The 18th man column: ‘This is Sam Tomkins’ biggest year of his career’

Sam Tomkins scored a try in the friendly at Leigh
Sam Tomkins scored a try in the friendly at Leigh

Our 18th man columnists pick out players to watch, teams to fear, and address the Super-8s structure...

Which player are you most looking forward to watching this season (Wigan or otherwise)?

Sean Lawless: The player I am most looking forward to watching this year is Sam Tomkins.

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It’s the biggest year of his career to date for many reasons. But, with a full preseason behind him and a very sharp preseason game at Leigh to whet the appetite, he could very well be back to his best!

David Bailey: This was a close call and I almost went with my Cherry and White glasses on and plumped for Morgan Escare. I just think he has that X factor and I am hoping that he can have an injury free season. He gets people on the edge of their seats like Jason Robinson used to (and Sam in his prime for that matter) but I am going to be controversial and say Ben Barba. I think his Saints career will make or break him. If he succeeds then Super League have a top player looking for a return ticket to Australia so we should enjoy him while we can. If he fails, then that’s surely great for any Wigan fans.

Robert Kenyon: Morgan Escare. He was great to watch for the early part of last season until injury finished his season.

In years gone by other teams would have a big name come over from the NRL which you’d look forward to watching too e.g. Jamie Lyon, Tonie Carroll, Jason Smith, etc but nowadays there aren’t many players from other clubs I’m bothered about watching. I’d be interested to see how Micky McIllorum, Lewis Tierney, Nick Gregson and Kyle Shelford get on, for obvious reasons. And I’d like to see Matty Smith get back his confidence (a lot of Saints fans are on his back however I rate him highly), but not when we play Saints.

Jon Lyon: The most intriguing player at Wigan this season will be Sam Tomkins. After his first full pre-season in years and finally injury free, will he show us the skills we know he has more consistently. Sam must be under huge pressure to perform after his mixed time back at Wigan so far, while he hasn’t been as bad as many will make out, he certainly hasn’t justified the hype of his return. Be it in the halves or at fullback, I think he will be vital to Wigan’s success this year and I expect him to excel. Form is temporary, class is permanent.

Ben Reid: It’s tough to pick out a single player this year. There are quite a few at Wigan alone that I’m looking forward to seeing, and even more so out and across the league in general. I think we’re in for a real quality season in 2018, with a range of talent on show. Before I get into the one I’m most looking forward to, a little mention to Gabe Hamlin – who I’m hoping gets more than a few minutes in cherry and white this season. I think this season is going to be a huge one for Sam Tomkins. This may seem like a real obvious pick for some - but in actual fact, he’s not been anywhere near his top game since he returned from the NRL. This year he’s going to be playing at fullback and in the halves, so he’ll have to change his style up a lot, and hopefully start a great partnership with George Williams, while fighting Morgan Escaré for that fullback position.

Darren Wrudd: This season I feel that it will be like having several new and exciting signings at the DW.

So many of our players have had a really good pre season for the first time in several years due to injury or international pressure. This means that we should see a real energy boost and hit the ground running. Sam Tomkins is one for me who should light up the league this year and I am hoping that he is not moved around the field mid game to accommodate others or it may really upset the flow. Ben Flower too is someone I have really missed. His uncompromising, no nonsense style really takes me back and he was dearly missed in 2017.

Who will be Wigan’s biggest challengers for silverware this year?

Sean Lawless: Wigan’s biggest challengers for silverware will be those that play on the wrong side of Billinge Hill. Saints have a very strong squad and looked to be settled now after Justin Holbrook took over from Cunningham part way through 2017. The addition of a fully fit Ben Barba to their ranks is exciting and frightening and I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the two major finals contested by Wigan and St Helens in 2018.

David Bailey: It is always foolish to write off Leeds and St Helens, as they have been there and done it (as a club) but I think Leeds are in transition and Saints can be hit and miss. I think Warrington have recruited well, both on and off the pitch and will start to climb back towards the top, Castleford will surprise me if they manage to reach the heights of last season, as I think they will miss Hardaker immensely and Gale isn’t the same without him, but the club that I think will be serious contenders will be Hull. They have cracked the Challenge Cup now and have a well-balanced, powerful athletic squad, and a great kicking game so they will be the ones to watch in my opinion.

Robert Kenyon: Saints, Cas, Warrington, Leeds and Hull. In that order. But it all depends on injuries.

Jon Lyon: Whilst St Helens and Castleford seem the most obvious choices to rival us for trophies, I think it may finally, dare I say it, be Warrington’s year. They have lost a lot of players, but their recruitment has been excellent. Bryson Goodwin is a very dependable player who can cover anywhere in the back line. Tyrone McCarthy is an enthusiastic half back coming into his prime who should combine well with either Kevin Brown or Dec Patton and create and score tries aplenty. The final piece in the jigsaw could well be Ben Murdoch-Masila, who has been a beast for Salford and will form a very exciting and pacey back row with Jack Hughes and Ben Currie. If they can keep their first team fit they will prove very hard to beat... except in the Grand Final!

