challenge Cup and the Super League playoffs.
Individually the stats are equally impressive. Top-try scorer Ryan Hall’s tally of 19 may appear modest in the context that four players managed more, but only Danny Brough had more assists than McGuire while only three players managed more tackles than Peacock. Hardaker was one of only five players to top 100 tackle busts for the season, with the England fullback also third in metres gained as time after time he returned the best kicks opponents had to offer with a healthy dollop of interest. Waktkins made 30 clean breaks which was second only to Jermaine McGillvary of the Giants, and despite his injury Aiton was tied second for the most runs from dummy half. Cuthbertson was the league’s most prolific offload man with almost double the number achieved by his nearest challenger Liam Watts of Hull FC, which if nothing else provides further evidence of how Leeds were often playing a different sport to some of their rivals in Super League.
Sinfield led the way in goal-scoring with 105 but perhaps more important was his ability to come up with the play that would turn a game, that ability to draw upon hidden reserves of strength and class when things got a little nervy. His 40-20 kick which turned the playoff semi-final in Leeds’ favour is the most prominent example of this and serves as a reminder of what Leeds will miss without him and Peacock in their ranks. They certainly have enough to compete, and perhaps to dominate most teams, but there will be times when things get edgy and the question of who will pull them out of the mire has yet to be answered. Don’t expect another treble from McDermott’s side. Those things happen very rarely, a fact which illustrates their magnitude. Yet anyone who assumes that Leeds will suffer a fall from grace without two of their biggest pillars of strength might need to think again when the pots are handed out.
Expectation is a funny thing. On the one hand you might expect that a first-year coach who also happens to be a club legend, visible in statue form outside the stadium, would be given all the time and encouragement he needs to settle in to his role. On the other hand you might take the view that Challenge Cup and Super League semi-final exits represent a failure for a club defending its Super League crown. Just what was Keiron Cunningham’s job description when he took over the reins from the departing Nathan Brown for the start of 2015?
If there is disappointment to be found then it is located in Saints’ Super 8s performance following the inaugural split after 23 rounds. At the end of the regular season they sat in second place, just a point behind Leeds Rhinos. They were seemingly poised to at least make a good fist of defending the League Leaders Shield they won in 2014. They then embarked on a month of startling ineptitude following what was an admittedly draining and emotional Challenge Cup semi-final loss to Leeds at Warrington at the end of July. Opening the Super 8s with a loss at Catalans (which most fans had talked themselves into by comparing it to turning up at the home of the Rabbitohs with your under-10s team), they then capitulated spectacularly in home losses to Hull FC and Huddersfield Giants. It was the second time they had lost at home to a distinctly average Hull FC side in 2015 and coupled with the defeat to the Giants left all hopes of defending the League Leaders Shield in tatters. Curiously, they then recovered to finally record a win over Leeds Rhinos, beat Castleford on their own patch and then gloriously humiliate Matty Bowen at Langtree Park for a scarcely believable second time. Mired in fourth however, they dropped their final game at home to Warrington as they seemed to focus on travelling to Leeds in the playoff semi-finals a week later.
That they did not make a return to Old Trafford owed much to the brilliance under pressure of Kevin Sinfield, whose raking 40-20 late in the game gave his side momentum and ultimately broke Saints hearts. They had gone down fighting, heroically, as you might expect a defending champion to do if it absolutely has to lose. And still there were those who screamed from the rafters for the rookie coach Cunningham to be dragged down Church Street and publicly stoned to death. Tactically Saints were a hard watch at times in 2015 as Cunningham took a more cautious approach than that employed by many of the teams he played in with such distinction, but then his was not a squad which contained Sean Long, Paul Sculthorpe, Paul Newlove, Tommy Martyn, Jamie Lyon, Leon Pryce, Chris Joynt or any number of great legends who have graced the club in the Super League era. The one true legend that remained was Paul Wellens, and he had to call time on his career in June after failing to recover from a persistent hip injury. The argument can be made that Cunningham aired on the side of caution a little too much, but a quick glance at the squad makes it easy to see why reckless abandon was not applied all that often.
