Super League is back as Wigan prepare to defend their title after winning the Grand Final in 2016.
The Warriors kick-off their campaign on Saturday when they travel to Salford, but before that we get the season underway with Thursday’s live game as St Helens host Leeds – live on Sky Sports 1 from 7.30pm.
On Friday we get our first glimpse of newcomers Leigh as they take on Castleford on Sky Sports 2 from 7.30pm, while on Saturday Warrington head to Perpignan to face the Dragons on Sky Sports 3 from 5pm.
But who are the contenders for this year’s Grand Final and who will battle when it comes to the Super 8s? Barrie and Terry give their views on all the teams…
Barrie says: This could be a very special year for the Tigers. I’ve spoken to people inside the camp who have said it is the best atmosphere they’ve been involved in, which I put down to the coaching staff of Daryl Powell, Ryan Sheridan and Danny Orr.
Cas play with a cutting-edge contemporary style mixed with an old-fashioned attitude game. Their speed and accuracy embeds them in the modern game, making them one of the few teams that threaten you all over the pitch. They have the right balance of size, skill and endurance in the forwards, led by the ‘Benjamin Button’ of Super League – Andy Lynch.
Creativity comes in the shape of Luke Gale, Ben Roberts and Rangi Chase, but the addition of Greg Eden and Zak Hardaker will keep defences guessing – they are as unpredictable as the British weather. They could very easily find themselves in a final this year but I’m confident at this stage they should at least reach the play-offs.
Key man: Luke Gale
Prediction: Top four finish
Players in: Zak Hardaker (Leeds Rhinos – on loan), Greg Eden (Brisbane Broncos), Tuoyo Egodo, (London Broncos), Daniel Igbinedion (Oxford RLFC), Larne Patrick (Huddersfield Giants), Jesse Sene-Lefao (Cronulla Sharks).
Players out: Ryan Boyle (Halifax), Ben Crooks (Leigh Centurions – on loan, Luke Dorn (retired), Tom Holmes (Batley Bulldogs – on loan), Lee Jewitt (Townsville Blackhawks), Will Maher (Batley Bulldogs – on loan), Frankie Mariano (Featherstone Rovers), Denny Solomona (Sale Sharks), Brandon Westerman (released).
Barrie says: After so much promise with some eminent signings it looked as if 2016 was the year of the Dragon. However a poor end to the season forced the club to make some big decisions about its playing personnel, and some high-profile players were moved on.
Catalans have a side to challenge anybody but the test for them is creating the right culture and blending the different nationalities together to develop a cohesive unit. Players like Sam Moa, Greg Bird and Remi Casty will be asked to lay the platform with their experience.
It’s very important for the Dragons to be close to unbeaten at home and tough to beat on the road. I can envisage one but not the other, so it could be another barren year for the French club.
Key man: Greg Bird
Prediction: Top 8 finish
Players in: Greg Bird (Gold Coast Titans), Luke Burgess (Manly Sea Eagles), Sam Moa (Sydney Roosters), Mickael Simon (Wakefield Trinity), Iain Thornley (Hull Kingston Rovers), Luke Walsh (St Helens), Brayden Wiliame (Manly Sea Eagles).
Players out: Todd Carney (Salford Red Devils), Olivier Elima (Released), Morgan Escare (Wigan Warriors). Greg Mounis (Retired), Romain Navarrete (Wigan Warriors), Eloi Pelissier (Leigh Centurions), Stan Robin (Toulouse Olympique), Glenn Stewart (Leigh Centurions), Dave Taylor (Canberra Raiders).
Barrie says: Another team that had a shocker in 2016. Paul Anderson was shown the door and Rick Stone came in with the task of keeping the Giants in Super League, an assignment he completed.
This year it’s a different side on paper with a new feel about it. They have signed five players from Bradford to bolster the squad, which will add a fresh ingredient to the changing room.
It was only in 2013 when the Giants finished as League leaders, and they finished in the top four every season thereafter until last year’s horror show. They need to eradicate that losing mentality and recapture the hunger of the previous years where they were a difficult to beat; a team built on a mean defence and lethal attack.
Key man: Jermaine McGillvary
Prediction: Top 8 finish
Players in: Paul Clough (Bradford Bulls), Dale Ferguson (Bradford Bulls), Lee Gaskell (Bradford Bulls), Jake Mamo (Newcastle Knights), Alex Mellor (Bradford Bulls), Adam O’Brien (Bradford Bulls), Shannon Wakeman (Illawarra Cutters).
