Cardiff derbies and full-time refs? It's the league of innovation

Changes to the Super League mean this season is certain to be like no other that has gone before, writes Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

If rugby is a game played by men with odd-shaped balls, then the Super League variety tends to come in odd-shaped packages.

The 12th season of the competition, which starts in earnest tonight, is no exception. There will be 27 rounds - one less than last year - and one of them will be played in its entirety in Cardiff.

Each club will play one other club four times and, just to keep everyone on their toes, Huddersfield and St Helens started a week early last weekend. That was to enable Saints to play Brisbane in the World Club Challenge in two weeks' time - a contest which acts as a reminder of how they dominated 2006.

They may do the same in 2007, but there are reasons for arguing that they might not, not least that Saints' four games are against a (presumably) resurgent Wigan, whereas Hull - their closest challengers last time - play promoted Hull KR four times.

It is an obviously distorting factor and one that will cause grumbling, but Super League fixtures are like fingerprints; no one set is ever exactly the same as another. This variant was the price paid to persuade clubs to play one of their derbies at the Millennium Stadium.

Going to Cardiff is a bold move that deserves to succeed and the rationale behind it runs on several levels. Although the Challenge Cup final (presumably) goes back to Wembley this year, the experience of taking it "on the road" and particularly to the Welsh capital has been too good to abandon.

The whole project chimes with the eventual ambition to have a Super League club in South Wales. All that it needs to justify the experiment is for the supporters of all 12 existing clubs to turn up in May.

In general, they have been turning up at their own grounds, with tonight's near-full house for Wigan versus Warrington a case in point. These are two clubs starting the season full of hope, partly on the back of some ambitious recruitment, with Trent Barrett at Wigan and Adrian Morley at the Wolves heading the lists of newcomers.

The Rugby League and Super League have declared their intention of reducing the numbers of foreigners in the competition. That is a long-term aspiration, so there will be no immediate difference. For now, much of the interest in the early stages of the season will be in seeing how much high-profile imports add to their new teams.

Of all the new recruits, Leeds might have the best in the New Zealand full-back, Brent Webb - one very good reason why the Rhinos should be in the mix this time.

Less predictable is whether Salford can match last season's heroics, or whether Huddersfield can take the extra step and reach the play-offs for the first time.

When it comes to the foot of the table, the easy option is to assume that Hull KR will struggle, but they will not have to win many games to start putting pressure on the likes of Wakefield and Harlequins.

The plan is still to do away with promotion and relegation and move to a franchise system. That may or may not happen but, for this season at least, the struggle to avoid the drop will provide some compelling action.

The issue of who replaces the relegated side will be played out in a brighter spotlight this season, with live games from the National Leagues on Sky - on Thursday nights.

That will do a world of good for the game below Super League level and should help the National Leagues find the title sponsor they lack at the moment.

The other big change for the smaller fry is that they will play under a new points system, where losing teams get a bonus point for going down by 12 points or less. If it can be said to work, expect something similar in Super League soon.

The elite competition this year will be refereed by full-time officials, following the appointment of an initial panel of six.

The early signs have not been promising. Ashley Klein took charge at Huddersfield last Sunday and awarded a series of penalties for the game's latest fad, obstruction by decoy runners.

If every game this season was to be refereed that way we would see a lot more half-empty grounds, but rugby league rule interpretations tend to ebb and flow and this one will (presumably) settle down as something more user-friendly.

Super Twelve: Who is in and who will win

Bradford Bulls

Last season: 3rd.

The Bulls look too thin in the outside backs to inspire any confidence this season. On the plus side, they have recruited real quality for the pack in Solomona and Morrison. Watch out too for the emergence of a potentially star forward in Sam Burgess.

Coach: Steve McNamara

In: Michael Platt (Castleford), Chris Feather (Leeds), David Solomona (Wakefield), Glenn Morrison (Parramatta), James Evans (Huddersfield), Nathan McAvoy (Wigan).

Out: Stanley Gene (Hull KR), Paul Johnson (Warrington), Karl Pryce (Gloucester RU), Brett Ferres (Wakefield), Michael Withers (Wigan).

