Early Impressions: SL XII

Is it too early to make a judgment on the exciting campaign the Rugby League following world has to look forwards to? Well, it seems as most teams are pretty much sorted for the season, so barring a few late injuries I think most people can start to expect a few things in 2007. It’s certainly going to be exiting, with quite a few key players being introduced into Super League, such as Morley, Webb, Gidley and Barrett. There’s enough unfulfilled potential out there that anything can happen, but here are my predictions as to how things are going to pan-out in 2007.

St.Helens
Prediction: First Place

Lyon out, Gidley in; that’s perhaps the most interesting of changes in this very intimidating squad. He brings some experience on his shoulders, but has been criticised in the Aussie press for not having enough pace for a centre. Whether this will be true in his contribution to the English game has yet to be seen. Known as an unselfish centre, whoever plays outside him is bound to bring in the tries, but Gidley is no Jamie Lyon.

There’s pace, power, aggression and attitude throughout this Saints squad, which will give them the cutting edge against many teams. It’s a team with talent and fire, giving them the ability to play different styles of Rugby League. They have centre / wing combinations that many of the lower-tier teams will not be able to compete with, but if Long is ruled out at any stage of the season, you fear that they will then be missing a player they simply cannot replace. There’s undisputedly some world-class talent in this team, and a great team spirit to accompany the levels of skill they have. It’s a no nonsense team that will keep going at whoever they meet.

Expectations: Unless they have a shock start they will overturn many teams by large
margins, once again. Much too powerful for smaller, inexperienced teams.

Leeds
Prediction: Second Place

Ritchie Mathers will be missed. Full-back is so often mistaken for a position that any half-decent back can slot into and do a job, but I don’t think that’s the case. It took a while for both Radlinski and Wellens to reach the heights that they managed, but Mathers did it within an instant, and it made a great difference to the team. Confident, classy, an exceptional all-rounder, I just don’t think Leeds have that calmness and intelligence anywhere else, although Tansey, Smith and Webb are exceptional players, I just can’t see any of them filling the gap the way Mathers did, and the NRL is very lucky to have him. Leeds are also going to feel the loss of Chev Walker, who I don’t think we saw the best of. You can’t replace 6ft 4in, stocky runners. They’re the future of Rugby League and devastating in the centres.

Having said that, the Leeds squad is one to be very envious of, as there are barely any weaknesses, not in the physical sense, anyway. They’ve arguably got the best set of half-backs in Super League and will have for a good few years in McGuire and Burrow.. In McGuire, UK League fans have probably never seen anyone as consistently on the shoulder of a line-breaking player since the days of Shaun Edwards. They have try scorers all over the field, and amazing athletes in every position. Unfortunately they’re lacking Morley-esque grit, and need more leaders. When they’re under the cosh, can they actually club together and pull it around? Last season suggests more often than not that they can’t.

Expectations: The team that knows it could, but never puts in the effort. Need to learn
how to be clinical and DESTROY teams. An extremely competent squad across the board with lots of dynamism. Perhaps the strongest squad in Super League.

Hull
Prediction: Third Place

Shaun McRae built a team from nothing, and Sharp finished it all off. It?s easy to forget what a good coach can do, but McRae at Hull, Smith at Bradford, Murray at Leeds have all raised Rugby League to a new level of competitiveness and professionalism. These days, each season Hull seem to reap the benefits of those earlier years, surprising us with how well their British talent has developed. They did it in the right way, signing experienced foreign talent in key positions, binding them together with a rich crop of youth talent that were on the cusp pf being first team players. It’s difficult to imagine this Hull team being outside of the top five in the next few seasons, unless this group of stars is disbanded.

There’s a lot of excitement surrounding Kirk Yeaman, and of course, Raynor and Horne are likely to be two others in getting the tries. In addition to this, Matt Sing will be joining Hull (one of the all-time greatest try-scorers in NRL history), who at 31 has an invaluable amount of experience to inject into this young team.

Not much has changed to the overall look of the squad, which is great for Hull's consistency. It has yet to be seen whether the loss of Thackery will have a large impact, but Hull are equipped with a great set of props, so perhaps it won?t matter so much. However, if they lost Paul Cooke they would lose one of the real driving forces behind this teams recent success.

Expectations: They play for each other, a consummate team. Will punch above their weight for another season.

Warrington
Prediction: Fourth Place

For the past few seasons Warrington have splashed the cash, as well as taking advantage of picking-up some of the best of the out-of-contract stars that had to make way for clubs to stay within the salary cap. What have they won? Whereas the likes of Hull picked up youngsters with potential and generally coached them up to international standards, Warrington bought-in ready-made quality, yet they haven’t made it work for them. I don’t like to say it, but whilst he talks a good game, the Warrington board cannot remain blinkered another season if they don’t do something this time around, Paul Cullen’s status as head coach is surely under jeopardy.

