It’s finally here – Super League is back.
With the most exciting bunch of new signings in memory and new coaches to spice up the mix, it promises to be a memorable season.
St Helens entertain Wigan Warriors in the opener with a Hull derby and Warrington Wolves vs Leeds Rhinos making up a tantalising TV feast.
Here our man Nigel Wiskar gives a club-by-club guide with a sprinkling of cabbage patch dolls, a very large bottom, tricycles and a Ronnie Corbett effigy on a miniature horse.
So the best team in the competition last season – by a long way – is now even stronger. What could possibly go wrong?
Well we all know what happened in last year’s semi-finals as Saints were steamrollered by Catalans in the Challenge Cup and undone by Warrington in Super League.
They’ve recruited very well, bringing in full-back Lachlan Coote, strike centre Kevin Naiqama and loose forward Joseph Paulo.
That’s on a base of Golden Boot winner Tommy Makinson and the likes of best hooker and prop in competition in James Roby and Luke Thompson.
Then there’s the honey monster, Alex Walmsley, returning after injury fears to trample anyone who stands in his way.
Some of their closest opposition has got stronger but it’s theirs to lose.
STRENGTH: How’s this for a potential bench: Alex Walmsley, Matty Lees, Morgan Knowles, Theo Fages? Yup, there’s serious depth.
WEAKNESS: Have they got the collective mental strength to win something (and I’m not counting the hubcap) or will they miss out again?
TRIVIA: Alex Walmsley waxes his moustache with a combination of Pritt Stick and mashed up Mars bars.
They’ve bagged a couple of salary cap-bothering big name recruits from the NRL in Blake Austin and Jason Clark.
But a couple of other names may prove just as valuable as the Wolves go in search of the title.
When pony-tailed Jake Mamo was fit he was near untouchable in spells for Huddersfield.
Teenager hooker Danny Walker, nicked from neighbours Widnes, looks like he still rides a BMX but showed immense, raw potential at the relegated club.
Coach Steve Price has signed a two-year extension as the club look longer term with the signing of Gareth Widdop for next season.
STRENGTH: Some serious strike power from the likes of Austin, Josh Charnley and Ben Murdoch-Masila. Uber consistency from Jack Hughes and Bryson Goodwin – a heady mix.
WEAKNESS: Same as Saints. They lost two finals last season and need to convert all that talent into a winning formula.
TRIVIA: Ben Westwood collects cabbage patch dolls which line the walls of his study.
OK, OK so technically they were the best team last season but you know what I mean.
Stripped of all that Shaun Wane/players leaving sentimentality though and this season is a different beast.
They will still be there or thereabouts – this is Wigan after all – but in many ways this may turn out to be a transitional season.
Shaun Edwards takes over the reins from Adrian Lam next year, they’ve lost Sam Tomkins and more importantly John Bateman.
Realistically, how much longer can Sean O’Loughlin carry on at his rarefied peak?
No team has as much strength on the wings – perm any two from Dominic Manfredi, Tom Davies, Liam Marshall and Joe Burgess – but key could be who partners George Williams in the halves.
STRENGTH: Pound for pound, does any town or city in the world produce as much top class sporting talent? There’ll be another couple of bolters along this season no doubt.
WEAKNESS: Zak Hardaker. He could have gone in the strength section but this fractious human and fabulous athlete has the capability to build or destroy in equal measure. Jury’s out. He’ll probably prove me horribly wrong.
TRIVIA: Morgan Escare collects vintage French tricycles and can often be seen huffing his way up Rivington Pike on his favourite one.
New coach, new players, new stadium (ish). Exciting times at Headingley.
It needs to be too after last season’s rank mediocrity.
Like Saints and Warrington they’ve recruited brilliantly – Trent Merrin, Konrad Hurrell and Tui Lolohea all eminently watchable.
And in David Furner, they’ve one of their own in charge – joining an old boys’ network behind the scenes.
Predecessor Brian McDermott was a notoriously hard man and there’ll be no messing with the new boss, regarded as one of the toughest in the NRL and during his time with Leeds and Wigan.
His dad Ron was a Kangaroo tourist in the 1950s and a heavyweight boxer. Son Kyle is an amateur fighter.
