Super League returns: 'Extraordinary' game living on the edge

No sponsor, clubs deep in debt, a lack of new blood; but at least the World Cup offers optimism

If there is one word that is already over-worked before the start of the 2013 rugby league season it is surely "pivotal". Starting with another rescue of an ailing club – Salford – and ending with a home World Cup vital for the game's international status, the next 10 months undeniably have the potential to leave it either much stronger or much weaker. It is in the nature of the sport and its regular bouts of pessimism that it has been the weaknesses that have been spotlighted during the run-up.

There is no doubt that the finances of a number of Super League clubs are precarious; Salford and Bradford are only the tip of a medium-sized iceberg and, between them, 11 clubs are calculated to have debts of £68m.

However reliable that figure may be, the Rugby Football League was irritated to have it aired on the BBC five days before the start of the season. It prefers to focus on the record crowds and TV audiences, as well as the hard-won fiscal stability of the game centrally.

That is despite reduced government funding and Super League starting its 18th season without a title sponsor. In an ideal world, it would like to have one, but there are still bidders in the ring who could come aboard during the season. Besides, the RFL's chief executive, Nigel Wood, is adamant that the game is actually better off with a series of "partnership" deals with backers as diverse as Foxy Bingo and Heinz Big Soup.

The absence of a title sponsor leaves Super League clear to promote its own image and its branding as "The Rugby League of the Extraordinary" is eye-catching and effective. Throw in the sight of Sam Tomkins overtaking that eminent rugby league fan, Sir Bradley Wiggins, up a mountain in Majorca – which is the highlight of Sky's promotional campaign – and it looks as though the game might have found the way to sell itself to a wider public.

However good the sales pitch, though, it is by what happens on the pitch that Super League XVIII will stand or fall and here there are some causes for concern. The contrast between the prosperous, well-run or fortunate clubs and the rest has never been so sharp. A "Big Four" of Leeds, Warrington, Wigan and St Helens has broken away from the peleton and it is hard to see who will catch them.

The obvious candidates are Hull, who have invested heavily in the likes of Gareth Ellis and Daniel Holdsworth, but they have been optimistic before, only to prove unable to sustain form and fitness. Hull's signing of Holdsworth from Salford is typical of a trend in Super League. After years of complaining about an excess of Antipodeans coming into the British game, there is now an argument for saying that there aren't enough. The main reasons for that are a weak pound and a more generous salary cap in Australia. The average NRL player can now earn more by staying at home.

It means that Super League clubs have been cherry-picking from imports who are already here. Apart from Holdsworth, Hull have picked up Ben Galea and Shannon McDonnell from Hull KR, who have also lost Brent Green to Wigan. Leeds' main addition to their title-winning squad, Joel Moon, is an Australian who has come via New Zealand and Salford.

There is not the new blood to justify any claims that the competition will be stronger this year. That will depend on the continuing progress of young home-grown players – and there are plenty of them well worth watching.

Tomkins remains the individual with the highest star rating, but there have to be doubts about whether Wigan quite have the quality around him to win trophies.

Only a mug would back heavily against Leeds, given their conveyor belt of young talent and their expertise at the business end of the season. Significantly, though, Warrington are the bookies' favourites, despite not making a single signing over the winter. It almost amounts to an arrogant declaration of confidence.

The World Cup too does not yet have a title sponsor. The organising team are certain that it will have a suitable one well before the opening ceremony in Cardiff on 26 October and an immense amount of work is already going on to market the month-long event. A successful tournament, and everyone will be feeling more sanguine at the end of 2013 than they are at its beginning. That is the pivot upon which the season will swing.

Koukash wants reds up with pace

The millionaire racehorse owner Dr Marwan Koukash has promised to turn Salford's selling-platers into winners – no matter what it takes.

The struggling Super League club, tipped by many newspapers, including this one, to finish last this season, officially passed into the new ownership of the Kuwait-born businessman yesterday.

Asked about his ambitions for his first season holding the reins, he said: "I've never entered a race I didn't expect to win. Second isn't an option."

Koukash added a top eight finish would only be acceptable "if we were at the top of the eight". If not, he would sit down at the end of the season and assess what needs to be done.

The club's coach, Phil Veivers, was able to name or confirm seven new signings yesterday. They include two players, Liam Foran and Vic Mauro, from the Manly club in Australia.

The first test is against Wigan tonight, with the on-loan full-back Jack Murphy in line to make his Salford debut against his parent club.

Another pledge from the new owner is all creditors will be paid in full.