Players out: Jake Connor (Hull FC), Eorl Crabtree (Retired), Jamie Ellis (Hull Kingston Rovers – on loan), Scott Grix (Wakefield Trinity), Craig Huby (Wakefield Trinity), Josh Johnson (Released), Larne Patrick (Castleford Tigers), Joe Wardle (Newcastle Knights), Kyle Wood (Wakefield Trinity).
Barrie says: Last year Hull tasted victory in a major final for the first time since 2005, and were Challenge Cup winners at Wembley for the first time in their 150-year history. However, they ran out of steam at the end of the year and lost four from their last five games in 2016.
Lee Radford will be working on his team’s mental and physical resilience, and there is still plenty to improve on for the impressive Black and Whites.
At times they had – both collectively and individually – the best forwards in the league, with players who were right on top of their game such as Scott Taylor, Danny Houghton, Liam Watts, Gareth Ellis and Mark Minichiello. With a new half-back partnership, they should get plenty of try-scoring opportunities this year.
Key man: Albert Kelly
Prediction: I expect them to make another final in 2017.
Players in: Jake Connor (Huddersfield Giants), Josh Griffin (Salford Red Devils), Albert Kelly (Hull Kingston Rovers), Nick Rawsthorne (Halifax).
Players out: Jordan Abdull (Hull Kingston Rovers – on loan), Iafeta Palea’aesina (Doncaster), Frank Pritchard (Parramatta Eels), Leon Pryce (Bradford Bulls), Kirk Yeaman (Retired).
Barrie says: It was largely a very poor year for the 2015 treble-winning champions who had a disastrous start to the campaign, but they finished the season winning 12 out of 14. That resurgence came from the now-departed James Segeyaro, who leaves a big hole which Leeds hope is plugged by Matt Parcell.
Looking at the positives, Kallum Watkins and Brad Singleton put a shift in week in and week out, while the emergence of players like Jordan Lilley and Ashton Golding, plus the return to fitness of Stevie Ward and Liam Sutcliffe, gives hope for the future.
The leadership of the old guard such as Rob Burrow, Danny McGuire and Jamie Jones-Buchanan will need to be strong after the Rhinos learned some harsh lessons in 2016. It is almost the same squad from last year who will be given the task in 2017, and this is still a team that can beat anybody on their day, but it will be tough to see them doing it regularly unless they keep key players fit.
Key man: Brad Singleton
Prediction: Top 6
Players in: Cory Aston (Sheffield Eagles), Jack Ormondroyd (Featherstone Rovers), Matt Parcell (Manly Sea Eagles).
Players out: Mitch Achurch (Released), Zak Hardaker (Castleford Tigers – on loan).
Terry says: The new boys in Super League have waited for years to make their bow. Whenever we’ve featured them on Sky Sports in the Championship they’ve always entertained. Last season Neil Jukes pulled them back a touch as they did have a tendency to just play, play, play.
Derek Beaumont, along with his coach, has brought 10 new faces to the Leigh Sports Village. I watched them against Wigan in the pre-season and they beat the Warriors by 50-10. Yes, Wigan had 10 first-team players missing, but some of the tries that Leigh scored were brilliant.
Good luck to any pack that want to take the Centurions on up front with a physical game plan, because they have one of the fiercest packs in the competition. They are not just fierce but they can play as well, however, they need to focus on playing and not getting involved in personal battles with opponents.
They are joining Super League to make an impact and don’t just want to make up the numbers. The challenge in front of them is to perform each and every week.
Key man: Martyn Ridyard
Players in: Lachlan Burr (Bradford Bulls), James Clare (Bradford Bulls), Ben Crooks (Castleford Tigers – on loan), James Green (Hull Kingston Rovers), Ryan Hampshire (Wigan Warriors), Antoni Maria (Catalans Dragons), Eloi Pelissier (Catalans Dragons), Glenn Stewart (Catalans Dragons), Dave Thompson (Warrington Wolves), Atelea Vea (St Helens).
Players out: Tom Armstrong (Widnes Vikings), Bob Beswick (Toronto Wolfpack), Andrew Dixon (Toronto Wolfpack), Liam Kay (Toronto Wolfpack), FuiFui MoiMoi (Toronto Wolfpack), Reni Maitua (Retiring), Jonny Pownall (Toronto Wolfpack), Tom Spencer (London Broncos), Greg Worthington (Toronto Wolfpack).