Furner won’t be pulling any punches.
STRENGTH: Kallum Watkins and Konrad Hurrell is the best centre partnership in Super League, either one capable of getting the Rhinos out of a hole.
WEAKNESS: That pack still looks a touch light. Carl Ablett and Jamie Jones-Buchanan go round one more time which may be a step too far.
TRIVIA: Trent Merrin had the largest bottom in New South Wales. Leeds have struggled to find shorts big enough for him, eventually having to make some from metres of tarpaulin used to protect the South Stand from the elements.
A big, beefy side who are another looking stronger than last season.
It says a lot that they have lost their biggest player Pauli Pauli – literally their biggest player – and still have five other huge props ready to roll.
Pauli is likely to miss four games with a knee injury so that leaves just David Fifita, Craig Kopczak, Anthony England, Keegan Hirst and Craig Huby for defences to stop.
The new interchange reduction from 10 to eight could test some of their bigger units asked to play longer minutes.
But with Danny Brough inevitably pulling the strings, there’s class out wide with that Bill Tupou, Tom Johnstone edge terrifying.
STRENGTH: The addition of Brough will take the kicking responsibilities away from Jacob Miller, making him a potential bigger threat.
WEAKNESS: Like his irritating twin Andrew, David Fifita can win you a game – or cost you dearly. Cut the theatrics and he can be unplayable.
TRIVIA: The Fifita twins were state and national bullying champions when they were at school, reducing a record number of fellow pupils, teachers and bus drivers to tears. They were comfortably beaten in the world bullying championships though by two siblings from Normanton.
Nothing like a pre-season punch-up to get the blood flowing.
It all kicked off a bit early for Cas when their bonding jaunt to Lanzarote descended into farce and fighting.
Curiously, these things can bring a side together and when they click, coach Daryl Powell’s team are only matched by Saints in the slickness of their attack.
Luke Gale’s injury is a cruel blow given how much he missed last season.
And they’ve hardly pushed the boat out in the transfer market.
But Powell is a shrewd operator and with the likes of Michael Shenton and Greg Eden connecting anything is possible.
STRENGTH: Tigers make scoring tries look so, so easy. Watch out for the impressive Peter Mata’utia to step up a gear.
WEAKNESS: Lack of recruitment leaves a hint of doubt over this squad.
TRIVIA: When he’s not being spanked by nanny or ruining the country, Jacob Rees-Mogg often dons the Tigers mascot suit. He gets Tory pals to call him Jacob Rees Moggy.
Catalans were like a juggernaut at times last season, building a frightening momentum after a shocking start.
They peaked perfectly for the Challenge Cup final but unsurprisingly, once that was done the juggernaut pulled into Hartshead Moor services and the driver fell asleep.
Their recruitment is interesting, replacing their most influential player Josh Drinkwater with Matty Smith who couldn’t buy a game at Saints.
Then there’s Sam Tomkins who’s matured into a brilliant all-round player, albeit without the freakish pace which defined his early career.
Indications are that Tomkins will play full-back with last season’s number one, the exciting Tony Gigot, playing stand-off.
The only way to top winning the Challenge Cup is Grand Final triumph. Surely not?
STRENGTH: Monstrous pack capable of rolling over any other on their day.
WEAKNESS: Greg Bird’s fragility. He was banned from the Challenge Cup final and will miss the first four to eight weeks with a broken thumb.
TRIVIA: Commentators are contractually obliged to point out how bleeding warm and sunny and blah blah it is in the south of France whenever they cover a Dragons home game.
It feels like the true dawn of a new era at the Giants.
Coach Simon Woolford, turned a stagnating club around last season and now has had the benefit of a full close season in charge.
The club’s fulcrum for the last 10 years, Danny Brough, has moved on with his replacement Matt Frawley coming in under the radar.
Frawley took a year out of the game earlier in his career after suffering a bleed on the brain after being knocked out by a shoulder charge.
Jermaine McGillvary’s hamstring injury will keep him out for the first three games of the season so all eyes will switch to the other wing.
Akuila Uate brings some box office to a relatively prosaic side. Another new beginning at the Giants.
