Get set for terrific tries, trucks and plastic pitches...
Rules to assist spectacular scores, a new sponsor and synthetic turf are part of a Super League revolution
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Friday 03 February 2012
If the inception of Super League 16 years ago was the most radical change in a century, then the game has done a pretty good job since of remaining in a permanent state of revolution.
Super League XVII, which kicks off tonight with the defending champions Leeds in action, is no exception. There is a strong flavour of change, some of it cosmetic, some of it potentially far-reaching.
First, the cast of combatants. A licensing process that dragged on longer than the presidential primaries has produced a 14-team competition in which the Welsh presence of Crusaders – now re-branded two divisions down as the North Wales Crusaders – has been replaced by one of the great names of the past, Widnes.
Whether that looks like progress depends on whether you prefer a genuine club playing on an artificial surface to an artificial club playing on genuine grass. Widnes have been given permission to become the first rugby league team in the world to play on a synthetic pitch, starting with tonight's game at home to Wakefield. Initial reactions to training on it have been positive; its critics say that it is hard on the joints in the long term.
Looking at Widnes's squad, their pitch is likely to be the only thing about them that is ground-breaking. They are in it for the long haul, with the declared aim of growing incrementally, but they will need some results to sustain morale.
Plastic pitch and complete rebuild notwithstanding, Widnes are still playing where they have always played, back to the days when a trip to Naughton Park was a guarantee of quality rugby league.
Not so St Helens and Salford. Those two equally long-established clubs have left the grounds that had been their homes for more than a century and moved to shiny, modern facilities.
Some things will not change. Saints, with the crop of young talent that made its mark last year, will be challenging for honours. Salford will be battling against the likes of Widnes at the other end of the table.
There they will find themselves in the company of Wakefield, whose revolving-door policy gives them a complete new team this season.
No sign, however, of the promised new stadium, upon which their Super League place was supposed to depend. Likewise down the road at Castleford, where Ian Millward is one of the season's more intriguing coaching appointments.
There are significant changes too at what might be termed Super League's two outlying clubs.
What used to be the London Broncos have ditched the disastrous – in terms of profile and identity – Harlequins connection and become the London Broncos once more. They are also testing the water away from the Stoop, starting by taking games to the football grounds of Leyton Orient and Gillingham.
In France, the Catalan Dragons have taken the unthinkable step of signing an English player – and an influential one in Leon Pryce. Until this season, the Catalans had signed more players from New Caledonia than from exotic England.
Talking of the exotic, on Humberside both clubs have new coaches, both Australians previously little known in this country. Time will tell whether Peter Gentle (Hull) and Craig Sandercock (Hull KR) are out of the Michael Maguire mould or that of Matt Parrish.
Mention of Maguire leads inevitably to Wigan's decision to appoint the home-grown Shaun Wane as his successor. Those who long for Super League to be more self-sufficient applaud the appointment and wish him well. Possibly the biggest factor in his favour is that the brilliant Sam Tomkins appears settled, at least for the foreseeable future.
Everything points to Wigan fighting it out with Saints, Warrington and the champions, Leeds, at the top of the table. The Rhinos timed their run perfectly last season, but know that they are unlikely to get away with taking as long to find their form this time.
Warrington had the opposite problem, looking the best side in the country for months, but failing to stay the course. They are desperate to win a Grand Final, but they had better get a move on. No club in Super League has as many players aged over-30 as the Wolves.
There are changes as well in the way the game will be played. Taking the corner flags out of the equation means there is more scope for spectacular, improbable-looking tries, but a tweak in the substitution rules could have a more long-lasting effect.
At first glance, reducing the permitted number of changes from 12 to 10 seems a minor alteration, but it puts into reverse a trend that has been running for decades.
It means that coaches will need to get longer stints from their forwards, rather than using them as interchangeable battering rams. The biggest sign of the changing times – although not quite as big as he used to be – is Salford's Iafeta Paleaaesina shedding two and a half stone over the winter.
Super League also has a new sponsor. The deal with the Stobart Group does not deliver any actual money – a novel concept in itself – but does promise a massive amount of promotion on the mobile billboards that are the company's lorries.
Good news and bad news for the players. Stobart has said it will consider offering new careers as drivers to retired players, which may appeal to some. On the other hand, however prominent your image on its fleet, you can be peeled off and replaced if you reroute to rugby union or otherwise disqualify yourself.
Plus ça change, as Leon Pryce might soon be saying.
Super stars who will light up league
Coach Mike Potter Last season 10th
One to watch Luke Gale had an impressive season in London and could be the answer to the scrum-half problem from which the Bulls have suffered since Paul Deacon left.
In Purtell (Penrith), Lulia (Newcastle), Kear, Sammut (Crusaders), Gale (Harlequins), Manuokafoa (Parramatta), Pryce (Wigan)
Out Ah Van (Widnes), Herbert (released), Lynch (Hull), Raynor (Featherstone), Royston (Pia), Crossley, Southernwood (Dewsbury), Finigan (Sheffield)
Coach Ian Millward Last season 9th
One to watch Daryl Clark should get more game time this year and could develop into one of the most effective hookers in the game.
In Millington (Canterbury), Mitchell, Shaw (Warrington, loan), Griffin (Wakefield), Nash (Leigh), Grehan (Limoux)
Out Eden (Huddersfield), Isa (Widnes), Widders (Gold Coast), Fozzard (Dewsbury), Aspinwall (Hull),
Coach Trent Robinson Last season 6th
One to watch Leon Pryce is the Dragons' first British signing and, if he stays fit, could add a new dimension to an already formidable side.