A lot of the recruitment for 2016 has been fairly underwhelming for a club whose history has seen them swimming in Super League success. Yet that is a sign of the times. With other competitions and codes able to dwarf the salary cap of Super League it is no longer feasible to throw money at the best players in the world, marquee rule or not, so the emphasis is on youth development and in replacing like for like when players move on. To that end, Josh Jones’ move to Exeter Chiefs rugby union club has been countered by the arrival of Dominique Peyroux, a versatile second row or centre from New Zealand Warriors. Versatile? Second row or centre? Sound familiar? Mose Masoe somehow managed to convince St.George Illawarra to offer him a deal with them in the NRL despite a massively ordinary two-year spell at Langtree Park, so Lama Tasi makes the short trip from Salford Red Devils to fill that gap. Masoe is revered by some Saints fans but for many his lack of effort and general fitness was a recurring problem. You can only get away with five-minute spells spent trying to avoid taking the ball to the line for so long before people catch on, and I suspect the fans at the Dragons will form a similar view of him if his application does not improve. Joining Masoe at the Dragons is Adam Quinlan, another who has managed to pull the wool over untrained eyes. He scored a hat-trick on debut against Huddersfield, which was enough to convince many that he was the answer to Saints’ ongoing fullback problems. In reality, a fullback who cannot effect a one-on-one tackle is no sort of fullback despite the changing nature of the sport.
Saints’ fullback problems were a by-product of a quite crippling injury list. Often they would enter games (sometimes against major rivals) with nine or 10 first team players unable to take to the field. The retirement of Lance Hohaia after he continued to suffer from concussions following Ben Flower’s outrageous assault on him in the 2014 Grand Final did not help. Nor did leg breaks for Joe Greenwood and Tommy Makinson, the latter by his own admission returning with much less confidence and therefore effectiveness at the back end of the season. There were a catalogue of injuries to impressive second row Atelea Vea in his first season with Saints after joining from London Broncos, and the second long-term injury absence in as many seasons for Jonny Lomax. Shannon McDonnell was brought in to help out and broke down again soon after, prompting the introduction of Quinlan, and even Mark Percival had a shot at curing the troublesome fullback problem. Lomax’s fitness going into 2016 is going to be a big key for Saints.
The halfback combination of Travis Burns and Luke Walsh was supposed to be something of a dream ticket for Saints in 2015, but both flattered to deceive throughout. Walsh never really put thoughts of his horror injury of a year previously behind him and became a defensive liability, a problem compounded by the fact that he often lined up defensively alongside Saints’ other tackle-botching standout Jordan Turner. It says something about Saints defence that they missed more tackles than all but three Super League sides, yet completed the fewest of any. But it was in attack where Burns and Walsh were perhaps even more disappointing as they chronically starved Percival of possession, kicked badly or too early, and generally struggled to come up with anything resembling any guile. The capture of Theo Fages from Salford Red Devils should help in that department but the highly rated Frenchman may find that Cunningham’s faith in Burns and Walsh remains and that he will have to wait his turn. As may former Widnes winger or fullback Jack Owens, but both will no doubt prove useful acquisitions if the injury jink does not let up.
If we are hoping that this year will be different and looking for reasons to be cheerful then look no further than the presence of Alex Walmsley. The Steve Prescott Man Of Steel nominee was easily the best prop in the competition last term, and was the only man to top 4,000 metres gained in the whole of Super League. The addition of Tasi should help to avoid the over-reliance on Walmsley that was apparent last term thanks to Masoe’s indifference and Kyle Amor’s troubling loss of both weight and form, while James Roby remains the best number nine in the competition by some distance. Cunningham has the option to use Fages in relief of Roby at times should he choose to do so, but if need be then Roby is still one of Super League’s few 80-minute men in the pack. Add in the improving Greenwood and the star of the future that is Andre Savelio and Saints boast one of the more formidable front units in Super League.
