With a month to go until the start of the new Super League season, Phil Wilkinson picks out five reasons to be excited... and five issues to be concerned about.
First, here are five things which offer me hope of an exciting campaign ahead...
The Tomkins brothers firing again:
Both Sam and Joel have been hampered by injuries since returning from spells in the NRL and union respectively.
Forward Joel played just 10 games last season, several of those in the middle – a role he may gravitate towards as he enters the final phase of his career.
Now he has had surgery on both knees – and reports he is flying in pre-season – it would be great to see him firing again in a strong-looking pack.
The quality last year was, at best, patchy. Between the flashpoints was a lot of mediocrity
Sam will miss the start of 2017 as he recovers from a broken foot – the second pre-season spent sidelined by injury, following a knee problem a year ago.
His form in 2016 was solid but he didn’t have the same sparkle and speed as his previous time at the club. Cruelly, his best game was his last, in the comeback win at Warrington – niggling, threatening and tenacious – hinting at a strong finish to the year and possible England honours.
But fate intervened and he ended the campaign as he started it – on the sidelines.
The prospect of a fully-fit Sam Tomkins attacking Super League defences is an exciting one.
There’s little pressure on Romain Navarrete. He only made his Super League debut for Catalans a year ago, and he is very much a ‘project player’.
Coach Shaun Wane has an impressive track record at unearthing and polishing rough diamonds (think Ben Flower, Anthony Gelling, Dan Sarginson), but they need time to develop.
Morgan Escare, on the other hand, has four years of frontline experience under his belt and has carved out a reputation as one of Super League’s most exciting attacking talents.
His scorching pace, as well as the return of Joe Burgess, should increase the potency of the Warriors backline.
And when Sam Tomkins is fit, Wane will need to find a way to accommodate both full-backs in his squad – a nice dilemma to have.
World Club Challenge:
Wigan haven’t won the title since 1994 and, on top of that, have successive losses against Brisbane in the expanded World Club Series fresh in their memory.
At a packed DW Stadium next month, against a Cronulla team not used to playing on these shores, they have a great chance to restore some Super League pride against the NRL champions.
Cronulla, who ended their trophy drought last October by beating Melbourne, have Kangaroos Paul Gallen and Valentine Holmes in their squad, but victory is not beyond Wigan’s grasp.
And Wane has marked this game – their first at the DW in 2017 – as one he is desperate to chalk off. The WCC has eluded him as a coach. Expect fireworks.
A competitive league:
Wigan will start the new campaign as favourites and given their recruitment – and the lack of movement elsewhere – it’s understandable.
Encouragingly, they will start the new season with a strong squad free from many injuries.
Warrington, who reached two finals last year and won the League Leaders’ Shield, should remain a force despite the exit of Chris Sandow and an injury to Ben Currie, which keeps him sidelined until late summer. England internationals Chris Hill and Stefan Ratchford are also recovering.
Elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine Leeds enduring another car-crash campaign, Huddersfield will also look to improve on last year and newcomers Leigh have assembled a handy-looking squad.
If Hull FC remain the force they were last year, St Helens punch to weight and Castleford and Catalans stay in the mix, there could be a real jostle for spots at the top end of the competition.
The World Cup:
The last two World Cups have been fantastic events, great to watch, and this end-of-season tournament should be no different.
And who knows? England may just surprise us along the way.
Fans also have a Test between England and Samoa, in Australia in May, to look forward to.
So far, so good. Not to blow away all the optimism – but here are five areas of possible concern...
A World Club Series whitewash:
While a win would give Super League’s reputation a much-needed shot in the arm, defeat would be demoralising.
The extended series has already been pruned back from three games to two, following six NRL victories from as many games in two years. And if Brisbane and Cronulla beat Warrington and Wigan respectively next month, don’t be shocked to see the concept’s future brought into question.
At the very least, it may only survive as a stand-alone fixture between the champions from each hemisphere. Leeds were the last Super League outfit to win the World Club Challenge, beating Manly five years ago.
Punishing May schedule:
The traditional Easter schedule has its critics – playing two games over one weekend – and this year there is an extra ‘double-header’ in May as well.
Super League clubs play two games over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, with Wigan facing St Helens (Thursday May 25) and Wakefield the following Monday – the same opposition they face over the Easter weekend in early April. Ironically, the extra congestion was to accommodate an England training camp this month – which has since been scrapped!
And leading clubs will face an extra hurdle to overcome in May, with England expected to face Samoa in Sydney, meaning Test players could miss two club games.
A poor season:
The quality last year was, at best, patchy. There was some terrific entertainment but between those flashpoints, there was a lot of mediocrity.
And with many big-names returning to the NRL, two form wingers leaving for union, and few stars coming in, there is a risk it will drop another notch in 2017.
Last year, many attributed the poor campaign to the Super 8s structure, but surely, organisers can only contrive so much excitement. A rubbish game is a rubbish game under any concept, right?
Interestingly, the Super-8s structure will be reviewed at the end of this season; it remains to be seen whether the system will be changed at the end of the year.
More health scares:
One of the biggest stories of last week was the demise of Bradford Bulls.
Over Christmas, we learned Sheffield Eagles will play home games out of, erm, Wakefield. At a stadium described as an “eyesore” by an “embarrassed” Wakefield chairman Michael Carter last week.
Before that, we had the legal row after Man of Steel Denny Solomona walking out on Castleford. Which are stories we won’t hear being discussed on Boots ‘n All, because that was axed last year.
Scratch the surface, and you will find an Under-19s/reserve system which is inadequate. Super League clubs aren’t compelled to run academies, and at least two won’t have Under-19s sides this year.
Throw it all together, and it paints a depressing picture about the health of the sport.
No more bad news, please.
England bombing at the World Cup:
There are many senior officials, at clubs and the RFL, who believe an England triumph in the World Cup would be a tipping point for the sport in this country. A seismic achievement which would help league break through into the mainstream.
Which may be true.
But after England’s dismal Four Nations, what would another poor showing do?
At the very least, it would give the Aussies more ammunition to criticise Super League (regardless of how many players ply their trade in the NRL).
Wayne Bennett has a big job to do. Another repeat showing would be tough to stomach.