In Anderson (Warrington), Pryce (St Helens), Bousquet (Lezignan), Fisher (Batley)
Out Farrar (Manly), Martins (Lezignan)
Coach Nathan Brown
Last season 4th
One to watch Jermaine McGillvary had an outstanding first full season. If he can maintain the same rate of improvement, he will be a formidable prospect on the wing.
In Murphy, George, Lee, Walker (Wakefield), Chan (Crusaders), Eden (Castleford), Tonks (Featherstone)
Out Raleigh, Kirmond, Wood (Wakefield), J Griffin (Castleford), D Griffin (Leeds), Carlile, Hodgson, Horne (Hull KR), McNally (Leigh), Lolesi (retired)
Coach Peter Gentle Last season 8th
One to watch Andy Lynch has been appointed captain, which shows how Hull will rely on his leadership, as well as his offloading ability.
In McKinnon (Wests Tigers), Martin (Crusaders), Seymour, Heremaia (NZ Warriors), O'Carroll (Wigan), Ellis (Leigh), Aspinwall (Castleford), Lynch (Bradford)
Out Long, Radford, Fitzgibbon (retired), Washbrook (Wakefield), Lauaki (Wigan), Dowes (released), Phelps (Widnes)
Hull Kingston Rovers
Coach Craig Sandercock
Last season 7th
One to watch Kirk Welham. On way to becoming an accomplished centre.
In McDonnell, Mika (Newcastle), Hodgson, Horne, Carlile (Huddersfield), Withers, O'Hara (Crusaders), Paea (Canterbury)
Out Briscoe (Widnes), Fox, Cockayne (Wakefield), Colbon, Cook (London), Fisher (Batley), Newton (Penrith), Vella (retired)
Coach Brian McDermott
Last season 5th, Grand Final winners
One to watch Kallum Watkins has given notice of his exceptional talent and this could be the season when he kicks on.
Prediction 3rd, Grand Finalists
In D Griffin (Huddersfield), Moore (Crusaders), Ambler (Harlequins)
Out Senior (released), Lauitiiti, Amor (Wakefield), Buderus (Newcastle)
Coach Rob Powell Last season 12th
One to watch Dan Sarginson is a genuine local talent, surrounded this season by more experience and know-how.
In Bryant, Witt (Crusaders), Colbon, Cook (Hull KR), Gower (French RU), Kaufusi (Newcastle), Rinaldi (Wakefield), Robertson, Rodney (Manly)
Out Ambler (Leeds), Burnett (Hull), Calderwood (released), Ellis, Wilkes (Wakefield), Gale (Bradford), Purdham, Ward, Kouparitsas (retired), Williams (London Skolars)
Salford City Reds
Coach Phil Veivers Last season 11th
One to watch Daniel Holdsworth, liberated from the captaincy, could rediscover his form of two years ago.
In Ashurst (St Helens), Gledhill (Wakefield), James (Crusaders), McPherson (South Sydney), Moon (NZ Warriors)
Out Cashmere (Illawarra), Henry (retired), Parker (Leigh), Ratchford (Warrington)
Coach Royce Simmons
Last season 3rd, Grand Finalists
One to watch Jonny Lomax (above) could establish himself as the best scrum-half in the competition this season.
In Flanagan (Wests Tigers), Hohaia (NZ Warriors), Lafffranchi (Gold Coast)
Out Pryce (Catalans), Armstrong (Swinton), Ashurst (Salford), Eastmond (Bath RU), Graham (Canterbury)
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats
Coach Richard Agar
Last season 13th
One to watch Issac John is the player with the daunting task of blending together a whole new team of strangers.
In Mathers (Castleford), Fox, Cockayne (Hull KR), Collis, T Smith, Aiton (Cronulla), Mellars (Crusaders), John (NZ Warriors), Wood, Raleigh, Kirmond (Huddersfield), Wilkes, Ellis (Harlequins), Lauitiiti (Leeds), Southern (Newcastle), Washbrook (Hull), James (Barrow)
Out Blaymire, Morrison (retired), Penny (Swinton), J Griffin (Castleford), Murphy, George, Lee (Huddersfield), Korkidas, Tadulala (Keighley) Johnson, Howarth, Veivers, J Smith, Hyde, Tongia (released), Rinaldi (London), King (York), Dean (Widnes), Gledhill (Salford), Moore (Batley)
Coach Tony Smith Last season 1st
One to watch Trent Waterhouse (below) is a relatively rare phenomenon – a world-class Aussie coming to England in his prime.
Prediction 1st, Grand Final winners
In Ratchford (Salford), Waterhouse (Penrith), Hill (Leigh)
Out King (South Sydney), Anderson (Catalans), Mitchell (Castleford, loan), Clarke (Widnes)
Coach Dennis Betts
Last season 5th in Championship
One to watch Ben Kavanagh is one Super League-class player who was already at Widnes, before they bought in the inevitable new team.
In Moore (St Helens), Watts (Sydney Roosters), Ah Van (Bradford), Dean (Wakefield), Clarke (Widnes), Isa (Castleford), Cross, Davis, Marsh (Wigan), Hanbury, Cahill, White, Winterstein (Crusaders), Phelps (Hull), Kite (Melbourne)
Out Gaskell, Varkulis (Whitehaven), Hulme, Lunt (Crusaders), Grady, I'Anson (Swinton), Gardner (Leigh), Ropati (Featherstone), Thackeray, Coyle, Tyrer (Halifax)
Coach Shaun Wane Last season 2nd
One to watch Anthony Gelling (right) is a work in progress, but looks to have the potential to give some added thrust in the centres.
In Flower, Dudson (Crusaders), Lauaki (Hull), Gelling (Sydney Roosters)
Out O'Carroll (Hull), Cross, Davies (Widnes), Marsh (Widnes, loan), Hoffman (Melbourne), J Tomkins (Saracens RU), Pryce (Bradford), Deacon, Coley (retired)
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