Super League preview: Odd season in store with a lack of ups and downs

Bulls in the running for first prize but the loss of relegation may reduce the drama
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The Independent Online

It has become commonplace to greet every Super League season with the promise that it is going to be the best yet. More certain is that this one is going to be the strangest.

Super League XIII is going to be a time of transition. Midway through the action, the issue of who is at the top – and especially the bottom – of the table will become secondary to the handing-out of licenses for the next three seasons.

Goodbye promotion and relegation, a fundamental of British rugby league since the introduction of two divisions more than 30 years ago. And it will be possible, if not likely, that the competition leaders this year will not be awarded a franchise and that the wooden spoon club will.

The arguments for abolishing relegation have been well-rehearsed, and those who promise that it will now be possible for clubs to think long-term have won the debate. But something is undeniably being lost. The most emotional game of the Super League era was the one two seasons ago which decidedthat Castleford would go down and Wakefield stay up.

When coaches and chairmen complain of the stress and pressure of such occasions, they might use another word. It is drama – and what else is sport in the business of selling?

The danger this year and in years to follow is that there will not be enough drama in the bottom half of the table. "It is going to bring its challenges, especiallyin the transitional season," says Nigel Wood, the Rugby League's chief executive, who has been the driving force behind thefar-reaching changes.

The game must hope that there are enough clubs bidding for a place in the top six and the play-offs to keep the number of meaningless games to a minimum. There are hopeful signs that this can happen.

For one thing, last season's two most successful clubs, Leeds and St Helens, have marked time. Remarkably, neither of them have signed a single new player. That is partly a result of the salary cap.

Players who have won trophies are worth more money, so successful clubs have to work hard to retain what they have, let alone expand their squads. It is a mechanism that tends to prevent the strong getting stronger and puts a premium on bringing through new, young talent.

Leeds, under their new coach, Brian McClennan, start as the bookies' favourites to retain their title. Their largely British squad is constantly replenished by the best academy in the game, and key men such as Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow are coming into their prime.

Saints, in Daniel Anderson's last year in charge, might just be short of a player or two, while a few stalwarts are not getting any younger or better. If that leaves an opportunity for anyone, it might just be Bradford.

They have added a dash of pace in key areas. They also have in Sam Burgess a 19-year-old forward who can become one of the game's giants. His mental and physical maturity is astonishing, and he can be an inspiration to the Bulls for years to come.

The other great prospect in the game is Warrington's Kevin Penny. Blessed with natural pace and a hunger for tries, he should, with decent service, be one of those players who averages about one try a game through what could be a wonderful career.

Could he be the catalyst that ends the Wolves' years of under-achievement? Possibly, but they also need better luck with injuries to senior players.

A renaissance for Stuart Fielden could lift Wigan, although they still look more dependent on Trent Barrett than is healthy.

One of the subplots of the season could be the rivalry between Hull and Hull Kingston Rovers. Given Rovers' ambitious recruitment and Hull's pre-season injury toll, it would not be so amazing if the red-and- white half of the city edged ahead.

Huddersfield and Wakefield will fancy their chances of making the top six; that leaves just three clubs it is hard to imagine being in the mix. The Catalans Dragons will remain well-supported and hard to beat at home, but without Stacey Jones they might not win many away.

It will take time for Harlequins' laudable long-term aim of growing their own talent, such as Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook, to bear fruit. As for Castleford, the last beneficiaries of promotion, anything better than last place will be an achievement. But in an era when their fate will be decided in other ways, it does not quite matter as it used to.

Dave Hadfield's: club by club guide

BRADFORD BULLS

Key player: Sam Burgess made a huge impression last year and can develop into a truly dominant forward this time.

New blood: Ben Jeffriescan add some variety and much-needed pace to the Bulls' half-backs, as can Semi Tadulala in the outside backs.

Prediction: Winners.

CASTLEFORD TIGERS

Key player: A year in NL1 has given Joe Westerman time to grow into a marvellous prospect who can make his mark in Super League this season.

New blood: Cas need Brent Sherwin to rediscover his Australian form of a couple of years ago if they are to have the direction they need.

Prediction: 12th.

CATALANS DRAGONS

Key player: In the absence of a new scrum-half to replace the irreplaceable Stacey Jones, Casey McGuire will have to take over as the general.

New blood: Dane Carlaw is a high-class forward recruit who shows that the Catalans have the ambition to progress.

Prediction: 10th.

HARLEQUINS RL

Key player: Scott Hill did not produce his best last year, partly because of injuries. Harlequins need him to be showing his Aussie Test form this time.

New blood: The recruitment looks uninspiring, but Danny Ward can give them some badly needed solidity in the front row.

Prediction: 11th.

HUDDERSFIELD GIANTS

Key player: Kevin Brown showed signs last year of becoming theTest-class stand-off he once promised to be at Wigan.

New blood: Luke Robinson came through the ranks with Brown at Wigan and their reunion is full of potential.

Prediction: 8th.

HULL FC

Key player: Kirk Yeaman went backwards last season but, if he is fit and in themood, he has all the makings to be the best British centre in Super League.

New blood: Adam Dykes is the man Peter Sharp is looking to for midfield organisation, and his form and fitness will be crucial.

Prediction: 7th.

HULL KR

Key player: Paul Cooke was more sensational off the field than on it so he has ground to make up when he makes a delayed start this season.

New blood: After concentrating on forward power Rovers have invested in quality for the back line, notably union returnee Chev Walker.

Prediction: 6th.

LEEDS RHINOS

Key player: If Rob Burrow resumes this season in last season's form, Leeds will have no worries at scrum-half.

New blood: Unusually, the Rhinos have signed no new players. Coach Brian McClennan is the new boyand he has the hardest ofacts to follow.

Prediction: Grand finalists.

ST HELENS

Key player: Leon Pryce was a major influence last time and, with some of his team-mates cresting the brow of the hill, he will have to be again.

New blood: Again, no new players, but a fully fit and functioning Paul Sculthorpe would be equivalent to a new recruit of the highest class.

Prediction: 3rd.

WAKEFIELD TRINITY WILDCATS

Key player: Danny Sculthorpe spent most of last season injured, but he can make a big difference to their creativity if he can stay fit.

New blood: The Wildcats are thrilled to have got a half-back with Danny Brough's kicking game on board.

Prediction: 9th.

WARRINGTON WOLVES

Key player: Kevin Penny was a half-season sensation last year. If he continues to learn quickly, he could top 30 tries for the whole of this season.

New blood: The Australian Test centre Matt King is the man who can make thebullets for Penny to fire – a mouthwatering combination.

Prediction: 4th.

WIGAN WARRIORS

Key player: Trent Barrett was totally dominant last year. Can he be as consistently excellent for a second season?

New blood: Wigan have needed an incisive centre for years, and George Carmont could be the man they have been waiting for.

Prediction: 5th.

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