With the 2016 Super League season due to start in a month, it’s a good time to weigh up the prospects for all 12 teams as they gear up for the opening matches. Starting with the top four, I’m going to be dividing this assessment into three different pieces.
Leeds Rhinos will not have been troubled by their recent defeat to Wakefield. That was a friendly game that was more about stretching legs and giving players who don’t normally make the pitch a chance to play Rugby.
Far more important to the Rhinos than the score line of 14-6 in Wakefield’s favour, will have been how newcomer Cameron Smith performed as part of the first team.
New signing Brett Ferres, transferred from Huddersfield Giants for an undisclosed fee, is also ready to defend Leeds’s standing as champions.
Having beaten Wigan in last season’s Grand Final, the Rhinos see no reason why they can’t do it again. That though will be foremost in the minds of both the players and the coaching staff once they head to Florida for their traditional January getaway.
One last game at Hunslet Hawks (an inner city Leeds team) will provide a last opportunity to see how the squad works together on the pitch as well as some nice publicity for Hunslet.
Defending the title will be no easy prospect. Leeds face Warrington, who thrashed Widnes Vikings forty to nothing in their recent friendly, in their opening game before playing NRL champions North Queensland Cowboys on February 21st. The Wolves meanwhile have been chasing cup glory ever since 2012, when they beat Leeds in the Challenge Cup final by a convincing margin of 35-18. Despite previously winning that same competition in 2009 and 2010, the Wolves have yet to enjoy the honour of placing a Super league trophy in the silver cabinet.
Like the Rhinos they’ve decamped to foreign shores for a nine-day training camp, Tenerife rather than Florida, but the team left the country knowing they’ve a fine crop of players, including Tom Lineham and Jordan Cox, who could provide them with a good chance of marking this season with their first Superleague title.
St Helens have a good track record in both Super League and the Challenge Cup, and their silver cabinet has several examples of both trophies. Even so, failing to defend their title last year will have left its mark on the players, but with several new signings, including Dominique Peyroux from New Zealand Warriors, Theo Fage and Lama Tasi from the Salford Red Devils, along with Jack Owens from Widnes, St Helens have boosted their squad. Peyroux in particular is relishing the thought of his first derby game against Wigan, a fixture that enjoys near legendary status where Rugby League in England is concerned.
Keiron Cunningham will be hoping however that his new signings go hand in hand with a degree of luck in staving off the number of injuries St Helens suffered from last season. If the club can avoid that, and the new signings pay off, then 2016 could well be their year. Mike Critchley, Senior Sports Writer at the St Helens Star has noted that six is something of a lucky number for Saints. Their first Challenge Cup win came in 1956 and ten years later they pulled off a quadruple run where the trophies were concerned.
Even if 2016 should conform to that pattern and see the Saints march straight across the board, one club will have something to say about it. The name Wigan is enough to spark admiration and respect from any Rugby League aficionado, and even if the glory days of the 1990s may now be just pleasant memories, the club still enjoys a place on the pantheon of Rugby League greats. Three years, three grand finals in a row are testament to that even if Wigan haven’t actually won anything since taking the double back in 2013. That said the team draws well from local pedigree with Sam Tompkins returned from Australia to play alongside Sean O’Loughlin and the entirely local team that won that double, though competition for places remains tough.
Anyone of these four clubs has the potential to win this year’s Superleague Season and each encounter between them will be a game to watch. Each team knows they do into that season with the weight of expectation, and the yearning for a Grand Final triumph, lying on their shoulders.