The talent is there. All roster changes in the close season appear to be positive. It’s difficult to say where the weakness has been in the past few years, but this is a squad that boasts talent all over the park. Perhaps you could argue the pack is not strong enough, and doesn’t boast mobile bulk like many other top teams, but with the likes of Rob Parker in there it doesn’t seem a credible argument. Morley’s maturity, experience and legendary aggression will make him an instant talisman in this team. If he has the legs that we remember from his Leeds days then few teams will be able to cope with his tackle-bursting ability. It’s up to Bridge and perhaps new signing Johnson to stay on his shoulder, as Briers is unlikely to have the pace to take advantage of Morley’s runs.

Expectations: Will get the results, a few surprises too, but previous seasons suggest that something is missing. Whether they have it this time around is questionable, but the first team squad is very strong. Heavily reliant on Briers’ kicking game.

Wigan
Prediction: Fifth Place

Noble clearly saw a huge void in the Wigan half-backs, and that’s well and truly been addressed through the introduction of Millard, Barrett, Leuluai (and Withers, who let’s face it, can, and has, played everywhere). Add these to Hock, O’Loughlin and Higham and you have a long list of proven players that will give lots of intimidation to a whole number of teams. Noble’s influence has been immense, which was a real surprise, so you can’t discount his huge motivational impact on this team and what that alone will do for them in the up-and-coming season.

The major concern with Wigan is their young pack, and a general young outlook across the team. Having been thrown in at the deep-end in last season, you’d think that these kids will come out fighting this time around and be much more worldly-wise and savvy towards a lot of the short-comings that let them down last season. Noble will have seen to that.

Expectations: It’s a new era and a team of unknown quality and potential. Although they were often made to look foolish last year, no player pulls on a Wigan shirt if they don’t know Rugby League. Mistakes this year around will not be forgiven or tolerated by their charismatic coach.

Bradford
Prediction: Sixth Place

Bradford are still in a transitional phase, but by 2008 you’d assume they will be back on their game. It’s difficult to see it happening this season, however. Hape is probably the best finisher 10-metres from the line in Super League, Vainikolo will always get tries as will Ben Harris. Looking at the team, it’s clear that Bradford have been a victim of their own success, and the talent they have produced just got too good and expensive. They’ve decided to retain key players and have sacrificed the massive depth that won them successive titles. Too many top-class departures and uninspired signings have left this team in the shadows somewhat.

The big boys can certainly do a lot of bullying, and adding Solomona and Feather to the roster will help Bradford continue their dominating, hard-hitting style of Rugby. But if the half backs are injured, where will the creativity come from? Langley is an awesome forward, but his bulk makes him much too obvious for loose-forward, and although he can charge through, he’s not going to have the subtlety of many of Super League’s top loose forwards.

Deacon and Harris are two consistent performers in Super League and have proven themselves many times over. However, neither of them have a great deal of pace, not the sort that can intimidate. If a team can cope with either of these players’ trickery and intelligence they can virtually shut down this team with relative ease.

Expectations: A team built on bulk is difficult to cope with, and few will be able to outmuscle them, but the more athletic teams like Huddersfield may decide to use a lack of weight to their advantage and cause a shock. Loosing points like that will be costly.

Huddersfield
Prediction: Seventh Place

They picked up a few signings towards the end of last season, which is perhaps why they’ve seen fit not to sign-on like-for-like talent in their vast summer clearout. This could prove to be a big mistake in a long, tough Super League season. It’s interesting that they decided to off-load a high-calibre utility man like March, yet decided not to seek a replacement (perhaps leaving Brown to fill several roles should injury hit, who knows?) Having said that, Ryan Hudson could be the key to all their answers and spark something really special on his return to the club; if he can match the form he hit before his enforced absence, then something special could be on the cards. Is it likely that the youngsters Huddersfield are bound to test out in this campaign are up to the standards of the bigger clubs, we will wait and see.

Jones, Brown, Aspinwall, Wild, Thorman – a few British players all looking to break through into the international scene, all young and hungry, they could be the key to Huddersfield’s successes. Robbie Paul will lead the way, and the pack is solid, but with such a small squad, a lack of real beef and power in the backs (with the exception of Crabtree, who to be fair looks to have compromised pace in favour of size in recent years, hence his shift between forwards and backs) it would have to be a massive dream to think that Huddersfield can finish in the top three. Anywhere else is possible, so you’d have to be foolish to write them off.