Prediction 6th.

Catalan Dragons

Last season: 12th

The Catalans were better than their last place in 2006 indicated and they lookstronger this time. They could be without Stacey Jones for two months, although they are better equipped to overcome his absence this season. Should benefit from returning to their own stadium.

Coach: Mick Potter

In: Aaron Gorrell, Clint Greenshields (St George-Illawarra), Jason Croker (Canberra), Sebastien Raguin (Toulouse), David Ferriol (Limoux), Adam Mogg (Canberra), Casey McGuire (Brisbane), Dimitri Pelo (Burleigh).

Out: Chris Beattie (Sydney), Ian Hindmarsh (Parramatta), Julien Rinaldi (Harlequins), Renaud Guigue (Carpentras), Aurelien Cologni (Lezignan), Sean Rudder (released), Mark Hughes, Pascal Jampy, Laurent Frayssinous (all retired), Bruno Verges (UTC).

Prediction: 10th


Last season: 7th

Quins flirted with relegation last year and a host of departures have left them looking weaker this time, particularly in the forwards. On the plus side, great rugby players like Mark McLinden, Henry Paul and the key newcomer, Scott Hill, could win them matches they should lose.

Coach: Brian McDermott

In: Danny Orr, Chris Melling (both Wigan), Jon Grayshon (Huddersfield), Scott Hill (Melbourne), Julien Rinaldi (Catalan).

Out: Solomon Haumono, Danny Williams, Mark Tookey (all retired), Mark Bradley-Qalilawa, Filimone Lolohea (both released), Luke Dorn (Salford), Neil Budworth (Celtic Crusaders), Joe Mbu, Rikki Sheriffe (both Doncaster), Pat Weisner (Hull KR).

Prediction: 9th

St Helens

Last season: 1st and Grand Final winners.

It is becoming an annual challenge to think of reasons why Saints shouldn't win Super League. Here goes: they are one forward light; Gidley might not be as devastating as Lyon; and they are overdue some major mid-season drama. Anderson, however, has great faith in his young players and he knows what he is talking about.

Coach: Daniel Anderson

In: Matt Gidley (Newcastle), Bryn Hargreaves (Wigan).

Out: Jamie Lyon (Manly), Paul Anderson (retired), Vinnie Anderson (Warrington).

Prediction: 2nd.

Salford City Reds

Last season: 6th

Salford were the big improvers last season. The question is whether they can sustain that this time, with other teams more aware of their capabilities. Their recruitment looks promising, with Dorn's finishing ability a big factor, but they need to get off to a good start again.

Coach: Karl Harrison

In: Luke Dorn (Harlequins), Michael Korkidas (Wakefield), Mark Edmondson (Sydney), Gray Viane (Castleford), Stephen Nash (Widnes), Danny Halliwell (Leigh).

Out: Chris Charles, Ryan Clayton (both Castleford), Junior Langi, Sean Rutgerson (both retired), Andrew Dunemann (Canberra), Tim Jonkers (Leigh), Stephen Myler (Northampton)

Prediction: 8th

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats

Last season: 11th

John Kear did a great job to steer Wakefield clear of relegation last time, but he has no Solomona or Korkidas this year and they will be missed. Some of his signings look risky, but a recreation of last season's spirit should see them survive.

Coach: John Kear

In: Ricky Bibey, Richard Moore (both Leigh), Brett Ferres (Bradford), Danny Lima (Warrington), Danny Sculthorpe (Wigan), Waine Pryce (Castleford), Paul March (Huddersfield).

Out: Monty Betham, Colum Halpenny (both retired), Darrell Griffin (Huddersfield), David Solomona (Bradford), Michael Korkidas (Salford), Tom Saxton (Castleford), David Wrench (Halifax), Jamie Field (Featherstone).

Prediction: 11th.

Warrington Wolves

Last season: 4th

The Wolves look formidable in the pack, especially if they can keep Adrian Morley fit and on the field. The problem as ever is consistency and an over-reliance on Lee Briers, who starts the season under an injury cloud. Could be dark horses for the Challenge Cup.