In the backs we need Makinson’s confidence to return and Adam Swift to continue the improvement that saw him lead the team with 18 tries in 2015. Percival will be a superstar if only his team-mates can find a way to get him the ball in space and it will be interesting to see whether Cunningham restores Jordan Turner to the left centre role in which he was both dazzling and defensively vulnerable at times last term, or decides to hand the job to Peyroux. There has been some experimenting with Turner at loose forward and stand-off also, and the question of where to play the former Hull FC and Salford man is one Cunningham needs to find a satisfactory answer for. With the halves struggling to be creative it makes sense to this writer to play Jon Wilkin as a ball-playing 13 more often, but that depends on Vea’s ability to stay fit and form a strong second row partnership with Greenwood. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook is a man plagued by brain explosions, but can possibly be trusted to cover those two at times, while Luke Thompson and Greg Richards offer further options in the pack. As for Wilkin, he has his critics but remains a vital cog for Saints, not least because he is one of the few remaining links to the winning culture that the club has developed during the Super League era. He’s just not a pure scrum-half and if we can all get our heads around that fact we might start to see his contribution in a different light.
Saints are brimming with young stars who will only get better as time goes on, and you would expect a man with a rugby league pedigree like Cunningham’s to be able to improve also. He will hopefully learn the lessons of 2015 and grow as a coach, allowing us to see the fruits of that labour. Whether it will be in 2016 is another matter. To use an old sporting cliche, Saints will indeed be there or thereabouts come September and October. It’s just a question of whether they can stay healthy, develop a bit more guile with which to break teams down, and get that little bit of luck and inspiration that any team needs to be a champion, particularly in a competition which is decided by playoffs and a Grand Final.
SALFORD RED DEVILS
Despite the continued investment in star names the Salford Red Devils continued to under-achieve in 2015. Hardly threatening a Super 8s spot, they meandered to an 11th placed finish after 23 rounds before putting a spurt on in the Middle 8s to secure their Super League status for 2016. Even then they managed to drop two of their seven games, going down 41-10 to Bradford Bulls before losing their final, admittedly meaningless game to Hull KR by a score of 46-22.
Iestyn Harris has finally been replaced as head coach after spending much of last season absent so former Australian Test strategist Tim Sheens comes in to try to make the difference for the men from the AJ Bell Stadium. He has already set about his rebuilding task, bringing in nine new faces for the start of the season. One of these is the controversial Justin Carney who comes in on loan from Castleford Tigers after they suspended him pending an internal investigation. Despite his off-field tribulations Carney notched 18 tries in as many games for the Tigers in 2015 and should add something to the Red Devils backline. Ben Jones-Bishop has departed for Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in a move which surprised some, so in comes the storied Daniel Vidot from NRL side Brisbane Broncos. Vidot is definitely one from the file marked ‘interesting characters’, and was apparently weeks away from a career change before Salford swooped for his signature. The former Canberra and St.George-Illawarra man was about to turn his hand to WWE wrestling when Sheens came calling, and has stated that pro-wrestling remains on his to-do list. For now he signs a two-year contract but has problems already with the news this week that he will be out for three months with a shoulder injury. The Salford faithful crosses its fingers and hopes for the best.
Sheens has reacquainted himself with his former Wests Tigers stand-off Robert Lui, who joins from NRL champions North Queensland Cowboys. He did not play much of a role in their title winning season of 2015 but did make 43 appearances for the Cowboys in a four-season spell. Before that he could be found participating in Wests’ 2009 Grand Final loss to Melbourne Storm, so the stand-off has plenty of experience at the highest level. He is likely to partner Michael Dobson in the halves with Rangi Chase taking his magic hat off to the other side of Manchester with Leigh Centurions. Sheens’ final NRL addition is another former Tigers man, second row or loose forward Ben Murdoch-Masila. Murdoch-Masila turns 25 on the first weekend of the Super League season so has youth on his side. Slightly less in his favour is the fact that he has played hardly any first team rugby over the last two seasons, making just six appearances for Penrith Panthers in 2014 and none last term. With former Saint Andrew Dixon and ex-Wigan star Harrison Hansen both moving on with Chase to Leigh, Murdoch-Masila’s impact on the Salford back row will need to be immediate.
