From Super League’s changes to the Challenge Cup controversy, Phil Wilkinson picks out 19 hopes for the 2019 rugby league year...
1 Catalans made history and won the Challenge Cup last year. And now they may not defend their crown because they have been told to put up a £500,000 bond. Toulouse and Toronto are also missing from this year’s knock-out competition because they were also hit with the demand – for fear they progressed far in the competition.
It is a situation many players, fans and commentators find astonishing, and made rugby league a laughing stock again. And hopefully it can be resolved – a competition without the champions defending their crown seems ridiculous.
Last year’s double-header semi-final day was great, and should be repeated.
But ahead of a move to a July final in 2020, this hope is straight-forward – a well-promoted, well-supported cracker of a final. And if Catalans are again at Wembley, then they’ve earned that right!
2 Ian Lenagan described the changes to Super League – new administration, new structure, new rule changes – as a “reboot”. Let’s hope it works.
Opinion is divided on specific points – relegation, a 29-round season, golden-point – but there seemed more consensus that the competition had gone stale. That something needed to be done. Last year’s Super League average crowd of 8,547 was down on the 10,000-plus three years earlier.
Super League are already promoting the upcoming campaign as a ‘new beginning’, and hopefully the off-field bickering is over, and players deliver on the field. Let’s not forget the reason why changes have been made – to put the competition in a stronger bargaining position over the next TV deal, the lifeblood for the sport.
3 There is something else new to this Super League season - the return of London Broncos.
They beat Toronto in a try-less Million Pound Game last year to replace Widnes in the top-flight. Coach Danny Ward has worked wonders with the capital’s outfit, and the club – now based in Ealing – should be applauded for their development work.
But with little recruitment in the off-season, there are fears their return to the top-flight will be a cameo. Let’s hope they are more competitive than their last Super League campaign, when they won just one game.
4 Many fans are waiting for authorities put some flesh on the bones of the international calendar – and fast.
We’re told the revived Nines World Cup will take place over the weekend of October 16-17 but we have no venues or dates of this autumn’s internationals – including the revived Great Britain’s tour Down Under which, sadly, does not look like it will include a Test against Australia.
We’re talking 10 months away – many supporters want to book flights!
5 Mentioning Great Britain, let’s hope enough Welsh and Scottish-qualified players do well enough – and stay injury-free – to deserve a spot, and ensure it’s not just an England team playing under a different banner.
Wigan prop Ben Flower has already declared his ambition to take part, and St Helens winger Regan Grace could be another obvious shout.
6 Wigan have already set out their marker that they want a sell-out for their World Club Challenge against Sydney Roosters next month. Let’s hope they get it – and that fans are treated to a thriller.
Yet again, the WCC was organised late-on by the two clubs involved – it needs some longer-term planning from Super League and the NRL.
The fact there are two Super League fixtures taking part on the same day Wigan play takes some of the shine off the showcase event – and denies some ‘neutral’ fans the chance to watch it.
7 The Warriors will make history when they face Catalans in Barcelona’s iconic Camp Nou. The Dragons have a chance to widen their footprint in Catalonia, and the event has the prospect of making some noise for Super League over here.
This being rugby league, even this bold venture has its critics, with some grouches already saying the venue won’t be full (which seems a given, considering the record attendance for a Super League game is 25,000, around a quarter of the capacity of Barcelona FC’s home).
But this has the potential to be a qualified-success, an event which will be well remembered – and for fans travelling from England, it should be easier to reach.
8 In the Championship, let’s hope Toronto don’t lose heart by their treatment in the Cup this year and their failure to gain promotion at the end of last year.
Here’s to Widnes rebuilding, Bradford and York continuing to make progress, Leigh getting back on their feet – and the signs so far are encouraging – and there are no more instances of teams being unable to field 17 players!
9 Super League has attracted some quality overseas stars for 2019, including Blake Austin (Warrington), Kevin Naiqama (St Helens) and Leeds trio Tui Lolohea, Trent Merrin and Konrad Hurrell.
They have the potential to light up the competition – let’s hope they deliver, and let’s hope others make use of the marquee player allowance.
10 Mentioning marquee players, Sam Tomkins has left Wigan to join Catalans – can he help the French club become a force in Super League?
