With four months exactly to the Super League Grand Final, the rugby league domestic season has already reached its mid-point after an eventful first half to the year. The start of the year saw several clubs boasting improved rosters going into the season, leading many to predict a tight race at the top of Super League with up to seven possible challengers for Old Trafford glory come October. Whilst a clear gap between the top and bottom half has become evident, there however appears to be a breakaway at the top with Wigan Warriors currently having a 3-point lead above the pack after 16 of the 27 regular rounds and looking the current stand-out favourites to claim their third Super League title in a season which has seen mixed fortunes so far for clubs around the region.
Quite simply the pace-setters and currently the team that everyone else has to catch. Shaun Wane’s tenure as Wigan head coach could hardly have started more impressively as the Warriors lie top of the tree with a place in the last 4 of the Cup secured. If predecessor Michael Maguire turned Wigan into an impressively well-drilled outfit, Wane has added an extra edge to the Warriors. Their attack has been sharper and more adventurous, with halves Brett Finch and Thomas Leuluia looking in great form and Gareth Hock looking like a new signing this year after his return from a 2-year drug ban in mid-2011. Along with the devastating presence of Sam Tomkins chiming into the line, defences have been struggled to cope with Wigan’s threat, evident through their 590 points scored in 16 games. Defensively ruthless too, Wane’s perfectionist attitude looks to have been instilled into his players who never look to be satisfied and always searching for improvement. Following last week’s 50-8 thrashing of Leeds, Tomkins’ warning “We haven’t peaked yet” epitomises the coach’s attitude. After already picking up wins at Huddersfield, a double over Leeds and three victories over St Helens, improvement from the Warriors would be ominous for the other challengers. Red-hot favourites for the League Leaders’ Shield already, on current form it would be a surprise if they did not pick up at least one of the big prizes at either Wembley or Old Trafford in 2012.
Not yet reaching the consistent heights of last year’s table-topping season, my pre-season tip for the title look to be pacing themselves ahead of the business end this time around. After blitzing all in the league in 2011, and then coming unstuck against eventual champions Leeds in the semi-finals of the play-offs when it mattered the Wolves are desperate to avoid a similar disappointment this term. Coach Tony Smith said after their pre-season trip to Australia, from which they returned just days before the first game of the season, that he hoped his side would gain the benefits later in the season, even if it meant sacrificing a couple of games early on, showing that the Wolves’ focus is undoubtedly upon the business end of the year.
All that being said they are currently lying 2nd in the league and in the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup, with wins at Wigan and Huddersfield the highlights of the league season so far even without fully hitting their straps. Michael Monagan’s absence through injury has certainly been noticeable at times, especially in defeats to St Helens and champions Leeds. However, their Cup quarter-final win away at Catalans shows the Wolves have the big game players with the likes of Brett Hodgson and Lee Briers, who is playing in his final year before retirement. There are still unanswered questions over whether they can grind out a win in the play-offs when it really matters, but still in the mix in both competitions and for me currently one of two sides that could genuinely threaten Wigan for the Grand Final.
6th in the table, out of the Cup and the coach sacked. You would have to say it has been a disappointing start to the Langtree Park era for the Saints. An early season slump saw a severe lack of confidence apparent throughout the side. Five game without a win in the club’s worst run of results since 1989 saw the end of Royce Simmons’ rein in March, along with assistant Keiron Purtill, as head of youth development Mike Rush and ex-playing club legend Keiron Cunningham took charge for the rest of the season, with it being announced soon after that Huddersfield boss Nathan Brown will arrive at Saints from the start of next season. On the field things have improved results-wise with an impressive thrashing of Leeds followed by a victory at Warrington kickstarting the interim regime. Their completing a league double over Leeds the other week proves that they are still capable of competing with the top sides on occasion with James Roby once again being instrumental in Saints’ performances.