Another ex-Saint offering back row options is Mark Flanagan. Fresh from pretending to be a stand-off in the 2014 Grand Final success, Flanagan is a tackling machine but is quite limited in what he offers with ball in hand. Yet after four seasons with Saints he offers the kind of big-game experience that could prove useful. Aswell as flashy signings and star names, Salford need players who are used to operating in a winning culture and who expect to win games. Flanagan won’t be spectacular, but he might just fit that particular bill. Prop Matthew Haggarty hasn’t made any appearances for Saints since joining from Dewsbury Rams last February and immediately being loaned back to the west Yorkshire outfit, and he won’t wear the red vee in 2016 either after Sheens snapped him up on loan. Logan Tomkins is no longer a loan player after making his move from Wigan permanent, while Craig Copczak and Phil Joseph have been acquired from Huddersfield and Widnes respectively to add beef up front. Adrian Morley has finally been caught up and left in the wake of Old Father Time, retiring at the age of 38 after a mostly glittering and sometimes controversial 18-year career, while the pack is further weakened by the defection of prop Lama Tasi to Langtree Park.
Sheens’ final addition is another man who has worn the red vee in the recent past, former Warrington halfback Gareth O’Brien. The 24 year-old was thought by many cynical Saints fans to be an indicator of how far the mighty had fallen during his 2013 loan stint at Langtree Park, but there are others who believe he possesses all the attributes to develop into a top-drawer Super League schemer. Whether the revolving door at Salford with its constant Koukashian soundtrack is the right environment for that development is open to serious debate.
Despite the presence of Chase, Dobson, Jones-Bishop, Greg Johnson and Kevin Locke (at least until his controversial exit to Wakefield) Salford found tries hard to come by last term. Their tally of 79 was the second-worst in Super League ahead of only the Wildcats. Only Wakefield and Hull FC had fewer try assists, while you can make what you will of the fact that Salford and Castleford shared a league-high 272 attacking kicks. It might suggest that they had trouble breaking down a defence before they arrived in the last chance saloon that is tackle six. That is further evidenced by the fact that no Super League side made fewer than Salford’s 105 clean breaks. Tellingly, only Saints and Widnes made more handling errors which indicates that the Red Devils operated a safety first policy in Super League XXI, backed up by the fact that only Widnes had fewer offloads. Certainly the Red Devils’ kicking game was a strength, with no team missing fewer attempts at goal than Harris’ former charges.
Defensively the Red Devils worked hard, making a total of 7791 tackles which was only bettered by Huddersfield Giants. Yet as industrious as they were they were not always successful, as their tally of 719 missed tackles shows. Only Hull KR failed to complete the tackle on more occasions, but they were exceptional in this field by managing to butcher an astonishing 106 tackles more than the Red Devils. Only Rovers conceded more points in the initial 23-game regular season, which tells its own story of why Salford struggled and toiled all year.
So can they do better this term? They certainly have one of the shrewdest coaches at the helm in Sheens with all of his experience, but the feeling remains that the turnover of players is too high and the slap-dash, cheque-book approach of the owner is not a recipe for success. The definition of success for Salford is probably a place in the Super 8s, but they are all too often hamstrung by the impatient tub-thumping of Koukash, who after all is the man who sacked Brian Noble. It’s unlikely that Sheens will be any more immune to the hire and fire policies of the club should things not go to plan in 2016.
WAKEFIELD TRINITY WILDCATS
The Wildcats were fairly shambolic for most of 2015. Winning just 3 of their initial 23 regular season games, they took the opportunity to re-stock their squad for the Middle 8s Qualifiers and stayed afloat in Super League. Even then it was a mighty close call as they lost to both Sheffield Eagles and Hull KR to inflict upon themselves the indignity of the so-called (possibly by Dr Evil) £1million game. They edged that 24-16 to book themselves in for another, hopefully more successful shot at Super League for 2016. Their interest in the Challenge Cup was ended by Championship opposition as they went down 36-30 to Leigh Centurions in the last 16. That was in mid-May, and two weeks later coach James Webster was replaced by former Hull FC, Bradford Bulls and Sydney Roosters boss Brian Smith, who had been out of coaching since being sacked by the NRL side in 2012. The improvement was not immediate despite Smith’s experience, and to be quite frank they showed little interest in competing until August brought with it those Middle 8 Qualifiers.
The numbers from last term show that Wakefield need to improve in almost every department if they are to compete in 2016. No team in Super League crossed the try line less frequently than the Wildcats (who managed it just 74 times) while nobody gained less than their 25200 metres. Only Widnes made fewer tackle busts and only Huddersfield had a poorer average gain per carry. Surprisingly all of the Giants, Warrington and Salford had fewer clean breaks but when all is said and done Wakefield had scored fewer points and conceded more than any other Super League outfit when the competition split after 23 rounds. Yet such was the turnover of players at Wakefield as they approached the Middle 8 that those stats almost seem like they belong to someone else.
