After a long few winter months, Super League is readying itself for a 26th instalment.
And it promises to be better than ever before – an exciting array of talent, old and new, experienced professionals moving onto new surroundings, and a fresh face looking to make their mark on the competition.
With Super League XVI just around the corner, here are a few things to keep an eye on after an eventful off-season.
Born winners & headline makers
The competition is no stranger to seeing overseas recruits arriving to huge fanfare.
Super League has seen its fair share of household names – Lesley Vainikolo, Jamie Lyon, Andrew Johns, and more recently two-time NRL winner James Maloney, to name a few.
But there’s rarely been as much excitement as there is around Warrington’s capture of Greg Inglis. When it comes to pedigree, the 34-year-old Australian is head and shoulders above most in the modern era.
The experienced centre coming out of retirement to join the Wolves – nearly two years after hanging up his boots on a career which yielded three NRL titles, a World Cup winners medal, and a Golden Boot award – made waves in both hemispheres.
Inglis has admitted he’ll likely have a target on his back when the season gets underway. It awaits to be seen whether he can discover the form which heralded him as one of the sport’s greats.
Across the pennines, Hull FC are also enjoying a star coup of their own in half-back Josh Reynolds.
With more than 150 NRL appearances under his belt, Hull supporters will be hoping Reynolds, 31, can take on cult hero status under new boss Brett Hodgson – and fill the void left by Albert Kelly, who returned down under at the end of last season to be closer to his family.
Reynolds has never strayed too far from the headlines, but a new competition promises new horizons for the enigmatic Australian. He’ll be hoping his rugby can do the talking next season.
There’ll be many-a-familiar face coming back to Super League this year, including a reinvigorated John Bateman.
Fresh from a fruitful spell in the NRL with the Canberra Raiders, Bateman returns to Wigan with an enhanced reputation and an even-greater desire to bring silverware to the DW Stadium.
During his first year in the Australian capital, the 27-year-old reached the 2019 NRL Grand Final – suffering a heartbreaking defeat to Sydney Roosters – and was named as Dally M second-rower of the year at the competition’s end-of-season awards ceremony.
Injuries hampered Bateman’s 2020 campaign, though, a persistent shoulder problem limiting the Bradford-born forward to just 11 appearances.
Also on his way back home is Ryan Hall, who has linked up with ex-Leeds boss Tony Smith at Hull KR.
It never really happened for Hall in the NRL, injuries also proving to be his downfall. The 33-year-old made just 11 appearances over two seasons for the Roosters before his release.
But the six-time Grand Final winner still has enough in the tank for another two years at Craven Park. Robins supporters will be hoping Hall can rediscover some of the form which saw him score 232 tries for the Rhinos in a stint spanning over a decade.
Hall hasn’t been the only addition to the Hull KR ranks, and an influx of arrivals has inevitably seen others shown the door.
One of those departing, Ryan Brierley, will be hoping he can become a linchpin of the newly-promoted Leigh Centurions, back in the top flight for the first time since 2017 after the unseemly demise of the Toronto Wolfpack (more on them later).
Leigh gave Brierley, 28, the platform to establish himself as a hugely talented young half-back. He made more than 130 appearances for the club over two spells, with stints at Huddersfield and Toronto too.
It’s back where it all started for Brierley, but can he lead the Centurions to Super League survival? It’ll be a tall order, but undoubtedly one to be relished.
The end (and start) of an era
Super League made plenty of headlines last season, some good and some not quite so.
The most pressing issue off the field concerned Toronto Wolfpack, who ceased to compete in the top flight after running into serious financial difficulties which led to players and staff going unpaid for several months.
New owner Carlo LiVolsi was unsuccessful in his attempts to get the club reinstated into Super League for 2021, and with it saw a rapid dismantling of the Wolfpack roster.
Fresh from a very brief spell at the Melbourne Storm, Samoan international Ricky Leutele will compete for the Huddersfield Giants next term, Gareth O’Brien has signed a three-year deal with the Castleford Tigers, and former Widnes star Joe Mellor is one of four ex-Toronto names joining Leigh for 2021.
With the Canadian franchise dormant for the time being, all players mentioned will be keen to write a fresh and hopefully more prosperous chapter in their careers.
It’s always difficult to say goodbye.
That sentiment is true enough for Mike McMeeken, who announced that he’d ended a six-year association with Castleford, swapping West Yorkshire for the South of France.
So often accused of having a soft underbelly – especially on the road – Catalans have recruited some tried and tested hands in McMeeken, 26, and Salford’s Gil Dudson.
The Hampshire-born back-rower never tasted major silverware with the Tigers, but perhaps a move across the channel will see a change in fortunes.
Speaking of the Red Devils, Dec Patton will be hoping for a new lease of life after leaving hometown club Warrington.
His arrival seems a shrewd piece of business for all parties. Rather than playing second fiddle to Blake Austin and Gareth Widdop, the 25-year-old will likely have the chance to become a regular starter in 2021.
And new Salford head coach Richard Marshall – who knew Patton from his time as Wolves assistant – has acquired a player capable of operating as a six, seven or nine – crucial given the off-season departure of Joey Lussick.
These are two signings which perhaps went under the radar, but mustn’t be understated.
World Cup on the horizon
The upcoming season promises new opportunities – and with a World Cup on the horizon, the chance to step things up a notch.
St Helens’ Irish international James Bentley and Leeds’ England Knights international Mikolaj Oledzki both enjoyed stellar seasons in 2020. These are two players who will have their sights firmly set on the World Cup come autumn.
Bentley takes over the number 12 shirt – vacated by Toulouse-bound Dom Peyroux at the end of last season – while 22-year-old Oledzki has been handed the Rhinos’ number eight jersey. With previous incumbents including 12-time trophy winner Kylie Leuluai and more recently Ava Seumanufagai, he’ll have big shoes to fill.
As for Wakefield, they’ll have somewhat of an unknown quantity in new recruit Mason Lino.
Despite having less than 40 NRL appearances under his belt, the Samoan will be expected to hit the ground running after being given the number seven shirt.
It was a disappointing 2020 for Chris Chester’s Trinity, who averaged just over 17 points per game – lower than anyone in the division. In Lino, have they found their missing piece?