The 23rd season of the Super League begins on Thursday night with 12 more teams lining it up with the dream of making it to Old Trafford in October and competing in and winning the Grand Final.
After England went so close to World Cup glory just two months ago there should be a lot of hype, anticipation and excitement for this season and we should be treated to some outstanding action as a result.
2017 – Leeds Rhinos
2016 – Wigan Warriors
2015 – Leeds Rhinos
2014 – St Helens
2013 – Wigan Warriors
2012 – Leeds Rhinos
2011 – Leeds Rhinos
2010 – Wigan Warriors
2009 – Leeds Rhinos
2008 – Leeds Rhinos
All 12 teams play each other home and away in the first phase of the season. There is an extra round of matches that take place at the Magic Weekend to make 23 regular season matches. Once that has been completed the top eight go through to play each other again with the top four after those extra matches qualifying for the semi-finals.
The bottom four sides after the regular season will have to join the top four from the Championship and battle it out in the Middle 8s for the right to retain their Super League status.
Wigan Warriors are generally the favourites to win the Grand Final in most places but they will need a remarkable improvement on last term if that is to happen because they failed to make the play-offs and actually only just made the top eight at one stage. Losing Michael McIlorum and Anthony Gelling won’t help their cause either. Sponsors Betfred go 5/1 on the Warriors for Old Trafford glory but they can keep that.
St Helens are the second favourites in most places. They too are 5/1 with the sponsors and if they can maintain the form they showed in the second half of last season then they are going to be the team to beat. Ben Barba has had a pre-season and is fit for the whole campaign which is massive and with no significant losses in the close season I think the Saints are the ones to beat.
Castleford Tigers fell one hurdle short of breaking the monopoly of the trio of sides who have won Super League in recent times last season but if they can kick on again then they too will take some stopping. All the major players remain in place at The Jungle so there is no reason for them to fade despite most likely being without Zak Hardaker for much of the season due to his impending drugs ban. Joe Wardle and Jamie Ellis are decent pick ups so the Tigers should be there or thereabouts again.
Hull FC head into the season as the fourth favourites to win the title at 13/2. They have made good improvements in recent seasons but I wonder how the retirement of Gareth Ellis and the loss of Mane Fonua will affect them. To be fair Bureta Faraimo should be a suitable replacement for the latter but FC always looked a better side with Ellis in it. I’ll pass on them I think.
Leeds Rhinos begin the defence of another Super League title as the fifth favourites to regain their crown. The Rhinos are never more dangerous than when they have been written off so we should do that lightly. A new era will begin at Headingley with Danny Maguire having left and Rob Burrow retired. Brad Dwyer and Ritchie Myler look able replacements so the Rhinos should go well.
Warrington Wolves were so bad last year that they had to escape the Middle 8s to preserve their Super League status. That saw the back of coach Tony Smith and with a bit of an exodus in personnel in the close season a little bit of guesswork is needed as to how the Wolves will go under a new coach. They are 15/2 to win the Grand Final but instinct tells me that is a little short.
Huddersfield Giants finished the last regular season strongly to make the top eight but they faded in the Super 8s. We should remember that the season before they were seconds away from the league leaders shield so if they can get back to that sort of form and consistency then 35/1 on them winning the Grand Final would be huge. Times change though and while they should make the eight again going any further is a tough ask.
Wakefield are a side who regularly punch above their weight and with the likes of Ryan Hampshire and Justin Horo coming in they have strengthened a squad which is improving all the time. Their 55/1 Grand Final quotes are fair. They won’t make the top four but they should have enough to stay out of the bottom four.
Catalans Dragons had to survive the qualifiers last season and Steve McNamara will be desperate to get his men in the top eight this time around. Thomas Bosc retiring signals the end of an era and puts a lot of emphasis on Luke Walsh but Michael McIlorum should lead them up the park and the one thing you know about the Dragons is they never lack for mite up front. That won’t be enough to challenge for glory though.
Salford City Reds were one of the teams of the season last term but they could not maintain their first half of the campaign form in the second half of it and ultimately missed out on both the Challenge Cup final and a place in the play-offs. The Doctor will be hoping they kick on here but with Carney and Dobson being released and Ben Murdoch-Masilla at the Wolves I’m expecting the City Reds to go the other way. Their status could seriously be in jeopardy.
Hull KR are the only new boys back in Super League but having blasted the Championship away they deserve to be here. Danny Maguire is a signing which signals their intentions and if they can consolidate with a top eight finish they will be delighted with that. I think that is the best they can hope for but they’ll shock a few of the big teams along the way.
Widnes Vikings coach Denis Betts is really going to have his work cut out to keep them in Super League. He is an astute coach who often gets the best out of what they have and they love nothing more than giving it to the big teams but even this early you sense their season will come down to seven matches in the qualifiers to maintain a place in with the big boys.
Grand Final Betting
For once we have a really competitive Grand Final market and race to be there. I think four or five teams have legitimate chances of making it to Old Trafford. Castleford Tigers were the team of the season last year but fell one win short. They will be there or thereabouts and you can never write off the Leeds Rhinos but I’m with St Helens this season.
Nobody finished the season better than St Helens last term and while they got edged out in that epic semi-final at The Jungle I expect them to kick on and go again. Justin Holbrook has had the close season to work on his squad and with Ben Barba active from the beginning they have a potential Man of Steel lining up for them. St Helens faltered in the pressure matches in the early part of last term. I don’t see that happening here so I’m happy to take the 5/1 that Saints regain the title.
The aforementioned Ben Barba could be one to watch on the try scoring front this season. St Helens backs always run in a number of tries and he is a class act who is capable of finishing moves from most positions. I expect him to be involved in the attacking line a lot this term and after giving us a glimpse of what he has last season the Saints full back can chase top scoring honours this season.
Jermaine McGillvary proved that he is now the best winger in the world with an outstanding World Cup towards the back end of last year. There is no doubt he will be at the NRL before long and a big season for the Huddersfield Giants can maximise the deal he gets out there. Skybet are out on a limb going 20/1 on him top scoring and that’s extremely good value.
Back St Helens to win Super League XXIII for a 3/10 stake at 6.00 with Betfred
Back them here:
Back B.Barba Top Try Scorer (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 21.00 with Coral (1/4 1-4)
Back J.McGillvary Top Try Scorer (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 21.00 with Skybet (1/4 1-4)