There have been changes to the playing staff, but whether those changes will precipitate a change in fortunes for Smith’s side is yet to be seen. Tinirau Arona and Anthony Tupou are versatile forwards who between them made 156 appearances in the NRL for Cronulla Sharks in spells of two and six years respectively. Both were used mostly off the bench in 2015 but still made contributions to a side that finished sixth in the strongest competition in world rugby. All of which suggests that they should be an improvement on those that toiled so badly last term, though there is always an element of risk with NRL imports.
The rest of Smith’s shopping has been done at home with Castleford stand-off Liam Finn and Salford winger Ben Jones-Bishop the two standouts. Finn was instrumental in the Tigers’ brush with the League Leaders Shield in 2014 but found himself more on the fringes at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle last season as Ben Roberts formed a dynamic half-back partnership with Luke Gale. Yet at 32 years of age the Ireland international may still have something to offer at this level, and will hope to hit it off immediately with Jacob Miller. Jones-Bishop brings pace, a great try-scoring record and an impressive medal haul, having played in Leeds Rhinos’ Grand Final victories of 2011 and 2012. Things did not go so well for him after leaving for Salford to seek more game time following the arrival at Headingley of Tom Briscoe, but he still managed to score 16 tries in 24 Super League games for what was a pretty average side. He’ll no doubt have another struggle in the lower reaches of Super League on his hands again this year, but a similar scoring return will help the team’s cause immensely.
Taking the same path from Castleford is former Leeds and Salford centre Ashley Gibson. The 29 year-old has racked up 150 appearances since 2009, scoring 65 tries. He’s another experienced campaigner who should improve the Wildcats’ options in the three-quarters, while Sean Morris arrives also from London Broncos. Prop Anthony England was good enough to make 24 appearances in a two-year spell with Warrington Wolves and looks a solid addition to a pack led by the excellent Danny Kirmond, but which has had to absorb the losses of Danny Washbrook and Ali Lauitiiti, both of whom have returned to former stomping grounds Hull FC and New Zealand Warriors respectively.
Despite the changes anything other than another season of struggle would be a surprise. Much depends on how well their new faces fit in, and on whether the men who dragged them through the Middle 8s can make the step up to Super League. The retirement of controversial half Tim Smith and the release of Samoan international Peta Godinet further reduces Smith’s quota of creative players, but if the ball-players can get the service to the likes of Jones-Bishop, Gibson and the improving Reece Lyne there might be more of an attacking threat than was the case 12 months ago. A Super 8s berth still looks beyond them.
Warrington were a model of inconsistency in 2015. They’d win one, lose one, win two, lose two, weaving a pattern of mediocrity all about them as they finally settled into the relative obscurity of a sixth-placed finish by the end of the Super 8s. Relative that is to their Grand Final appearances of 2012 and 2013 and even their nail-biting, last-gasp loss to Wigan at the semi-stage in 2014. They got nowhere near that level last term. Despite beating Saints on the final weekend of the Super 8s they missed out on a semi-final spot by eight points. The truth is that they drifted for most of the season under Tony Smith. When they weren’t drifting they were meandering. Super League XXI is a big one for the future of Smith at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why the Wolves struggled so often in 2015. There was plenty of talent at their disposal in men like Stefan Ratchford, Daryl Clark, Joel Monaghan and Chris Hill but somehow the blend wasn’t quite right. Even the introduction late in the season of halfback Chris Sandow from the Parramatta Eels didn’t have quite the impact they had hoped for. He showed touches of his class during the Super 8s, but not enough to convince that he alone can make the difference for Smith’s side. They continued to struggle to replace the leadership and inspiration once offered by Lee Briers in the halves while without Michael Monaghan and Trent Waterhouse they also lacked something up front.
