Ahead of the new season, our rugby league writers Phil Wilkinson, Tom McCooey and Tony Gleave give their opinions on the burning questions...
Who are the favourites?
PW: Wigan. They won the competition last year, have recruited well, have a clutch of injured players back fit and none of their rivals have strengthened significantly. Crucially, they also have the depth to cope with the more congested season.
TG: Wigan are topping the bookmakers’ lists as favourites to top the league, and to be back at Old Trafford to defend their crowd, and it’s hard to argue against them. Any Shaun Wane-coached side will be there or thereabouts when the big games come around, and with some astute additions to the squad the Warriors should be the team to beat this season.
TM: Based on recruitment, replacing departures with like-for-like or better, you’d have to say Wigan. While Dan Sarginon, Josh Charnley, Matty Smith, Dom Crosby and Lee Mossop are undoubtedly high-profile departures, I can’t see any of them being missed. That’s not to say Wigan won’t have a job defending their title.
Who will push them close?
Cronulla are champions for a reason, but there is a train of thought they will be easier to beat than, say, Brisbane or MelbournePhil Wilkinson
PW: Warrington. They had a good 2016 and will be a force again. But they be slow out of the blocks with key players Ben Currie and Chris Hill injured, and new stand-off Kevin Brown settling in.
TG: Warrington should again be Wigan’s main challengers as they look to finally get the monkey off their back and win a Grand Final title – could it be their year?
Again most of last season’s squad has been retained that topped the league and got to both major finals and with Kevin Brown coming in for Chris Sandow the Warriors v Wolves clashes should be the must-see games again in 2017.
TM: The usual suspects will be eyeing up a challenge. Warrington are always threatening it’s going to be their year, aren’t they?
Leeds will be a big threat after last season’s disappointment, they will be a different team in 2017, and will have no problem reaching the top four. As for Saints, they’re going to be better than the first half of last season, but I still think they’ll fall short of reaching a final.
Any dark horses in the end-of-season top-four?
PW: Castleford. Denny Solomona’s controversial exit has grabbed the headlines but Zak Hardaker, Greg Eden and Jesse Sene-Lefao are exciting recruits.
TG: I still see the usual suspects of the big names – Wigan, Warrington, Saints, Hull and Leeds – fighting it out for the top four this season.
Maybe Castleford should be the best of the rest and although their progress under Daryl Powell has been impressive in the last few season I am still not convinced they will make the top four.
TM: I very much doubt will see a deviation from Wigan, St Helens, Leeds and Warrington.
How will Leigh fare?
PW: Well. They have a tough start and, with no reserves, may rely on luck with injuries, but they certainly have a squad capable of mixing it up. Can they make the top-eight when the competition splits? It’s not beyond them, but Salford may just edge them into a safe spot.
TG: When Leigh have the first choice team on the field I expect them to ruffle a few feathers and claim a few scalps – and maybe some notable ones at that – on their return to Super League. I think their problems may come if they suffer any key injuries and whether their squad players can cope with the demands of the elite competition week in week out. I can’t see them making the top eight but should negotiate the middle 8s to retain their Super League status.
TM: They’ll get found out. It’s one thing storming into the qualifiers on the back of a strong season, but the weekly grind of Super League is very different. They will be in the qualifiers again this season.
Pick the bottom four?
PW: Widnes, Wakefield, Huddersfield and Leigh.
TG: I agree – the same four.
TM: No-one expected Huddersfield and Leeds to be down there last year, and I think there may be another big club slide into the mix – and I think that club may be Hull FC. I expect Widnes, Leigh and Wakefield to be there, too.
Who has recruited the best/worst?
PW: Best? Wigan. Thomas Leuluai, Joe Burgess and Morgan Escare have more than off-set their losses. Todd Carney will add class to a Salford side with plenty of entertaining players – Justin Carney, Robert Lui and Junior Sau. And it will be interesting to see how Kevin Brown does behind a dominant Warrington pack. Worst? Huddersfield have brought in five players from Championship club Bradford, and Leeds and Widnes have been surprisingly quiet.
TG: Have Widnes actually signed anyone? I think Wigan have done well, with the return of Leuluai and Burgess, and if Escare can improve his game at the DW he can be a really exciting player to watch.