Dave Hadfield

Team-by-team guide to the new saeson

Bradford Bulls

Coach Francis Cummins (new)

Last season Ninth

2012 was all about survival for the once mighty Bulls. To their credit, they did rather better than that by only just missing out on the play-offs. Now, however, they have lost their inspirational coach, Mick Potter, and a number of players, leaving them looking ominously thin.

One to watch Young second-rower James Donaldson is hungry for a big season after missing most of last year with a knee injury.

Prediction 13th

In Blythe (Warrington), Evans (Warrington, loan), Foster (St Helens), Sidlow (Salford).

Out T Burgess (South Sydney), Elima (Catalans), Crookes (Hull), Kopczak (Huddersfield), Ainscough (Australia), Pryce (released), Joseph (Widnes), Jeffries, Sibbit, Hargreaves (all retired).

Castleford Tigers

Coach Ian Millward

Last season 13th

It is hard to see Cas improving greatly on a painful 2012, as it will take just a couple of injuries for the lack of depth in their squad to be cruelly exposed. The only way they can lift their game appreciably is if Rangi Chase rediscovers his form of 2011.

One to watch The return of the England centre, Michael Shenton, as captain is a positive move.

Prediction 12th

In J Ellis (Hull), Tansey (York), Shenton (St Helens), Webster (Hull KR), Mason, Gilmour (Huddersfield), Carney (Sydney), Hauraki (Leeds).

Out Arundel (Hull), Brierley (Leigh), Davies (Batley), Griffin (Leeds RU), Jackson (Whitehaven), Snitch (released), Orr, Youngquest, Hudson, Jones (all retired).

Catalan Dragons

Coach Laurent Frayssinous (new)

Last season Fourth

The loss of coach Trent Robinson and a number of key players will make it hard for the Catalans to maintain their momentum. They will be expecting a bigger contribution from Leon Pryce in his second season.

One to watch Live-wire hooker Eloi Pelissier will have a bigger role in the absence of Ben Fisher.

Prediction Sixth

In Taia (Newcastle), Elima (Bradford), Webb (Leeds).

Out Sa (London Irish RU), Raguin, Fisher, Ferriol (retired), Stacul (Pia), Greenshields (North Queensland).

Huddersfield Giants

Coach Paul Anderson

Last season Seventh

Can Anderson achieve the consistency that eluded his predecessor, Nathan Brown? Not with a distinctly weaker squad, you wouldn't have thought, although the return of Shaun Lunt from Leeds is a bonus.

One to watch Luke Robinson has been promised a decent stab at half-back and is capable of showing that he should have played there all along.

Prediction Seventh

In Ta'ai (NZ Warriors), Fielden (Wigan), Kopczak (Bradford), Lunt (Leeds, loan return), Mullaly (Widnes).

Out Mason, Gilmour (both Castleford), Brown (Widnes), Lee (London), Fa'alogo (Newcastle), Moore (North Queensland), Walker, Eden (Hull KR).

Hull FC

Coach Peter Gentle

Last season Sixth

Hull are one of the few sides to look better equipped this time. Gareth Ellis is an ambitious signing and, if Daniel Holdsworth can solve their perennial half-back problems, they could give the "Big Four" a scare.

One to watch Ben Galea could have one big season left in him.

Prediction Fifth

In G Ellis (Wests Tigers), Arundel (Castleford), Holdsworth (Salford), Galea, McDonnell (both Hull KR), Johnson (Wakefield), Crookes (Bradford).

Out Manu, Turner (both St Helens), Moa (Sydney), Lyne (Wakefield), Aspinwall (Leigh), Sharp (Wasps RU), McGoldrick, Burnett, Martin (all retired), J Ellis (Castleford).

Hull Kingston Rovers

Coach Craig Sandercock

Last season 10th

2012 was miserable for the Robins and, despite an uncertain financial background, they have refreshed their squad extensively. The question is over quality and that looks to be too thin on the ground to guarantee a play-off place.

One to watch Corey Patterson made a big impression in the pre-season games and could put some punch into the pack.

Prediction Ninth

In Paterson (North Queensland), S Gleeson (Salford), Tuimavave (Newcastle), Burns (Penrith), Caro (London), Walker, Eden (both Huddersfield).

Out Galea, McDonnell (both Hull), Webster (Castleford), Clinton, Petersen, Netherton (all Australia), Murrell (Halifax), Green, Taylor (both Wigan).

Leeds Rhinos

Coach Brian McDermott

Last season Fifth and Grand Final winners.

Leeds are capable of winning the title again, but perhaps not from fifth place. Doing it the easier way, without their usual mid-season slump, is the target they have set themselves this time.