Coach: Paul Cullen

In: Adrian Morley (Sydney), Vinnie Anderson (St Helens), Paul Johnson (Bradford).

Out: Danny Lima (Wakefield), Logan Swann (NZ Warriors), Toa Kohe-Love (Widnes), Mark Hilton (retired).

Prediction: 5th

Wigan Warriors

Last season: 8th

Brian Noble has made some calculated short-term signings, sometimes at the expense of Wigan's much-vaunted youth development. It is a strategy that will succeed to the extent that they will be looking towards the top of the table rather than the bottom in 2007.

Coach: Brian Noble

In: Thomas Leuluai (Harlequins), Trent Barrett (St George-Illawarra), Michael Withers (Bradford), Shane Millard (Leeds), Phil Bailey (Cronulla), Mark Flanagan (Bradford).

Out: Michael Dobson, Scott Logan (Canberra), Brett Dallas, Jerry Seuseu, Kris Radlinski (Retired), Wayne Godwin, Danny Tickle (Hull), Bryn Hargreaves (St Helens), Danny Sculthorpe (Wakefield).

Prediction: 4th.

Huddersfield Giants

Last season: 9th

Last year's Cup-final appearance has bred optimism about the future and Huddersfield's recruitment this time looks promising. Sharp believes a new weights regime will make his side bigger and stronger. Letting in 50 points at Leeds in a pre-season friendly was a bad sign. Sunday's effort against Saints was better.

Coach: Jon Sharp

In: Jamahl Lolesi, Shane Elford, John Skandalis (all Wests Tigers), Darrell Griffin (Wakefield), Ryan Hudson (Unattached), Sean Gleeson (Wigan, loan).

Out: James Evans (Bradford), Michael De Vere (retired), Wayne McDonald, Albert Torrens (both released), Jim Gannon (Hull KR), Paul March (Wakefield), Jon Grayshon (Harlequins), Stuart Donlan (Castleford).

Prediction: 7th.

Hull FC

Last season: 2nd and beaten Grand Finalists.

With some good recruitment and a crop of young players, this really could be the season for Hull. The fixture list also gives them four matches against promoted Hull KR. They should win them to take a distinct advantage over their title rivals. Paul Cooke's injury is a concern.

Coach: Peter Sharp.

In: Wayne Godwin, Danny Tickle (both Wigan), Matt Sing (North Queensland), Hutch Maiava (Cronulla), Willie Manu (Castleford).

Out: Chris Chester (Hull KR), Kirk Dixon, Liam Higgins (both Castleford), Nathan Blacklock (retired).

Prediction: 1st.

Hull Kingston Rovers

Last season: National League One winners

It will be tough for Rovers, as for any promoted side, but they have a clued-up coach who has wisely top-loaded his squad with experienced forwards. They will make it difficult to get on top of the Robins but there is a doubt over whether they can win enough games.

Coach: Justin Morgan

In: Stanley Gene (Bradford), Danny Ward, Luke Dyer (both Castleford), Andreas Bauer (Mt Albert), Chris Chester (Hull), Jim Gannon (Huddersfield), Mark O'Neill (Leeds), Michael Vella (Parramatta), Pat Weisner (Harlequins).

Out: Francis Stephenson (retired), Dwayne Barker (Castleford), Damien Couturier, Leroy Rivett (both Leigh).

Prediction: 12th

Leeds Rhinos

Last season: 5th

Leeds faded badly last season and have lost some major contributors over the winter. Against that, they have recruited the player who could be the star of the season in the New Zealand full-back, Brent Webb. It is still going to require several of their young prospects to develop quickly.

Coach: Tony Smith

In: Kylie Leuluai (Manly), Brent Webb (NZ Warriors).

Out: Willie Poching (retired), Chris Feather (Bradford), Richie Mathers (Gold Coast), Chev Walker (Bath), Shane Millard (Wigan), Mark O'Neill (Hull KR).

Prediction: 3rd