Ben Reid: It pains me to say it, but I feel St Helens are the team to beat this season. When they brought Justin Holbrook in part way through the 2017 season, it was clear to see what he was going to bring back to them the glory days. He has them playing in a much better style of rugby, and the players seemed to click with him early doors. However, I do think this year will be a close one, with many sides fighting for that top spot. Saints have not signed anyone in the off-season, and you could argue they didn’t need to either. They seem to be going with a lot of youth this year, and that should be exciting for the fans. I can’t wait for the Wigan/Saints games this year, I think they could be better than ever before. People keep writing us off, and they shouldn’t – I fancy us to have a real good year in 2018 - hopefully finishing with a trophy in the cabinet.

Darren Wrudd: I think it will be the usual suspects.

Leeds have made a tough journey and come through it very strong indeed and no doubt will feel they have a right to compete. It will be interesting to see how Castleford go in 2018 too. Will they be one hit wonders and will the disappointing memory of Grand final defeat linger and spoil their party this year?

I think they fell in a heap under the pressure of such high hopes and will be keen not to earn the badge like Warrington that it might be their year, again.

Should this be the last season played under the Super-8s format?

Sean Lawless: This should, 100 per cent be the last season played in the Super 8 format. There have been some positives for example one may argue that the Million Pound Game has added a jeopardy to proceedings - whether fair or unfair. But I think there are too many negatives for the clubs to carry on with the Super 8 format.

The biggest and simplest issue being season tickets and the lack of knowing when your side will be playing and against whom after July.

David Bailey: I suppose the question is, what format would be better than the Super 8s?

Although it doesn’t generate much excitement during the regular season at the top of the table, it certainly does for the middle 8’s and the million pound game. If the format was to return to the top five in the playoffs, league leaders get a home semi, and then a second chance for the top three, then I would prefer that than the current system but there has to be a structure to promotion and relegation too.

Robert Kenyon: 100 per cent yes. I’m so glad Nigel Wood has gone and I hope his gimmicks go too.

All I want from the league is for each team to play each other twice (home and away). Winner of league goes straight to Grand Final, two plays three for other spot. One up, one down promotion and relegation, Challenge Cup back to May.

I want to see Magic Weekend move to August Bank Holiday weekend and to be a nines comp, incorporate Lancs v Yorks game for retired players into that weekend. I’d like to see Championship clubs involved too somehow whether it be a final or two to four clubs join the nines comp.

Super 8s, I absolutely hate them. It’s tough enough to get new fans watching the game but it’s even harder when you’ve got to explain how the Super 8s work. Another silly gimmick in my opinion.

Jon Lyon: I’m a fan of the Super 8s format. Whilst there will always be some meaningless games towards the end of a season, there seem far fewer with this format. If teams aren’t happy at missing out on the top eight or having to play in the million pound game, well tough, you should have done better throughout the season. One change I would consider is everyone starting afresh when the Super 8s starts. If one team, such as Castleford are so far ahead they can’t realistically be caught it does render some matches worthless, but the top teams are given the easier fixtures for the ’s so have that advantage, so why not start everyone from scratch? Pretty much every game would matter, and surely if a team is top they only deserve to win the League Leaders Shield if they can carry that form on through a whole season.

Ben Reid: This is one of the more debatable topics within rugby league at the minute – and has been since its introduction back in 2015. The concept behind it was sound, and at the time it got fans excited. Making every game, and minute count - as you couldn’t risk losing too may and finishing in the bottom four where you’d end up in a relegation battle. However, the last two years, it’s really started to go downhill, and many of the fans want it changed. I do believe we need a new system. I don’t understand why we can’t have ‘normal’ seasons across the leagues, where there is a promotion and relegation system. As a season ticket holder, one thing that always puts you off the Super 8s, is not knowing who’ll you’ll be playing at home – so is it worth the risk of buying a season ticket for £200+ not knowing if you’ll see your side play Widnes/Wakefield or Saints/Warrington at home.

Darren Wrudd: Not a fan of the Super-8s myself. Too many games, too contrived a concept. Another gimmick on the table from the RFL.

It should be very simple really. Bottom in Super League and top in Championship have a week’s rest, then play off for Super League place providing the lower club passes scrutiny for the competition. Super League playoffs, top team gets to Grand Final automatically then has a week off to see who joins them between places 2nd and 3rd, whom play off for the chance to go to Old Trafford.

We cane our players in our competition as it is. I know finances come into it a lot, but how are we going to improve standards if we work our teams too hard. Less games is the way forward.