TM: I agree about those three, and I’m looking forward to seeing Romain Navarrete, too. I like seeing Shaun Wane’s project players develop – look at Anthony Gelling. Warrington have also brought in heavy artillery in Mike Cooper, Dom Crosby and Andre Savelio, as well as Kevin Brown.
Hull FC have suffered some high-profile departures and not sufficiently replaced them, it makes you wonder if they’ll struggle to reach the heights of their 2016.
Which player currently not in the England side will command a spot in the World Cup side?
PW: Sam Tomkins. Expect him to roar back to his best and reclaim his No.1 England shirt. And Warrington’s Ben Currie will be back fit in the summer – surely he will be knocking on the door.
TG: Time for George Williams to step up and make the number six shirt his own for the World Cup and for many years to come.
TM: Of those overlooked so far, St Helens prop Kyle Amor – if only to boost beard numbers!
And if Joel Tomkins and Micky McIlorum can get back to how we know they can play, they will be knocking on the door.
Which NRL signing are you most looking forward to seeing?
PW: There haven’t been many to choose from, but Greg Bird was a terrific player for Catalans in his last stint – a lot will rely on his service – and I like watching Sam Moa’s cannonball drives.
TG: Sadly the days of a Trent Barrett, Matt King or Jamie Lyon plying their trade in Super League seem long gone. Now we seem to get older players, players returning from injury or relative unknowns making the trip and that’s the case again this year. Jesse Sene-Lafoa at Castleford has the sort of name who you think will be good to watch – we will find out!
TM: Without wanting to sound biased, I can’t wait to see Tommy Leuluai back in Super League.
Remember the hit he put on Maurie Faasavalu in 2008? There were glimpses of Leuluai aiming up similar shots against Catalans at the weekend, and hopefully there’ll be plenty of them this season. Elsewhere, I’ve heard promising things about Huddersfield’s new full-back Jake Mamo, though he’s got an ankle injury from a car accident.
How do you think Warrington and Wigan will get on against Brisbane and Cronulla respectively in the World Club Series?
PW: Currie, Hill and Stefan Ratchford are big absences for Warrington, who may struggle. Cronulla are champions for a reason, but there is a train of thought they will be easier to beat than, say, Brisbane or Melbourne, who have travelled to these shores more frequently and are used to the conditions. Fingers crossed they both do well – the future of the concept, certainly in its extended format, may rest on the results.
TG: They are three big absences for the Wolves, so I see the Broncos being too strong at the HJ.
Australian clubs have had the upper hand recently in the World Club but think Wigan will certainly give the Sharks a ding-dong battle on a cold February afternoon at the DW.
TM: We’ve seen first hand at the DW what Brisbane are capable of. Warrington are a good side but I can’t see Brisbane losing at the HJ. As for Wigan, this is by far their best chance of winning a World Club since they played St George Illawarra in 2011.
The Super-8s structure will be reviewed this year. Keep it, tweak it, or change it?
PW: Tweak it. Some people are too obsessed with making every game count for something – in other sports and other leagues, it’s a given that some games are meaningless. The Super-8s model can’t be blamed for a lack of quality – and remember, under the old system, we had more one-sided games (with 14 teams), the play-offs was too generous (as a top-eight) and too flabby (over four weeks). But the Million Pound Game, while dramatic, doesn’t sit comfortably with me.
TG: It certainly needs a tweak in my view. Hull KR were relegated last season and they didn’t even finish bottom of Super League, and then they finished fourth in the Qualifiers, or Middle 8s – so did they deserve to be relegated for losing the one-off ludicrously named Million Pound game after a whole season when they weren’t the worst side in the competition? I’m not too sure. Perhaps Tokyo, Moscow and Dubai can join Toronto and create a world Super League playing in the hot summer months with a razzmatazz atmosphere, now where have we heard ideas like that before?
TM: I didn’t like the Super-8s when it came in, and while it isn’t perfect, it has grown on me.
I don’t think there is an ideal solution. No sport’s system is spot on, and the closest we ever got to a great play-off system was the top five. I’d like to see rugby league stick with the systems they’ve got now, the constant changing is tiring.