The style of play favoured by Smith, while often costly, certainly kept the Wolves among the most entertaining sides in the competition. They were one of only five teams to top 100 tries for the season, while only Leeds Rhinos and Hull FC gained more metres in 2015. That translated to a league-leading 7.11 metres gained per carry, and with 274 offloads they were more prolific in that department than all but four of their rivals. Yet somehow they ranked only 10th in clean breaks, suggesting that Warrington do a lot of shifting the ball around, making ground without necessarily breaking the defensive line. It’s a style which did not yield enough dividend to compensate for the inevitable mistakes that are made when you are continually pushing that extra pass. Warrington were one of only three sides in Super League to top 300 handling errors, which tells its own story.
Watching Smith’s bemused smirks in reaction to the defeats you might get the impression that he thinks it is all happening beyond his control. Certainly in interviews he can come across as the sort of man who does not concern himself with small matters like results, and who is perfectly happy so long as there are positive elements in his side’s performances. It’s almost as if he sees his role as the improvement of individual players and as director of entertainment for the fans. Let someone else worry about keeping score. Yet it is just possible that the former Huddersfield boss has experienced some kind of penny-dropping epiphany entering 2016, with several changes to the personnel suggesting that we might see an altogether different Wolves outfit this season.
Chief among the recruitments is former Newcastle Knights legend Kurt Gidley. Now 33 and having spent 15 years with the Knights in the NRL, Gidley has been given the big build-up by Smith who described him as a ‘champion’, citing the ‘quality and experience he brings’ to the Wolves squad. Gidley has the potential to inspire others. Brother Matt did fairly well when he popped over for a stint at Saints at a similar age, so there are grounds for optimism for Wolves fans. At the opposite end of the age spectrum is Tom Lineham, the exciting winger brought in from Hull FC. Lineham scored 54 tries in 68 games for the black and whites, including 25 tries in Super League in 2015. Only the Giants’ Jermaine McGillvary bettered that tally. Lineham’s former airlie birds team-mate Joe Westerman brings more Super League and international experience, while Giants’ forward Jack Hughes and Hull KR prop Jordan Cox will also compete for a place up front.
One other bit of housekeeping sees Hill, the one Warrington player who would almost indisputably get into any other Super League (or maybe even NRL) side, appointed captain in his fifth season with the club since joining from Leigh. Too often he carried the battle alone for the Wolves in the forwards last season despite flashes of what Ashton Sims can bring to Super League. Perhaps his new role will see Hill inspire others to step up to make Warrington a contender again. He should be helped greatly by the arrival of Mitchell Dodds, who played in Brisbane Broncos’ agonising NRL Grand Final defeat by North Queensland Cowboys at the end of last season and was a regular feature in the Broncos match day 17. And let’s not forget they still have England international Bennie Westwood in their ranks who, while he was not quite at his best in 2015, has been one of the more consistent performers in Super League during his Wolves career.
And so to the losses. Ritchie Myler has hopped over the channel to try to find a more regular halfback slot with Catalans Dragons after failing to completely convince Smith of his worth, while Monaghan has taken up an offer with Castleford Tigers. Gareth O’Brien was another halfback who found himself on the fringes following the arrival of Sandow and so has moved on to a new challenge with the ever challenging Salford Red Devils. Versatile back Chris Bridge has moved across Cheshire to Widnes Vikings also, while Roy Asotasi has been released after a fairly underwhelming spell. Anthony England goes to Wakefield to make room for Dodds and Cox.
There is a smattering of promising youth which should only improve and help the cause. Ben Currie caught the eye last season, doing enough to gain inclusion in the England squad at the end of the season, while Sam Wilde, Brad Dwyer, James Laithwaite and Declan Patton are all under 25 and all gained more first team experience in 2015. The signing of former Leeds veteran troublemaker Ryan Bailey appears to go completely against the grain therefore, but dull moments and Bailey are yet to be acquainted. Keep your eyes peeled when he takes the field.
