This may or may not turn out to be the best Super League season so far, in terms of quality of play and appeal to a wider public. It is without doubt, though, the hardest to predict with any confidence. For every reason why a club should go well, there is a reason why they should not. It has the look of a campaign of contradictions.
It is possible to take two very different views of the prospects of the reigning champions. Before Bradford accounted for Wests Tigers last Friday, plenty of people were ready to predict that the Bulls would miss out on the play-offs.
That song is muted now, but there were good reasons why so many were singing it. Almost half a team has departed since the end of last season, mostly players young enough to improve. Those replacing them are, for the most part, getting towards the end of their careers. Jamie Peacock and Leon Pryce and the influential chairman, Chris Caisley, have gone and the coach, Brian Noble, could yet be lured to Australia.In the Bulls' last,triumphant season they were one of only two clubs whose gates went down as their debts went up.
On the other hand, Friday showed how resilient they are and Stuart Fielden's performance was so immense that he was immediately installed as favourite to be Man of Steel. Iestyn Harris looked as though he will blossom anew as captain.
We write them off at our peril, but if not Bradford, then who? St Helens won the League Leaders' Trophy last season and but for a creeping injury toll would probably have won the whole thing. They are the bookies' favourites this time.
And yet. Pryce at stand-off is a gamble; Darren Albert is no longer there to turn Jamie Lyon's breaks into tries; and Saints have yet to show they can drag back hopeless causes under Daniel Anderson the way they did under Ian Millward. Paul Sculthorpe startsunder an injury cloud.
Much of the other money is on Leeds, runners-up last year in League and Cup and stronger this time for the addition of Peacock and the development of young players like Lee Smith. There is a chance, however, that they could be a little short of authority up front.
The other members of the "Big Four" had a nightmarish season last time. With Millward imposing his vision, Wigan should be in no danger of missing the play-offs this year. They have recruited well and have a fine crop of kids. Injuries were their undoing in 2005, though, and fitness problems have already started to whittle down their numbers for the opening match.
The fate of the three new names in the competition will be pivotal. The Catalan Dragons cannot be relegated for three years, but no side marshalled by Stacey Jones or containing talent like Jamal Fakir should be in any danger of finishing last. The Perpignan-based side, though, are going into the unknown without a head coach - a ridiculous concept.
Castleford, back after a one-year absence, face an equally formidable challenge. They have focused recruitment on their pack, but lack depth at half-back.
The third new name is that of Harlequins RL, formerly the London Broncos, whose success is as important to Super League as that of the Catalans. Their new home at the Stoop gives them some stability and they look stronger than the side which made the play-offs last season.
The question is whether they have improved as much as some of their rivals. Warrington, for instance, have expanded in most departments, though Andrew Johns will not be around to galvanise the end of their season this time.
Hull, Challenge Cup winners but dumped embarrassingly out of the play-offs by Bradford, need to eliminate wild fluctuations in form. But Sid Domic will give them more firepower.
That leaves what might disrespectfully be termed the also-rans, although Huddersfield, with Robbie Paul on board, will hope to be far more than that; Salford have more depth; and Wakefield, with David Solomona's ball skills, will be capable of beating the best on their day.
Supercharged Dragons and Quins join old guard
Coach: Brian Noble.
Last season: Third in table; Grand Final winners.
Prospects: Will exceed some expectations by making play-offs.
One to watch: Karl Pryce. Can make up for the departure of his brother.
In: Marcus Bai, Chris McKenna (both Leeds), Adam Watene (Castleford), Terry Newton (Wigan), Stanley Gene, Marcus St Hilaire (both Huddersfield).
Out: Jamie Peacock (Leeds), Lee Radford (Hull), Leon Pryce (St Helens), Stuart Reardon, Rob Parker (both Warrington), Robbie Paul (Huddersfield), Karl Pratt (retired).
Coach: Terry Matterson.
Last season: Won National League One.
Prospects: Straight back down.
One to watch: Danny Nutley - Cas are relying on him to lead the way.
In: Danny Sculthorpe (Wigan, loan), Keith Mason (St Helens, loan), Danny Nutley, Ryan McGoldrick (both Cronulla), Willie Manu (St George-Illawarra), Matthew Whitaker, Gray Viane (both Widnes), Andy Bailey (Hull), Luke Dyer (Penrith), Richard Fa'aoso (Sydney), Ben Roarty (Huddersfield), Danny Ward (Leeds).
Out: Brad Davis, Michael Eagar, Adrian Vowles (all retired), Adam Watene (Bradford), Frank Watene (Dewsbury), Jon Hepworth (Leinster RU), Steve Crouch (released).
Coach: To be arranged.
Last season: French domestic competition.
Prospects: Strong enough at home to miss last place.
One to watch: Jamel Fakir - potentially destructive second-rower.
In: Stacey Jones (NZ Warriors), Jerome Guisset (Wigan), Ian Hindmarsh (Canberra), John Wilson (West Tigers), Alex Chan (Melbourne). Mark Hughes (Newcastle), Remy Casty (Lezignan), Freddie Zitter (Barrow).
Coach: Tony Rea.
Last season: Sixth.
Prospects: Might just miss the play-offs.
One to watch: Thomas Leuluai - back from his broken leg to add extra creativity.