However, claims to being genuine contenders for 2012 have been severely undermined by 3 comprehensive defeats by local rivals Wigan, including a hugely disappointing display which saw the Warriors knock them out of the Challenge Cup to end any realistic chances of silverware for the season, with attacking creativity seeming to still be lacking in the big games. Performances by young players such as Josh Jones introduced into the side by Rush, shows some promise for the future, although Saints have so far never had a settled side in the backs with changes to the team being regular. With no Cup distractions Saints will look for a good run in the back end of the league season ahead of the play-off campaign, but with the deficiencies in the side my pre-season prediction of a seventh consecutive Old Trafford appearance may prove to have been ambitious.
An expected difficult start for the Vikings making the step up to the top-flight has seen some expected heavy defeats and raised inevitable questions over the merits of the licensing system. Squad depth and a lack of experience has inevitably made it a tough opening season back in the big time. However, positive signs for Widnes fans have been evident with three victories including the scalps of two of the top three, in Wigan and Huddersfield with the latter taking them off the bottom of the table. With the club introducing young players and already beginning its recruitment for next season and beyond, a finish off the bottom in their ‘bedding in’ season would be an admirable achievement.
- Other expected challengers have had strong starts to the season. Huddersfield Giants currently lie in fourth after another strong start to the year and have a date with Warrington in the Cup semi-finals. However, after a dramatic decline in the latter half of last season the big question remains over whether the Giants can make it count in Super League when it matters. A heavy loss at home to Wigan a few weeks ago seems to have dented confidence as they have suffered a four-match losing streak which will again raise questions over them having genuine title credentials.
- Catalans Dragons have also had a positive start to the year, continuing the improvement from last season and lying 3rd on the ladder after 16 rounds. Already proving one of the most memorable moments of Super League with their last-gasp after-the-hooter win at St Helens in Round 4, they have shown some dazzling attacking rugby. Losses at Wigan and Leeds and in the Cup to Warrington raise question marks of whether they can make the step up for the big games, but the Dragons will be optimistic as they make their play-off charge.
- It has been a case of deja-vu for defending champions Leeds Rhinos with a largely abject opening half of the season seeing them lie in 9th after Round 16, just outside the play-off positions. After producing a wonderful late surge in 2011 which saw them eventually take the title after finishing 5th a similar resurgence would be needed in 2012 which given the current controversial structure of the competition with the Top-8 play-off system could still be feasible. Still able to produce on the big stage as shown by their World Club challenge victory in February, they already have a place in the semi-finals of the Cup against Wigan. With the knowledge that they have been there and done it before, it may be premature to count them out of the race yet providing they finish in the top 8. The heavy defeat to Wigan last week shows there is currently a massive gulf to make up at the moment and the task will be more difficult this time around but aside from the top 2, the Rhinos could still yet be the most likely bet to feature in the Grand Final.
- Improved campaigns have also been witnessed for Hull FC, who currently lie in 5th and Bradford Bulls who, despite all their off-field financial traumas, currently lie in 8th ,, inside the play-off places. Making the end-of-season party would be a huge achievement by the Bulls as they will most likely face a scrap with Hull KR and Salford for that play-off spot. A mixed campaign for the new-look Wakefield Trinity Wildcats sees them lie in 11th whilst there have been hugely disappointing starts for Ian Millward’s Castleford Tigers who lie in 12th and the London Broncos propping up the rest at the foot of the table.
As the season heads towards its climax, and the top sides jostle for the most favourable play-off positions, an intriguing battle for the lower play-off places lies ahead. Wigan are looking clear front-runners for the top at this stage, but as recent history has proven, nothing is set in stone in June. The added dynamic to the competition which the play-offs add can spring surprises, whilst injuries and the Challenge Cup could also prove to be important extraneous factors in the Super League race. By no means a done deal yet, time will tell on who will write the biggest story of 2012 as the race to Old Trafford begins to hot up.
Super League XVII Round Sixteen results:
Leeds Rhinos 8-50 Wigan Warriors
Salford City Reds 34-30 Catalans Dragons
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats 24-6 London Broncos
Hull FC 18-18 St Helens
Hull KR 23-22 Warrington Wolves
Widnes Vikings 26-22 Huddersfield Giants
Bradford Bulls 46-32 Castleford Tigers