Terry says: Salford had to fight it out in that incredible Million Pound Game against Hull KR. They found themselves clinging to a cliff edge in a game they had to win. If they hadn’t received a six-point reduction because of salary cap breaches they’d have finished in sixth spot.
They certainly will back themselves this season and will be hoping that headline signing Todd Carney will gain his visa as soon as possible. With Lama Tasi returning to the Red Devils along with Lee Mossop, they’ll have a pack to mix it with the top sides.
Like all clubs, they need some luck with injuries. If Salford can stay healthy they’ve got a team that will shock a few. With Gareth O’Brien at the back they have that extra ball-player that most coaches like. They also have two good starting wingers who can get them going forward, which will help the bigger men at the back of the sets.
Key man: Gareth O’Brien
Players in: Kris Brining (York City Knight), Todd Carney (Catalans Dragons), Lee Mossop (Wigan Warriors), Daniel Murray (Warrington Wolves), Lama Tasi (St Helens), Kris Welham (Bradford Bulls).
Players out: Luke Burgess (Catalans Dragons), Mason Caton-Brown (Wakefield Trinity), Josh Griffin (Hull FC), Tommy Lee (St Helens), Daniel Vidot (Released).
When you think of silverware you automatically think of four teams, and Saints are one of those teams – they have and always will set themselves high standards. At times last year they felt the pressure from fans but they circled the wagons and stayed strong as a group.
Wasn’t it good to see Jonny Lomax back on the field in 2016 for club and country? He was a success story for St Helens and his game will be helped by the signing of Matty Smith. Although Smith will be out for around 8-10 weeks, he will bring bags of enthusiasm when he returns, which will benefit other star players within the team.
Keiron Cunningham has made a few shrewd signings to go with Smith. Luke Douglas and Adam Walker will complement Kyle Amor and Alex Walmsley, while ex-Melbourne Storm centre Ryan Morgan will certainly give them some strike on the right. That will see them having strike players in both centres, with Mark Percival on the left.
Key man: Danny Richardson
Players in: Luke Douglas (Gold Coast Titans), Tommy Lee (Salford Red Devils), Ryan Morgan (Melbourne Storm), Matty Smith (Wigan Warriors), Adam Walker (Hull Kingston Rovers).
Players out: Travis Burns (Wynnum Manly Seagulls), Lewis Charnock (Barrow Raiders), Olly Davies (Swinton Lions), Matt Haggerty (Released), Shannon McDonnell (Released), Levy Nzoungou (Melbourne Storm u20s), Andre Savelio (Warrington Wolves), Lama Tasi (Salford Red Devils), Jordan Turner (Canberra Raiders), Atelea Vea (Leigh Centurions), Luke Walsh (Catalans Dragons).
Barrie says: 2016 was a year of improvement for Trinity as a good run mid-season put them in the Super 8s for the first time. However they failed to register a win in those seven games. They have lost 10 players from last year’s squad, including influential leader Nick Scruton and maverick Craig Hall, but the charismatic Michael Carter has dipped into the market to replace and complement the squad.
There is no doubt that Chris Chester is a quality coach, and with John Kear alongside him they will shake a few branches this season. However the squad still looks a bit skinny – champion teams win when their champion players aren’t available.
I am a huge fan of Tom Johnstone, Judah Mazive, Max Jowitt and the impressive James Batchelor, who will all be tested to the limit in 2017. The likes of Danny Kirmond, Scott Grix and Liam Finn are crucial to the success, so Martin Clawson and the medical team need to keep those experienced players fit and healthy.
Key man: Danny Kirmond
Prediction: Battling in the Middle 8’s
Players in: Mitch Allgood (Hull Kingston Rovers), Mason Caton-Brown (Salford Red Devils), Scott Grix (Huddersfield Giants), Keegan Hirst (Batley Bulldogs), Craig Huby (Huddersfield Giants), Sam Williams (Canberra Raiders), Kyle Wood (Huddersfield Giants).
Players out: Scott Anderson (Retired), Stuart Howarth (Released), Richard Owen (Released), Nick Scruton (Hull Kingston Rovers), Mickael Simon (Catalans Dragons), Jordan Tansey (Racing Club Lescure-Arthès XIII), Anthony Tupou (Released), Jason Walton (Bradford Bulls).
Terry says: Lots of neutrals are tipping the Wolves to lift the trophy at Old Trafford in October. I think Warrington’s style may change a bit with Kevin Brown in the side, though they will still throw caution to the wind in attack.
