As far as Rugby League off seasons go, it has to be said that the last 80 days since a competitive ball was kicked have passed by relatively quickly and largely without incident, which is nice!
For the first time in a long time, we have an entire division of clubs that have quietly gone about their business without the threat of administration or winding up orders. All clubs have strengthened wherever they can with astute and in some cases ‘mouth-watering’ signings (I’m looking at you Todd Carney). This has kindly allowed the RFL to fully focus all their efforts into preparing our game for a potentially epic, brave new era. The #RLNewEra…
The adage that ‘every minute matters’ has been pushed heavily by the powers that be, and now everybody has had plenty of time to familiarise themselves with the innovative new league format, its hard to argue against them.
So then, neck on the line time…
First:Utility Super League
Grand Findal winners: Wigan (beating St Helens).
I know its an extremely worn out cliché, but SuperLeague XX really does look stronger than ever. With the added pressure of the ‘Super 8s’ mid season split thrown in we should hopefully be served up a veritable feast of exciting rugby right from round 1. A bad start this year and there really is no coming back from it!
Wigan will be out to prove they are the competition’s true top dogs after being de-Flowered in last year’s Grand Final, while Champions St Helens have added beef and creativity in Atelea Vea and Travis Burns. The big boys from Lancashire will again be the ones to beat, although Warrington who are boasting last year’s Steve Prescott Man of Steel winner Darryl Clark and NRL big hitter Ashton Sims in their ranks will have something to say about that, along with Todd Carney’s Catalan Dragons, who’s tenth season in Super League will hopefully be a successful one.
Just missing out on the play offs will be Huddersfield Giants, who I think may still win silverware at Wembley this season. Leeds golden generation will be yet another year older although Adam Cuthbertson has impressed in pre-season and will be one to watch. Hull FC should improve on a dismal 2014 and Castleford may just suffer from second season syndrome, but should avoid the drop.
Million Pound game winners: Leigh.
This is where I got really excited looking ahead to the #RLNewEra! As four strong looking Super League teams will join four strong Championship teams for 7 whole rounds of action with everything at stake. If any of Widnes, Hull KR or Salford make the top 8 I wouldn’t be at all surprised, which I think shows how even the competition is this year.
2015 will be the first season in my lifetime that Bradford haven’t been in the top flight, and with arguably a stronger squad than 2014 they will be looking to prove a point (or six). London also look stronger than their last campaign and refreshingly both teams off seasons have been full of positivity.
Leigh were runaway winners of the Championship in 2014 and I expect them to carry that fine form on, especially with NRL superstar Fuifui Moimoi in their ranks. The Centurions should be a good bet for glory in the Million Pound Game, triumphing over Wakefield, who I think are the weakest in Super League this year and may find themselves in trouble in the final third of the season, although I’m sure they will be up for the fight and proving me and other doubters wrong. Featherstone with their huge pack will relish playing in some of these big games but there are questions over the turnover in players for me which they seem to have struggled with in recent years.
Kingstone Press Championship Shield
Kingstone Press Championship Shield winners: Halifax (beating Dewsbury).
Just missing out on middle 8 fun will be Championship big guns Halifax and Sheffield, who I expect to use that as motivation for dominating the Championship Shield in the final third of the season. Dewsbury and Doncaster have both impressed in pre-season though and should do well out of the so called Championship ‘part-timers’. Batley and Workington will be dogged enough to avoid the drop, 2014’s Championship 1 play-off winners Hunslet will give it a good go but just fall short, and I worry for Whitehaven, who at the time of writing this only have 13 registered players!
Kingstone Press League 1
Kingstone Press League 1 Cup winners: Keighley.
Kingstone Press League 1 winners: Keighley (beating Rochdale).
Kingstone Press League 1 play off winners: Rochdale (beating York).
The #RLNewEra continues to see the game take steady and encouraging steps of expansion as we welcome Coventry Bears to the pro ranks. Newly named Newcastle Thunder also take their place at the table along with five strong clubs who drop down from last year’s Championship in Barrow, Crusaders, Keighley, Rochdale and Swinton. Last years Championship 1 Champions York will be hoping to put a disappointing end to 2014 and a turbulent pre season behind them and if (thats a big IF) they finally move in to Bootham Crescent in the heart of the city, they could flourish under new coach James Ford. 2014 beaten grand finalists Oldham should also be in the mix, and expansion teams London Skolars, Oxford, Gloucestershire, Hemel and South Wales will all hopefully enjoy successful seasons of progress.
Other notable predictions
World Club Series winners: Wigan, Dragons & Souths.
Ladbrokes Challenge Cup winners: Huddersfield (beating Wigan).
Top Try scorer: Joe Burgess.
Young POTY: Ryan Hampshire.
Steve Prescott Man of Steel: Todd Carney.
The expanded World Club Series will be the first major event of the #RLNewEra, and already it is shaping up to be a huge one. St Helens have already put the ‘SOLD OUT’ signs up at Langtree Park for their game with Russell Crowe’s South Sydney, Warrington are very close to following suit with their game against Benji Marshall’s St George Illawarra, and Wigan are all set to renew their epic rivalry with the Brisbane Broncos.
The Challenge Cup should enjoy a lot of coverage thanks to its new partnership with betting giants Ladbrokes, and I hope we get to see a new name on the cup this year. My pick will be the Huddersfield Giants, who will win it with a Danny Brough drop goal that clips the top of the post…
Wigan’s young guns Ryan Hampshire and the departing Joe Burgess should feature in the end of season accolades if they continue to progress as well as they did in 2014, and Catalans superstar Todd Carney should pick up the Steve Prescott Man of Steel award if he stays injury free, much like Greg Bird did in his season at the Dragons.
Now if you stick a pound on all that to come in and it does, remember where you read it!
Every minute matters… So what are we waiting for?