Expect an improved performance for the Wolves this year but probably not enough to genuinely challenge for Grand Final glory. It’s always their year, but it would need a pretty significant upturn in form and fortunes for 2016 to be their year. The aim should be a semi-final spot and from there anything can happen, but there are a handful of other clubs who at this moment in time look better placed to carry off the honours in Super League XXI
It was close, but there was a complete absence of cigars in Widnes’ bid to reach the Super 8s in 2015. They finished ninth, just a point behind Hull FC before winning five out of their seven Middle 8s qualifiers to preserve their Super League status with something to spare. They lost to both Salford and Hull KR but were hardly troubled by any other opponent. Yet after making the then eight-team playoffs in 2014, the aim for Denis Betts’ side for 2016 must be at least to get back in with the big fish when the competition splits after Round 23. Away from league matters their 36-20 Challenge Cup quarter-final exit at Saints is creditable enough, but even that was a date they sneaked through to after beating Championship Batley Bulldogs by just four points.
The fact that only two Super League sides made more runs from dummy half than the Vikings last term suggests a simple game plan. But when you discover that those two sides were Leeds and Warrington that theory looks a bit shaky. Leeds and Warrington differed in quality vastly last season, but they had a similar penchant for keeping the ball alive and offloading. They were in no way conservative in their approach. Yet the key difference is that the Vikings made a paltry 173 offloads, the lowest of any side in Super League. Defensively industrious (third in tackles made with 7789), Widnes were a far more safety-first, up-the-jumper proposition than either the Rhinos or the Wolves. They also made just 509 tackle busts, the fewest in the league, but curiously managed a fairly respectable eighth in clean breaks with 132, more than Warrington or Huddersfield but almost 80 fewer than Leeds. Considering that only three sides scored fewer than their 94 tries it is somewhat paradoxical to note that only Leeds and Wigan had more than their 78 try assists. It might suggest a lack of individual brilliance throughout the side. The Vikings need each other more than most if their whole is going to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
To address the issues Betts has given the three-quarter line a makeover. Chris Bridge arrives from Cheshire rivals Warrington, while Corey Thompson is a fullback or winger who has managed 15 tries in 35 appearances over two seasons with Canterbury Bulldogs in the NRL. Centre or winger Charly Runciman only managed 12 appearances in three seasons with the St.George-Illawarra Dragons but is still only 22 and has time on his side. Setaimata Sa is more familiar with the competition having scored 30 tries in 95 appearances over spells with Catalans Dragons and Hull FC, for whom he crossed the whitewash three times in 14 appearances in 2015 after a spell in rugby union with London Irish.
Some of the old guard remain and may be inspired to up their game given the extra competition for places. Paddy Flynn and Patrick Ah Van are capable wingers in different ways, while Stefan Marsh has proved he has the talent to threaten any defensive line. In the halves Joe Mellor is fast becoming one of the league’s standout scrum-halves and in partnership with the peerless Kevin Brown should offer plenty of creativity. They are backed up by Tom Gilmore around whom links with Saints persist, and at fullback Rhys Hanbury is a good enough performer to have seen Jack Owens off after was released by the Vikings and moved to Langtree Park.
In the pack Danny Galea has retired, while Chris Clarkson has joined Hull KR after a loan spell with the Vikings. Phil Joseph has departed for Salford Red Devils and the versatile Willie Isa has agreed a two-year deal with Wigan. All of which places further importance on the success of Chris Houston, a utility forward who has spent the last eight seasons with Newcastle Knights in the NRL. In that time he has made 160 appearances scoring 27 tries, and should add plenty to Betts’ pack options. They include one-time Bradford Bull Manese Manuokofoa, ex-Wigan prop Gil Dudson who was a Challenge Cup winner with the Warriors in 2013, the highly rated Alex Gerrard and the veteran pair of Hep Cahill and Aaron Heremaia. In addition, Connor Farrell has joined on loan from Wigan to further bolster the squad.
Until we see how the likes of Thompson and Houston settle at the Select Security Stadium it is difficult to know whether the Vikings will improve upon last season and sneak into the Super 8s. Competition is as tough as it has ever been in 2016 and unless the new signings gel quickly and perform to a higher standard than those they have replaced, it could be another near miss for the once mighty Chemics. However, in Brown they have one of the league’s genuine superstars around whom almost anything is possible. If he can stay fit and Widnes are resilient enough to stay in games consistently, then he may hold the key to avoiding another dice with death via the Middle 8 qualifiers.
Enjoyable as it was for the majority of visitors to these pages Wigan’s second consecutive Grand Final loss must have been a pretty painful experience for those of a cherry and white persuasion. Of course they know nothing of our pain after we managed to lose five in a row between 2007-11, but nevertheless coach Shaun Wane and his troops will be desperate to avoid making it a hat-trick in 2016.
