1. Fire-breathing Dragons
Will 2016 finally be the year of the Catalans Dragons? Next season can they finally replicate their home form when they’re away? That is the ultimate question for the greatest enigma in rugby league. In Perpignan the Dragons are big, brutal and imposing, bashing teams off the park and running them ragged with speed and smarts. Their 46-16 whalloping of league leaders Leeds shows they are a classy team and can beat anyone, when they are playing in the confines of France of course. Outside of their own stadium it’s a different story. Catalans have won 11 out of 14 games at home this season losing once to Huddersfield, controversially, once to the Rhinos and with one draw to Salford. They have smashed Wigan by 42 points and beat defending champions St Helens twice at the Stade Gilbert Brutus.
But in the UK they have been diabolical, losing 12 from 14 games. They’ve managed one sole victory, over Wakefield, this year, combined with a draw with the Giants at Magic Weekend. That’s simply not good enough. You can’t be a serious contender – in any sport – if you can’t win away from your own turf. Catalans have too much talent in their team, too much firepower and experience, to be so meek outside of France. They have a mental block when they are out of the republic, a losing mindset that they need to change. The New Zealand Warriors have been accused of something similar in the past, though they have at least made two NRL grand finals, in 2011 and 2002. The Dragons have yet to reach that stage and considering the talent they’ve had this year, and will boast next season such as Glenn Stewart and Dave Taylor, they should be.
2. They might be Giants
While Leeds slip up and Wigan and Saints fail to impress in close wins, Huddersfield continue to travel under the radar. The Giants’ 38-point demolition of Warrington means they can no longer be completely ignored. Paul Anderson has got his men firing at the right time of the year. Jermaine McGillvary is unstoppable at the moment and surely has to be in the reckoning for England honours. Jamie Ellis has been impressive, and his partnership with the match-winner Danny Brough continues to go from strength to strength. With a tough forward pack in front of them and some big backs, like McGillvary and Leroy Cudjoe, they are a quality team. Huddersfield have now won four games in a row, knocking off the Wolves, Cas, St Helens and Catalans. They’ve won six of their past seven and are on a hot streak.
Virtually guaranteed a top-four spot at the end of the Super 8s now, seeing the Giants at Old Trafford come October would be a treat. The top four needs a shake-up and Huddersfield could do it. But will their fans and their city get behind them? The Giants’ home crowds have been notoriously poor – just 5,563 for the Warrington game and 5,350 for the visit of Castleford and 7,307 for when Wigan turned up in June. For the birthplace of rugby league, a town of around 160,000, it’s just not good enough. Anderson’s team could be on the verge of something very special. If the Giants can get to the grand final and only have three to five thousand supporters cheering them on in Manchester, that would be very sad to see.
3. Hot Halifax
Richard Marshall’s side were meant to be whipping boys in the Super 8s qualifiers. Finishing in fourth spot in the Championship, they were expected to be cannon fodder for the Super League teams and the likes of Leigh and Bradford. But Halifax have been a breath of fresh air with their determined displays, gritty defence and pure commitment. This is a well-coached team that play for each other and are united. Marshall, in just his first season after leaving the Warrington coaching job, has done a fantastic job.
Fax almost pulled off the unthinkable, an upset against Super League opposition in Widnes in round one. They were impressive, but beaten, against Hull KR and then were dreadfully unlucky to lose to Sheffield in the dying minutes. But today they surprised Championship rivals Leigh with a dominant 22-point win, their first in the Qualifiers. The unlikely victory has given them an outside chance of booking their place in the million pound game, with fixtures against Wakefield and Bradford to come. Regardless of what happens in the rest of the season, Halifax have over-achieved. Marshall is of the best young coaches in England. With him in charge and if Fax continue to grow and build incrementally, this is a club on the rise who may just well be a fixture in Super League in the years to come.
4. Tyrone’s trip
Tyrone McCarthy will leave Super League at the end of this season to join St George Illawarra in the NRL. The Dragons have become quite a home for English talent with Mike Cooper and Gareth Widdop already on the books there. McCarthy’s move came as a bit of a surprise at this late stage, but the back-rower did have NRL offers a year ago after an outstanding season in the Queensland Cup with Northern Pride. At that point McCarthy decided to return home to the UK and sign with Hull KR, where he has been a key part of the their run to the Challenge Cup final.
McCarthy is the sort of team player that every side needs, the kind of person you want in the trenches beside you. He doesn’t score loads of tries, throw 30-metre cutout passes or step defenders but he does the dirty work. He carts the ball up time after time, he tackles himself to a stand-still and inspires his teammates. A leader, McCarthy was a smart choice for Hull KR captain when Terry Campese went down with a serious injury. Having had the opportunity to interview McCarthy several times, he is one of the nice guys in the sport and a great ambassador for rugby league. The Irish international also has his own charitable organization – The Full Blood Project – which helps educate children in underdeveloped countries through rugby league. McCarthy should be a fine addition to the Red V, one of the oldest and proudest clubs Down Under.
5. The kids are alright
Wigan were expected to hammer Hull FC at the DW Stadium. The Black and Whites had nothing to play for, were missing several key players and the Warriors always win at home. Wigan did get the victory in the end, but just by six points and with a fair ounce of luck. Hull FC’s young side, featuring several rookies, were gutsy and really took it to their opponents. The Black and Whites lost Tom Lineham and Jamie Shaul through injury during the game but kept plugging away and never gave up. It was an inspiring display from an in-experienced and out-gunned 17.
Centre Jack Logan was outstanding while Curtis Naughton was a handful, loose forward Dean Hadley made a staggering 51 tackles and fellow youngster Jansin Turgut pulled off 32 tackles of his own. Both Brad Fash and debutant Masimbaashe Matongo had a positive impact off the bench. Lee Radford and his charges will take a lot away from this performance that was filled with guts and character. It also shows the talent inside the Black and Whites and the full worth of developing your own players. If Hull FC’s academy keeps producing this kind of talent then the club is in good hands in the seasons ahead.