Chris Sandow was a wizard with the ball and his-off-the-cuff style of play will be missed in Super League, but Kevin Brown will give them structure and will aid Kurt Gidley’s game. They are an exciting side that like to entertain, and why wouldn’t they with so many stars in the side?
Along with Brown, Tony Smith has recruited well by bringing in Dom Crosby, Mike Cooper, Andre Savelio and Matty Blythe to the Halliwell Jones Stadium. Interestingly, all of the new recruits are English. In fact the Warrington squad only has Kurt Gidley and Ashton Sims from the southern hemisphere.
We will see a few players getting a chance early on in the season as Chris Hill, Ben Currie and Stefan Ratchford will be missing due to injury, and it’s also touch-and-go whether Kevin Brown makes his debut in round 1 due to a slight tear in his hamstring.
Key man: Kevin Brown
Players in: Matty Blythe (Bradford Bulls), Kevin Brown (Widnes Vikings), Mike Cooper (St George Illawarra Dragons), Dom Crosby (Wigan Warriors), Andre Savelio (St Helens).
Players out: Ryan Bailey (Released), Jordan Cox (Released), Mitchell Dodds (Brisbane Broncos), Ben Evans (London Broncos), James Laithwaite (Toronto Wolfpack), Daniel Murray (Salford Red Devils), Chris Sandow (Released), Dave Thompson (Leigh Centurions), Gary Wheeler (Toronto Wolfpack).
Terry says: Lots of pundits and fans are expecting Widnes to really suffer after selling Kevin Brown to near-neighbours Warrington. The Widnes players will certainly be using that as motivation; yes Kevin Brown will be missed but one player never makes a whole team.
However it doesn’t help the Vikings that Joe Mellor will be missing for the first four or five games. Because of the injury to Mellor, Danny Craven was given an opportunity and has taken it with both hands – his partnership with Tom Gilmore showed up well. The pair might not be household names yet but they certainly can play. Both players have a tremendous kicking game that will help the Vikings as they look to improve on last year’s finish of seventh spot.
For a short period they sat at the top of the Super League table, and who can forget the game at the DW Stadium when they beat Wigan in a game that saw them playing with just 11 men at one point.
The Vikings have a young squad with some very talented youngsters. Matt Whitley will be looking on improving on his excellent season last year, while Jordan Johnston and Danny Walker will be challenging Aaron Heramia and Lloyd White for the hooking role.
The Vikings also have England Academy internationals Brad Walker, Liam Walsh and Owen Farnworth pushing for places in Denis Betts’ team again – all three are impressive players along with the giant Chapelhow twins. So even with just the two Tom’s signing – Armstrong and Olbison – I think you’ll see the emergence of some very good youngsters at the Vikings.
Key man: Tom Gilmore
Players in: Tom Armstrong (Leigh Centurions), Tom Olbison (Bradford Bulls).
Players out: Kevin Brown (Warrington Wolves), Paddy Flynn (Released), Setaimata Sa (Released), Almer Salvilla (Leaving Rugby League).
Terry says: The winners of last year’s Grand Final will be confident going into the season. They had so many injuries to key players last year you’d have thought they’d have no chance of challenging for the title. With all the talented youngsters now a year older, added to the valuable experience they picked up last year, they’ll be hard to beat in 2017.
They are really focused on winning all four trophies this year, which includes the World Club Challenge against Cronulla on February 19. The game can be cruel at times and Wigan have shown over the years that they like to defend and showcase a real desire when defending.
Five new signings at the DW for the 2017 season will certainly give Shaun Wane some strength in depth. Thomas Leuluai returns and will form a dream partnership for Wane in the halves with George Williams. Both of these players can fill in at No 9 if anything happens to Sam Powell in the early rounds while they wait on Micky Mcllorum.
Watch out for Morgan Escare as well. He will benefit from Sam Tomkins’ injury and by all accounts he’s certainly impressing his new team-mates with his skill, energy and electric pace.
Key man: George Williams.
Players in: Joe Burgess (Sydney Roosters), Morgan Escare (Catalans Dragons), Liam Forsyth (Bath RUFC), Thomas Leuluai (New Zealand Warriors), Romain Navarrete (Catalans Dragons).
Players out: Josh Charnley (Sale RUFC), Dom Crosby (Warrington Wolves), Lee Mossop (Salford Red Devils), Dan Sarginson (Gold Coast Titans), Matty Smith (St Helens), Ryan Hampshire (Leigh Centurions).