Expectations: They will give it everything and fight for every point. A well-trained team who know the basics well, and stick to the disciplines. Have a few surprises for teams who ease-off, and enough talent to lock-up and defend a lead. A small squad lacking international experience may be their shortcoming.

Salford
Prediction: Eighth Place

Here’s a team that will be fighting out things with Huddersfield all the way to the end of the season. Gone are the days when these two are merely making up the numbers, they’re both fine and established teams that can overturn any team on their day, but don’t have the resources to do it week-in, week-out.

Coley, Korkidas and mighty Malcom Alker will make for a very interesting front row. Obviously Karl Harrison knows his stuff where it comes to this area, and with the addition of Edmondson alongside Korkidas, it looks like Salford are going to have a very interesting pack this season. Once again, this is a pretty small squad, but with consistent and talented individuals. Robinson, Dorn, Fitzpatrick and Hodgson are all great players, but you do wonder whether those around them can pick-up their games and take them to the next level needed to make any kind of improvement on their tremendous campaign last year.

Expectations: A tough, steely team. Hoping to get a good start to the season, but unlikely to have the depth to stay in the top five.

Harlequins
Prediction: Ninth Place

This is a team that’s lost almost a whole playing staff, and brought in Danny Orr to
replace them. It’s difficult to write off Harlequins however, as they’ve always managed to get something together. The franchise looks like it’s almost had its last breath, but results come in slow and steady to justify their existence. To add to this, Harlequins will start the season without a couple of key players, which is either bravery or madness on their coaching staff’s behalf. Have they finally unearthed some real local talent? We all want to see.

McLinden and Paul are going to be key players, but they’re certainly tough enough to handle the pressure.

Expectations: Strugglers.

Wakefield
Prediction: Tenth Place

Steve Ferres is an exceptionally savvy Rugby League man, and although he’s the quiet and rarely mentioned chief executive, I wouldn’t discount his influence on the whole organisation. Because of him, you can never really write off Wakefield, who are in their Super League infancy, but ready to grow-up a lot in the next few years.

For another season, the fans at Belle Vue will have little to cheer about, but March’s return is likely to re-unite a partnership with his brother that was always full of fire and excitement. The historic ground is one of a dying generation, and little has changed since the days of This Sporting Life. Still, those days are sadly over, but the history of the ground does make it a difficult place to visit, and it’s quite a hard one for many teams to deal with, especially on a blustery West-Yorkshire afternoon.

Losing three props is a blow that even the best of recruitment drives would struggle to overcome. Unfortunately, these were some of Wakefield’s better players. Add this to Monty Betham’s retirement, you have a big void to fill, especially since he was such a work-horse. To replace them, Wakefield have signed the nearly-men of Rugby League, to try and salvage some kind of pack. This may be a big problem. Any positives in their transfers are likely to only be felt in the future, although Wayne Price is destined to do well.

A lot depends on point machine Rooney to continue his role as one of the most un-sung players in UK Rugby League. He does need to have an injury-free season, as his contribution is vital.

Expectations: Strugglers, though don’t be surprised if they turn over a few points. Defence is perhaps where Wakefield are lacking.

Hull KR
Prediction: Eleventh Place

I?ve only ever once seen a squad with such a huge turnover of players actually gel together quickly. I believe that was Widnes a couple of years ago, but don?t expect to see the same thing happen twice in a lifetime. Hull KR have cannily stripped out some solid lower-league players and gone for a couple of seasoned old pro?s in their place,  who you know will do the business; Gannon and Gene are both two solid athletes who are exceptional at what they do, and perfect for any team looking to bring in read-made quality and experience.

In last year’s cup run Hull KR proved sufficiently that they deserved a place in Super League. Coach Justin Morgan has done the area proud in assembling a quality team. The only doubts are whether they can sustain it week in and week out; it's very difficult generating a lasting level of morale, especially when you?re not winning every week; can Byron Ford keep doing it at the highest level?

Expectations: A spirited fight from a well-coached team, but should be expecting the same fate of Smith’s Huddersfield team that were promoted from an unbeaten run in the lower leagues.

Catalans
Prediction: Twelfth Place

Strong recruitment, but reminiscent of the London Broncos as a team struggling to match the pace. It was a tall order to get things going, but the foundations of this team are strong enough to survive, especially with the likes of Justin Murphy in the team; to finish top try scorer of the season in such a weak team is an achievement that cannot be built-up enough.

This team is capable of surprises, but only because others underestimate them. At home, they have the benefit of not travelling a hell of a long way, which can really take it out of a team physically and psychologically.

Expectations: Still an unknown quantity, but Super League is a tough level to achieve, even for promoted teams, let alone one that’s basically still being put together.

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