In: Chad Randall (Manly), Pat Weisner (Halifax), Rikki Sherriffe (Huddersfield), David Mills (Widnes), Karl Temata (NZ Warriors), Tim Hartley (Salford), Daniel Heckenberg (Manly), Matt Gafa (Canberra).
Out: Francis Stephenson (Hull KR), Mark O'Halloran (Penrith), Dave Highton (retired), Feleti Mateo (Parramatta), Lee Sanderson (Rochdale), Jon Kirkpatrick (released), Steve Trindall (Whitehaven), Anthony Armour (released), Ade Adebisi (Hull, loan).
Coach: Jon Sharp.
Last season: Eighth.
Prospects: Short of play-offs again.
One to watch: Robbie Paul - a charismatic presence.
In: Robbie Paul (Bradford), Andy Raleigh (Hull KR), Steve Snitch (Wakefield), Steven Wild, Martin Aspinwall (both Wigan), Mat Gardner (Leeds), Albert Torrens (St George-Illawarra).
Out: Ben Roarty (Castleford), Ryan Clayton (Salford), Stanley Gene, Marcus St Hilaire (both Bradford), Lee Greenwood (Leigh), Iain Morrison (Hull KR), Rikki Sheriffe (Harlequins), Hefin O'Hare (Glasgow RU), Mick Slicker (retired), Paul White (Wakefield).
Coach: John Kear.
Last season: Fifth.
Prospects: Play-offs and dark horses for Grand Final.
One to watch: Sid Domic - ex-Warrington and Wakefield centre adds strike power.
In: Sid Domic (Wakefield), Lee Radford (Bradford), Ade Adebisi (Harlequins, loan).
Out: Stephen Kearney (retired), Richie Barnett (Warrington), Paul McNicholas (Doncaster), Andy Bailey (Castleford).
Coach Tony Smith.
Last season Second in table and beaten Grand Finalists.
Prospects As big a threat this time.
One to watch Jamie Peacock - Huge signing to add fire-power in the pack.
In: Jamie Peacock (Bradford), Shane Millard (Widnes), Scott Donald (Manly), Mark O'Neill (West Tigers), Ian Kirke (York), Nathan McAvoy (Salford).
Out: Andrew Dunemann (Salford), Mark Calderwood (Wigan), Chris McKenna, Marcus Bai (both Bradford), Barrie McDermott, Francis Cummins (both retired), Danny Ward (released), Mat Gardner (Huddersfield), Scott Murrell (Hull KR).
Coach: Daniel Anderson.
Last season: League leaders but knocked out of play-offs.
Prospects: Clear favourites to regain their title.
One to watch: Leon Pryce - must click at stand-off.
In: Leon Pryce (Bradford), Jason Cayless (Sydney), Francis Meli (NZ Warriors).
Out: Mick Higham (Wigan), Darren Albert (Cronulla), Mark Edmondson (Sydney), Keith Mason (Castleford, loan).
SALFORD CITY REDS
Coach: Karl Harrison.
Last season: Ninth.
Prospects: A lack of depth means they will do well to finish as high again.
One to watch: John Wilshere - a shining light for Leigh playing in a variety of positions last year.
In: Andrew Dunemann (Leeds), Aaron Moule, Simon Finnigan, Stephen Myler (all Widnes), Ryan Clayton (Huddersfield), John Wilshere (Leigh).
Out: Cliff Beverley, Andy Johnson (both retired), Nathan McAvoy (Leeds), Mark Shipway (released), Tim Hartley (Harlequins), Neil Baynes (Whitehaven), Stuart Dickens (Featherstone).
WAKEFIELD TRINITY WILDCATS
Coach: Tony Smith.
Last season: 10th.
Prospects: Should have too much quality in the pack to struggle again.
One to watch: Paul White - lightning-fast utility player in search of regular role.
In: Ned Catic (Sydney), Monty Betham (NZ Warriors), Austin Buchanan (York), Jon Whittle (Widnes), Paul White (Huddersfield).
Out: Sid Domic (Hull), Steve Snitch (Huddersfield), Rob Spicer (York), Michael Wainwright (Batley).
Coach: Paul Cullen.
Last season: Fourth.
Prospects: Extra quality could see them go even higher.
One to watch: Paul Rauhihi - guaranteed to add authority to an impressive pack.
In: Stuart Reardon, Rob Parker (both Bradford), Paul Rauhihi (North Queensland), Michael Sullivan (Cronulla), Richie Barnett (Hull).
Out: Daryl Cardiss, Graham Appo (both released), Warren Stevens, Dean Gaskell (both Leigh), Nathan Wood (retired), Jamie Durbin (Doncaster).
Coach: Ian Millward.
Last season: Seventh.
Prospects: Back in the play-offs as Millward puts his stamp on the team.
One to watch: Mark Calderwood - natural try-scorer if he gets the service.
In: Pat Richards (West Tigers), Mark Calderwood (Leeds), Mick Higham (St Helens), Iafeta Palea'aesina (NZ Warriors), Scott Logan, Bryan Fletcher (both South Sydney).
Out: Terry Newton (Bradford), Brian Carney (Newcastle), Stephen Wild, Martin Aspinwall (both Huddersfield), James Coyle, Bob Beswick, David Allen (all Widnes), Jerome Guisset (Catalans), Danny Sculthorpe (Castleford).Reuse content