Huddersfield on a Sunday night is an odd time and place to launch a Super League season, but for Sean Long it is also where he begins rebuilding his reputation. In early November, he was flying high. His outstanding domestic season with an all-conquering St Helens had been highlighted by the Lance Todd Trophy as Man of the Match in the Challenge Cup final. He had just played one of the games of his life - certainly his best international - in the defeat of Australia in Sydney in the Tri-Nations.
A week later, he was flying high in a different sense: a booze-fuelled journey from Wellington to Sydney was the prelude to him walking out on the Great Britain squad the next day, citing mental and physical exhaustion and his partner's pregnancy. Baby Seini - a name borrowed from former team-mate Vinnie Anderson's wife - has been safely delivered, leaving only the question of whether Long himself can continue to deliver after such a traumatic winter.
As with other escapades, Long is reluctant to admit any regrets. "I was thinking about it for some time," he recalls. "I'd already decided I wanted to go home before the game in New Zealand. I was just tired. I'd no problem with Brian Noble [Great Britain's coach]. I told him that night how I felt and he asked me to wait to see how I felt in the morning."
Long did not change his mind and now wishes he had followed his instincts earlier. "Part of me thinks I should have stopped at home. But I thought, 'I'm not going to get another chance to play out there. I'll give it a go'. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have played in the win in Sydney, which will go down in history. I think in the end I made the right decision."
Long says he has found the St Helens supporters understanding since he got home, "although there have been some bad things written about me". He found a sympathetic shoulder on his return, courtesy of his club coach, Daniel Anderson. "I saw him as soon as he got back and, funnily enough, we never made much reference to it," says Anderson. "He's a very genuine and honest person and that can be his problem at times. His body told him he was a shot duck and he was just being honest about it." One thing Anderson is certain about is that neither the events of last autumn nor his testimonial season will distract Long from doing his job at Saints this year. "He knows my feelings about his position in the team," he adds. "He's our major decision-maker and, until Paul Sculthorpe comes back, he will have the extra burden of being our goal-kicker."
That job falls to him following the departure of Jamie Lyon, who will be missed more as a try-creating centre after two outstanding seasons at Knowsley Road. Saints have got close to a direct replacement by signing another Australian with educated hands in Matthew Gidley, but Lyon is a hard man to follow.
Anderson has also lost his two namesakes, Vinnie and Paul, but Saints are stillfavourites to retain their title. They have set the standard to which all others aspire. The teams with the biggest cause for confidence include Hull. They gave Saints a run for their money last year and look stronger in several areas now. Leeds will not be far off the pace and Wigan will surely look towards the top of the table rather than the bottom this time.
Of the so-called "Big Four", the ones to struggle could be Bradford, who look a little thin on talent. Aspiring sides such as Warrington, Huddersfield and, if they can sustain last season's form, Salford will fancy themselves to outrun the Bulls.
Daniel Anderson is adamant that the Catalan Dragons will be far stronger for a year's experience in Super League. They cannot be relegated, so someone else must be. Favourites for that must logically be Hull KR despite the impressive coaching of Justin Morgan and a sound strategy of building up forward muscle.
They will have to play their Hull neighbours no fewer than four times, once in Cardiff, which will host a full round of games in May. It is a bold venture that deserves to succeed, but four games against any opponent is a little too much of a good thing, as Rovers might find to their cost.
New Faces Show: Ones to watch at your club this season
David Solomona Bradford
Enticed away from Wakefield side he did so much to keep in Super League, his handling skills will add a missing dimension to a Bulls pack not as formidable as it was. Can create a try out of nothing and will win games otherwise lost.
Casey Mcguire Catalans
Highly rated and versatile Australian who will lessen the French side's dependence on Stacey Jones. Just as well, for Jones will miss as much as the first two months of the season and McGuire is the likely choice to stand in at scrum-half.
Scott Hill Harlequins
The London club have lost two excellent half-backs, but have recruited a genuine class act in Hill. His handling skills can open the tightest of defences and Quins will need plenty of inspiration from him if they are to have a decent season.
Darrell Griffin Huddersfield
Amid some promising overseas imports, it is the pre-season form of Griffin that has got the Giants excited. The prop, from that rugby league hotbed called Oxford, lost his way at Wakefield but is young enough to find it again.
Matt Sing Hull
A genuine Test-class winger and one of the reasons why Hull, runners-up last time, believe they can go one better this year. Not only a prolific try-scorer, he is less prone to defensive errors than his predecessor, Nathan Blacklock.
Michael Vella Hull Kingston Rovers
Promoted Rovers are the obvious favourites to go straight back down, but they have invested wisely in extra muscle up front. The pick of the new recruits in the pack should be Vella, an Australian Test prop used to playing at the top level.
Brent Webb Leeds
Hailed as the world's best full-back after his performances for New Zealand in the Tri-Nations. His exciting counter-attacking style looks tailor- made for the way the Rhinos try to play. A good bet to be Super League's stand-out.
Matt Gidley St Helens
Gidley has the hardest of acts to follow in replacing Jamie Lyon in the champions' back line. But he is a player of the same stamp, who is equally skilled at getting the ball to his wingman even when the feat looks close to impossible.
Luke Dorn Salford
The capture of Dorn from Harlequins gives last season's most improved side a real predator at stand-off. Much will depend on how he meshes with Luke Robinson, but if the combination works Salford have the potential to kick on.
Danny Sculthorpe Wakefield
Paul Sculthorpe's kid brother, signed from relegated Castleford, is far too skilful a player not to be in Super League. The problem, as always, is keeping him fit - and it is a blow to the Wildcats that he will miss the start of the season.
Adrian Morley Warrington
Back in Super League after six successful seasons in Oz, it will be fascinating to see how the game's most intimidating forward adapts. Paul Cullen plans to use him in his old role of second-row, but he must stay out of trouble with refs.
Trent Barrett Wigan
On sheer ability, he could make as big an impact as Brett Kenny more than 20 years ago. Alternatively, he could turn out to be yet another instance of right player, wrong time. Wigan's expected renaissance depends on it being the former case.Reuse content