In the end the Warriors came up just two points short of Leeds Rhinos at Old Trafford, but history is unlikely to remember that given that the result completed a majestic treble for the Headingley side. Still, it served notice that the Warriors were not too far away in 2015 and that, all things being equal, they will challenge again in Super League XXI.
Perhaps taking the view that not too much is broken, Wane has not engaged in too much fixing when it comes to the make-up of his squad. The big signing sees the return of Sam Tomkins after a two-year spell in the NRL with New Zealand Warriors. When the England star left these shores he was probably the most dynamic attacking force in Super League. Yet his rather ordinary spell down under and a troublesome knee injury raise questions about his ability to return to that level. The surgery he has had will keep him out until March and with Matty Bowen having retired there is no obviously experienced alternative at fullback. All of which makes the decision to allow Ryan Hampshire to join Castleford on loan for 2015 a little perplexing. Hampshire’s future is at Wigan having signed a three-year deal just before his loan, and probably as a stand-off, yet he has valuable experience in the number one role which may have proved useful. Until Tomkins returns Wane may have to put his faith in youth, with Lewis Tierney or Oliver Gidart possibly capable of filling the void.
Joe Burgess’ departure to Sydney Roosters would damage most teams but in Josh Charnley and Dom Manfredi the Warriors have two experienced Super League wingers who would get into plenty of other teams in the competition. Willie Isa has arrived from Widnes to boost Wane’s options in both the centres and the second row, although he might find it difficult to oust either John Bateman or Liam Farrell in the pack, and also Anthony Gelling and Dan Sarginson in the backs. Gelling has that rare commodity of unpredictability, by turns inventive and woeful but always interesting. Sarginson suffered injury problems at the back end of 2015 but remains a contender for an England berth at his best.
In the file marked ‘any other business’ Logan Tomkins has made his stay with Salford Red Devils permanent after a two-year loan period, and James Greenwood is now a full-time Hull KR player. Iain Thornley has also made the switch to the KC LIghtstream Stadium, and Connor Farrell has followed the trend set by Hampshire, signing a new three-year deal before heading off on loan to Widnes for this season. Off the field former Rovers and Wigan centre Darrell Goulding joins the DW Stadium coaching staff after his enforced retirement, and Wane has a new number two in former head of youth John Winder following Paul Deacon’s defection to rugby union and Sale Sharks. Winder will be familiar with a lot of the players that the Warriors may now have to call on, so his appointment could be especially beneficial to that group.
As you might expect from a Wigan side, Wane’s men were one of the more relentlessly efficient sides in the Super League last year. Only Leeds Rhinos scored more than their 112 tries and only Castleford Tigers missed fewer tackles. Only Leeds, Hull and Warrington gained more metres but interestingly there were five sides with a better average gain per carry. Wigan wear you down although their fourth highest error count of 297 is something which will have steam coming out of Wane’s ears until he gets his side back on the field with a chance to rectify it. Their 161 clean breaks was bettered only by the Rhinos, whose two-point victory over the Warriors in the Grand Final may or may not accentuate the fact that nobody missed more attempts at goal than Wigan in 2015. In a game where margins can be fine, that needs improvement if the Warriors are going to avoid another Mancunian heartbreak. Discipline is also a potential problem in a side which is coached dangerously on the edge by the no-nonsense Wane. Only Salford Red Devils had more men sent to the sin-bin than the Warriors last term.
The bad news for us is that you can fully expect this lot to be challenging for the major honours again in 2016. They are solid in almost every department and have a coach with a rabid thirst for success who instils in them a winning mentality which can be as valuable as anything. A shoe-in for the top four at the end of the Super 8s, anyone finishing above Wigan in the league table will have placed themselves in a great position going into the playoffs. Wigan have not missed out on a Grand Final since 2012 and will be among the favourites to make it to the show once more. If Tomkins is still Tomkins they have as good a chance as ever. Even if he is not they will still find ways to win, not all of them easy on the eye, but will they have that touch of class that will be enough to get them over the line after two years of Grand Final agony? Let’s hope not.