Talking RL: How I think Wigan Warriors and the other Super League clubs will go in 2019
Oh, the weather outside is frightful, which can only mean one thing... it’s time for the new ‘summer’ rugby league season to begin!
And while the promise it could be the ‘best season ever’ has been muttered so many times it has become a cliche, there seems a vibrancy this year which suggests, well, it may just be the best season ever.
New rules, new stars and a ‘new beginnings’ mantra – as Super League begins life away from the RFL’s control – has set a positive tone as Wigan and St Helens to launch the new campaign.
But who will be in the race for a top-five play-offs spot? And who will be battling against the threat of relegation? Here’s my prediction on how the 12 Super League clubs will get on...
Champions Wigan seem just as strong on paper, having replaced like-for-like, but the big unknown is what influence new coach Adrian Lam will have. The general consensus seems to be the Warriors will remain as strong as last year but may be overtaken by the likes of St Helens and Warrington.
Certainly, it’s hard looking beyond the north west triumvirate dominating proceedings.
I’m predicting Wigan to do well, but I do think they may be a work in progress, as Lam puts his fingerprints on the side and Zak Hardaker settles into his role. I look through the squad and I don’t see any notable weaknesses, even if I’d have been more comfortable with an additional back-rower on board. But I’m excited at the development of some of the younger players, and over a long season, Wigan’s strength in depth may prove vital when injuries bite as the season unfolds.
St Helens have lost the reigning Steve Prescott Man of Steel, in Ben Barba. But throw him on the scales of departures, and weigh it against their arrivals – Lachlan Coote (North Queensland), Kevin Naiqama (Wests Tigers), Joseph Paulo (Cronulla) – and they look like they have a stronger squad than in 2018.
And as for Warrington, the addition of Blake Austin seems to have convinced the bookmakers this really will be Warrington’s year.
Those who like to see Wigan trample over all-comers may be disappointed; those who enjoy tight battles, great games and quality players across the board should be in for a treat. If Wigan do finish with silverware in 2019, they will need to edge out some good sides. The play-offs has been expanded to five teams this season – and the format, favouring the top sides and with one dropping out each week, is terrific – and so who will be jostling for positions in the end-of-season party?
Leeds, for one.
They had a shocker last year but new coach Dave Furner has been given money to spend and has two marquee additions – Trent Merrin (Penrith) and Konrad Hurrell (Gold Coast) – as well as Tui Lolohea (Wests Tigers) on board. Throw in the noise and feelgood factor of a redeveloped Headingley, and the Rhinos should be a force once again.
So far, so safe – these predictions are similar to the bookmakers’ odds. But the bookies have Castleford as fifth favourites and Hull FC at sixth – whereas I expect both to be overtaken by Catalans.
Sure, they’ve failed to live up to past promises, but they had a taste of glory last year in the Challenge Cup and the type of players they’ve recruited (Sam Tomkins, to add to Micky McIlorum) should help eradicate their soft underbelly. I’m tipping the Dragons for a play-offs spot, especially as Castleford have been rocked by the pre-season loss of key man Luke Gale and there has been little turnover elsewhere, while Hull FC threatened an overhaul but have only tinkered with their side.
In addition, Lee Radford’s side may have a hangover from their alarming collapse last season. It wouldn’t surprise be if their city rivals Hull KR – with the guile of Josh Drinkwater and the class of Kane Linnett – overtake them and challenge around seventh spot.
Wakefield have punched above weight under Chris Chester and while I expect them to again be strong, they may just be overtaken by those around them, and while I’m intrigued to see Akuila Uate in Super League, I’m not convinced Huddersfield are any stronger
Which leaves two sides remaining, and one - remember - will be automatically relegated at the of the 29-round season.
Will it be a thrilling relegation battle? No. Salford have a decent top-squad but no depth, but should have too much to avoid being dragged into a fight for their top-flight survival – especially when London Broncos, winners of last year’s ludicrously-named Million Pound Game, have barely added to the squad which earned promotion.
The Broncos won only one game during their last season in Super League. I hope they surprise me. I fear they won’t.