The seventeenth Rugby Super League kicks off this weekend [or Friday 3rd] with all fourteen teams in action. ‘New boys’ Widnes Vikings take on Wakefield Wildcats and last season’s winner’s Leeds Rhinos are at home to Yorkshire rivals Hull Kingston Rovers. After finishing fifth in the League, bringing with it heavy criticism from fans and pundits alike, Leeds squeezed past first-placed Warrington Wolves 26-26 in the semi-final, before comprehensively beating St Helens 32-16 in the Old Trafford final in October. Long-serving scrum half Rob Burrow was outstanding in this game and became the first player to capture the man-of-the-match award by taking the unanimous votes of all 37 judges.
Cut-price tickets might have kept the crowds coming into Odsal Stadium last season, but on the pitch the Bulls struggled and failed to make the play-offs. Australian coach Mick Potter has gone Down Under to bring in experienced National Rugby League Aussie professionals Keith Lulia and Adrian Purtell. The new captain is also an Australian, hooker Heath L’Estrange, but the task of leading the Bulls back to the top of the Rugby League tree – they won three World Club Championships between 2002 and 2006 - will be enormous.
If everything goes to plan this will be the Tigers final season at the Jungle, an old style terraced Stadium that creates a great atmosphere and where Cas have played since 1927. The New Castleford Stadium, with a capacity of 13,300, is though costing £15 million and this has left new coach Ian Millward with a limited budget. Much will depend on last seasons Man of Steel winner, New Zealander Rangi Chase, maintaining his outstanding form if Castleford are to squeeze into the play-offs by going one place higher than ninth in 2011.
Sixth placed last season, the Dragons could well threaten the top four after signing Leon Pryce from St Helens and Louis Anderson from Warrington. The Perpignan side already possess a halfback row of great quality and Pryce will add to it. Utility Australian Clint Greenshields will be playing his sixth season in France, the Dragons having first entered the Super League in 2006 and with Crusaders have disbanded they are now the only side represented from outside England.
One of the games original 22 clubs who now ground share with the local football club but whose last major honour was the winning of the 1962 Championship. After reaching the Challenge Cup Final under then new coach Nathan Brown in 2009 the Giants finished fourth last season. Brown has been busy over the winter, letting go nine and bringing in seven players including three from Wakefield Wildcats in Luke George, Tommy Lee and Aaron Murphy. The latter is a versatile player tipped for honours in the game, but it’s difficult envisaging the Giants bringing to an end their fifty-year wait for a title success
Another of the 1895 founding members of the Northern Rugby Football Union who ground share the KC Stadium with Hull City Football Club. Just squeezed into the play-offs last season by finishing eighth, only to be immediately eliminated when Leeds Rhinos easily beat them 42-10. New coach Peter Gentle, who turned down Salford in 2001, has been very busy over the winter with ten out and ten in and whilst the loss of Luke Briscoe to Leeds is a blow the arrival of Jamie Ellis, Aaron Heremaia and Brett Seymour should ensure at least another eighth place finish.
HULL KINGSTON ROVERS
After finishing seventh in the League the Robins were walloped 56-6 by the Catalan Dragons in the play-offs. New coach Australian Craig Sandercock has acted quickly to overhaul the squad, letting go a number of long-serving players and replacing them with three from Huddersfield Giants in David Hodgson, Keal Carlile and Graeme Horne and four from Down Under in Shannon McDonnell, back row forward Con Mika, George Griffin and Mickey Paea. It may take time though for the side to gel together.
The Rhinos are the most successful club in the Premier League era with five victories in the Super League Final including in last year’s against St Helens. After winning a thrilling semi-final against Castleford the Rhinos had disappointed their fans by losing against Wigan in the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley last season, but recovered their form to come from fifth place in the League to capture the Super League Trophy in the play-offs. Coach Brian McDermott has kept more or less the same squad but the arrival of Huddersfield Giants prop Darrell Griffin and rising star Luke Briscoe from Hull KR should ensure another exciting season at Headingley.
The only English team outside of the M62 corridor, the Broncos play at the Twickenham Stoop Stadium as Rugby League attempts to build a base down south. Having finished third in the second season of Super League in 1997 the Broncos – who started out as Fulham in 1980-81 and have also appeared as London Crusaders and Harlequins - finished twelfth in 2011. Significant investment over the winter should see things improve on the pitch with Antonio Kaufusi, Michael Robertson and Shane Rodney from Down Under hopefully giving London based Rugby League fans something to shout about.
St Helens new Langtree Stadium has cost £25 million and will hold 18,000. It has been constructed on the derelict former United Glass site. Saints fans will be hoping it ushers in a new era of success, starting with victory in this season’s Super League Grand Final where they have lost the last five, including four to Leeds. Aussie coach Royce Simmons has only tinkered with his squad, although the arrival of Lance Hohaia from New Zealand Warriors should bring further pace and power to the half back line that has lost Kyle Eastmonds to rugby union. .
SALFORD CITY REDS
A pre-season thrashing by Leigh in their first match in their new 12,000 capacity Salford City Stadium might mean Red Devil fans having to get used to watching matches in more salubrious surroundings but seeing little better on the pitch. After being relegated in 2007 the Reds were the beneficiaries of rule changes in 2008 that ended automatic promotion and relegation and which saw them awarded a three year Super League license, subsequently extended last year to six. Eleventh place last season and it’s difficult to see much improvement in this, although Joel Moon, an Australian able to play in a number of positions, should prove a useful acquisition.
WAKEFIELD TRINITY WILDCATS
Wildcat fans will this season have one eye on the pitch and the other awaiting the outcome of the public inquiry as to whether the club will be allowed to go ahead with the construction of a new Stadium at Stanley. With Wakefield only having a lease to stay at the Belle Vue Stadium till the end of this season, it was expected that the club would lose its Rugby League license from 2012 but in the event the unexpected decision by Welsh side Crusaders threw Trinity a much needed lifeline.
Former Hull coach Richard has taken charge and in a very short space of time has shipped out, and brought in, virtually a new team including Andy Raleigh, Kyle Wood and Danny Kirmond from Huddersfield Giants.
As the only club to have played every season in Rugby League’s top-flight Warrington thought they had reached last season’s Super League Final when winger Matt King crossed the try line with only nine minutes of the semi-final tie with Leeds remaining. When the effort was disallowed for grounding, Wolves fans suffered further heartbreak when Rhinos captain Kevin Infield kicked a last minute winner.
Head coach Tony Smith had led his charges to top spot in the League and has largely retained the same squad, although the addition of Penrith Panthers forward Trent Waterhouse should prove handy.
After being granted a Super League license Widnes are back in the top League after replacing Crusaders. It’s reward for local businessman Steve O’Connor, who when he took over in Nov 2007 dreamed of returning the club to its former glories.
The Chemics though have struggled to get-in big name stars from Down-Under. It’s meant having to largely make do with refashioning their whole squad along British lines with Ben Cross, Ben Davies and Scott Moore arriving from Wigan, Warrington and St Helens respectively.
The most successful club in Rugby League history won the Challenge Cup last season but disappointed in the Super League play-offs and were beaten 26-18 by St Helens in the semi-finals. Head coach Michael Maguire has subsequently moved to South Sydney but his replacement, Shaun Warne, has resisted making wholesale changes to a squad left weakened by the retirement of Andy Coley and Ryan Hoffman’s move to Melbourne Storm.