Yes, they have a Challenge Cup win, but in the league they have often promised so much and failed to deliver.
Sam’s capture could be significant in propelling them into a solid, top-five side. It could be tight at the top.
11 It is no over-statement to say Sam’s replacement at Wigan – Zak Hardaker – heads into the season with more than a point to prove.
He has not only missed an entire year because of a doping ban, but he had a drink-drive episode to deal with, too. His return to pre-season training was delayed while he received treatment at the Sporting Chance clinic.
Let’s hope he has his issues in check, and he can pick up where he left off.
In all the off-field drama, it is easy to forget how good Zak is.
He has already won one Steve Prescott Man of Steel, been shortlisted for another, and at 27, there is no reason why he can’t get back to his brilliant best.
12 Every player has their own motivations, but without going through the Wigan squad, let’s hope Jake Shorrocks can get back to his best.
In 2016, he burst on the scene and played a significant role in their charge towards the Grand Final – only missing out at the 11th hour when Sean O’Loughlin recovered from injury in time.
But since then, he has played just once for Wigan – when he suffered a serious, season-ending knee injury – and by his own admission he failed to fire on loan for Salford last season.
13 Salford pulled off a coup by signing Jackson Hastings for 2019, following his hugely-successful stint at the club during the Qualifiers last season. But League Weekly reported last week that cash-flow problems had prompted the club to request an advance of central monies at an Emergency General Meeting of all 12 Super League clubs. Hopefully they have a grip of the situation – and there are no more financial issues.
14 Hull FC were dismal at the back end of last season, losing 11 straight games including an 80-10 drubbing by Warrington. Owner Adam Pearson reacted by saying they would move players on and bring in “three or four proper signings”. This has failed to happen, and FC have doubts over a handful of players who have yet to recover. Until last year, FC – Challenge Cup winners in 2016 and 2017 – had threatened to become a serious, top Super League side; will their largely-unchanged squad fare better in 2019 than last season?
15 Adrian Lam has said he want to introduce a bit of flair to Wigan’s attack.
He has a wealth of experience working with top-quality players in the NRL and with the Australia national team, and fans will be hoping he can deliver on his promise – if not at first, then at least once combinations have settled and the pitches have dried up.
Given the way other clubs have strengthened, Wigan may need to improve if they are to successfully defend a Super League title for the first time.
16 The BBC needs to add sparkle to its Super League highlights show, but its coverage of the Challenge Cup and England’s Test series last year was outstanding.
Sky Sports needs to raise its game.
Its golden point segment was welcomed last season, but so much more can be done – both in terms of the quality of coverage on match days, to featuring Super League in its trailers and news segments.
17 Whatever your view of boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, he made a good point when he told GQ Magazine: “I follow sport, but I couldn’t tell you one rugby league player.”
Super League has plenty of personalities but we need to see more of them come to the fore.
And clubs need to help – while some are media-friendly and keen to promote their stars (Wigan, Leeds and Warrington are arguably the best) there are others far less accommodating.
On this point, it’s great to see Anthony Gelling back on these shores, even if it is at Championship club Widnes rather than in the top-flight.
18 The Magic Weekend will have a new home in 2019 – Liverpool.
This will be the third time Anfield has hosted the sport in four years, following Tests in 2016 and 2018 which seemed well-received.
But some of Magic’s appeal is the atmosphere around the games and the ground – Newcastle ticked those boxes – and it remains to be seen how well the ‘on the road’ weekend goes on Merseyside. Here’s hoping it is a huge success.
19 Last month, England’s academy side stunned the touring Australian Schoolboys by claiming a 2-0 series win. Proof, if it was needed, this country has the young talent.
How depressing, then, that they don’t have the pathway to progress to Super League level, after hopes a competitive reserve competition would be revived crumbled.
Wigan executive director Kris Radlinski says it is “crazy” that reserves is not mandatory.
Instead, it is left up to clubs to decide whether they want to develop youngsters, and not surprisingly many decide to spend their money elsewhere – leaving players over 19 to try and develop and impress while on dual-registration for lower league clubs.
It is, frankly, shameful.
Hopefully, the situation will be resolved – once and for all – this year.