STRENGTH: Woolford clearly clicked with his new charges last year. Needs to keep that momentum going.
WEAKNESS: Squad lacks depth. A run of injuries will cost them.
TRIVIA: Huddersfield recruit worldwide to find people with heads large enough to fit into their mascot costumes.
Lose to Rovers in the season opener and it’s Radford out.
Only joking. But after 11 straight defeats at the back end of last season and close season signings which are dull at best, Hull need to hit their straps early.
They copped more than their fair share of injuries last year but the manner of some of those 11 defeats were quite alarming.
It doesn’t help that their best player is banned for the Hull KR clash.
But that’s what you get with Jake Connor – a mix of genius and an 11-year-old who’s had his iPad taken from him.
On paper, Hull look brutal enough and if Albert Kelly fires then anything is possible.
Keep an eye out for centre Cameron Scott too, captain of the victorious England schoolboys side over Australia and one for the future. Radford in.
STRENGTH: If their pack can keep them in it, in Kelly and Connor they have two players capable of turning any game.
WEAKNESS: Danny Houghton’s consistency is legendary but there’s a predictability about his play from hooker. Playing him in a looser role in spells would benefit.
TRIVIA: You can buy a signed 6×4 photo of Danny Washbrook on eBay. The pic dates from 1954 when he made his debut for the club
Beat Hull FC in the opener and it’s Radford out.
Only joking (again) but imagine what the psychological impact over their rivals victory would give in the first game.
Rovers look to have closed the gap on the black and whites with some smart signings.
Josh Drinkwater can lead the team around while Leeds look a prop light after handing over Mitch Garbutt.
Kane Linnett is a genuine pedigree NRL centre. He’s strong, direct and with Joel Tomkins settled in, there’s menace in those wide channels.
STRENGTH: This finally looks like a team Tim Sheens can do something with, even if that’s only looking up the table rather than nervously looking down.
WEAKNESS: Danny McGuire is one of the greatest ever Super League players but how much longer can he kill it at the very highest level?
TRIVIA: Mose Masoe was once mistaken for an escaped bear from Zungle Zoo in Cleethorpes. It took eight wardens and three armed police officers to subdue him.
SALFORD RED DEVILS
If we could keep this to on the field, things would look considerably brighter.
There’s a cautious optimism for Red Devils fans, bolstered mainly by a bloke called Jackson Hastings.
With him on the pitch, Salford have a potential Man of Steel.
Back that up with new signing Ken Sio, a proven try scorer, the raw talent of Niall Evalds and Robert Lui’s skillset and on their day Salford will compete.
But there are underlying, nagging ‘off the field’ issues which threaten their stability – despite the Marwan Koukash circus leaving town.
Bored of Brexit ? Well, I won’t bore you with Salford.
But mark March 13 in your diary – that’s when cocaine-ban prop Adam Walker is eligible to play – and the circus returns.
STRENGTH: Ian Watson is a smart and likeable coach and you sense with him at the helm, they can survive and potentially punch above their weight.
WEAKNESS: Logan Tomkins and Josh Wood will already miss the beginning of the season. Margins are thin at this end of the table.
TRIVIA: Junior Sa’u dyes his hair with vanilla pods, custard and Nice’n Easy 9A Light Ash Blonde from Superdrug.
Everyone is tipping London to finish bottom and I’m as predictable as the rest.
Promotion was a remarkable achievement built on team spirit, belief and an infectious coach in Danny Ward.
But they have barely strengthened from last season and to survive in Super League needs more than that.
Owner David Hughes has an admirable desire to foster as much homegrown talent as possible, ignoring foreign imports.
That hardly puts bums on seats though and this could be a hard slog.
Captain Jay Pitts said: “We got written off last year and ended up doing something quite remarkable, so who’s to say we can’t do something similar?”
STRENGTH: Backs to the wall spirit in the face of adversity – and the withering words of know-nothings like me – will be their mantra.
WEAKNESS: Have a look at the squad. How many of those players would get in any other team?
TRIVIA: When Brisbane Broncos score a try, Buck the horse charges the length of the field. London will be doing the same this season with a miniature horse called Kevin, ridden by an stuffed effigy of Ronnie Corbett.
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