One to watch The Rhinos haven't exactly been spending lavishly, but Joel Moon has the class to add an extra dimension to their back line.

Prediction Second and Grand Finalists.

In Moon (Salford), McShane (Widnes, loan return), Vickery (Gold Coast), Achurch (Penrith).

Out Webb (Catalans), Hauraki (Castleford), Lunt (Huddersfield, loan return).

London Broncos

Coach Tony Rea

Last season 12th

The return of Tony Rea towards the end of last season will continue to benefit a sketchy-looking squad. If some of their talented young locals can maintain their development, there could be some modest improvement this time.

One to watch Given the obvious potential he has shown, it is a relief that no bigger club has grabbed Kieran Dixon.

Prediction 11th

In Grady (Thirroul), Lee (Huddersfield), Hurst (Swinton).

Out Temata (Limoux), Caro (Hull KR), Bryan (Featherstone), Golden (York), Rinaldi (retired).

Salford City Reds

Coach Phil Veivers

Last season 11th

Even if, after their takeover, Salford find themselves not merely afloat but awash with cash, it is surely too late to bring their squad up to scratch for this season. Every game in which they are competitive will be a bonus.

One to watch The teenaged French scrum-half Theo Fages has shown flashes of ability which could be encouraged by an experienced player alongside him.

Prediction 14th

In Dixon (St Helens), M Gleeson (unattached), Murphy (Wigan, loan) Williams (Warrington, loan) McGoldrick (out of retirement), Foran, Mauro (both Manly).

Out Moon (Leeds), Holdsworth (Hull), S Gleeson (Hull KR), Paleaasina (Limoux), Anderson (Carcassonne), Patten (retired), Sidlow (Bradford), Veivers (Ipswich), Adamson (Bath).

St Helens

Coach Nathan Brown (new)

Last season Third

Employing Brown as coach does not look quite as inspired a move as it did before his Huddersfield side's mid-season collapse. He has to prove that he can get the best out of players on a consistent basis.

One to watch Alex Walmsley is a late developer by modern standards, but he has the ability to go all the way as a prop.

Prediction Third

In Manu, Turner (both Hull), Walmsley (Batley).

Out Dixon (Salford), Shenton (Castleford), Foster (Bradford), Flannery, Magennis (both retired).

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats

Coach Richard Agar

Last season Eighth

Making the play-offs last season with such a hastily assembled squad was a major achievement. Logic says that, working from a much firmer base this time, they should be able to repeat it.

One to watch Justin Poore is a rarity this year – a genuine top-drawer Aussie who could do serious damage from prop.

Prediction Eighth

In Lyne (Hull), Poore (Parramatta), Goulding (Warrington), Singleton (Leeds, loan).

Out Johnson (Hull), Ellis, James (both Featherstone), Morton (Dewsbury), Southern (released), Tony (retired).

Warrington Wolves

Coach Tony Smith

Last season Second and beaten Grand Finalists.

It says much about the Wolves that, without any signings and with several fringe first-teamers gone, they still look to have the strongest squad in the competition. Winning Super League is unfinished business for them and, with a number of key men approaching the veteran stage, this is their best chance.

One to watch Ben Currie looks ready to stake a claim for a regular place in the pack.

Prediction First and Grand Final winners.

In None.

Out Blythe (Bradford), Mitchell (Central Queensland), Solomona (retired).

Widnes Vikings

Coach Denis Betts

Last season 14th

Rarely has so much praise been lavished on a side for finishing last, but they undeniably showed an improvement over the course of their first Super League season. That, in a very modest way, should continue this year.

One to watch Widnes are putting a great deal of faith in the newly signed Kevin Brown.

Prediction 10th

In Brown (Huddersfield), Marsh, Mellor (Wigan), Joseph (Bradford), Hock (Wigan, loan).

Out Finnigan, Coyle (Leigh), Mullaly (Huddersfield), McShane (Leeds, loan return), Haggerty (Barrow), Kite (released).

Wigan Warriors

Coach Shaun Wane

Last season First

Last year's league leaders have lost too many key men to look like repeating the feat this time. Much depends on how well Brett Green settles into the stand-off role, but there are big boots to fill all over the dressing room.

One to watch Jack Hughes has the considerable task of taking over in the centres from the ultra-reliable George Carmont.

Prediction Fourth.

In Green, Taylor (Hull KR).

Out Marsh, Mellor (Widnes), Russell (Gold Coast), Leuluai, Lima (South Sydney), Finch (Melbourne), Fielden (Huddersfield), Carmont (retired), Hock (Wigan, loan).

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