MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, writes of the lessons each of the twelve Super League clubs can learn from their opening fixtures in Round One of this season’s competition.
Most people who read anything I write will soon realise that I believe the Super League season begins far too early.
However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t look forward to the start of the season, even when it comes at the end of January. And, like most so-called pundits, I’m keen to draw lessons from what I see.
Some observers say that it’s far too early to draw any firm conclusions after just one match. And while that may be true, it doesn’t stop us from doing it.
So here, in club alphabetical order, are the lessons that I would suggest each club and its supporters have learned from its opening fixture of the season.
Two weeks ago the Tigers were defeated at home by Toronto Wolfpack in Michael Shenton’s Testimonial game. A significant number of Tigers supporters went onto social media bemoaning the defeat and fearing the worst for the season, and particularly for their opening fixture against the same opponents.
I tweeted that no one remembers pre-season games and that the Tigers’ fans had no need to worry. It’s only important to win games when points are at stake. They duly did so and my point is proven.
How much did the announcement that the club had signed Israel Folau affect their performance last Saturday? I don’t suppose it would be possible to isolate that factor in their 12-32 home defeat to Huddersfield Giants.
The Dragons had a new halfback combination in James Maloney and Josh Drinkwater, and much is expected of Maloney in particular this season. But he is aged 33 and he was outplayed by Huddersfield’s Aidan Sezer, who is five years younger. If Maloney is to deliver the goods this season he does need some top-class outside backs to take advantage of what he creates. Step forward Israel Folau.
Many people, including the bookmakers, had a downer on the Giants before the start of the season, making them and Hull Kingston Rovers the strong favourites for relegation at 66/1. But after just one game Betfred has reduced their odds to 40/1, which I’m sure is mainly down to the influence of Aidan Sezer.
But just as important was the contribution of Jermaine McGillvary, who scored two tries against the Catalans and exemplified the return of confidence into the team. If Sezer can instil that sort of confidence in his team-mates in just one match, then they are more likely to be battling for the play-offs than to avoid relegation. Those punters who missed the boat at 66/1 might still be wise to pounce at 40/1. I can only see the Giants’ odds getting shorter.
There is only one thing better than winning at Headingley for Hull FC fans, and that is beating their city rivals in a Hull derby. This Friday night they get the chance to do just that at the KCOM Stadium after having put the Rhinos to the sword on Sunday.
Hull are the great under-achievers of Super League, but this year their coach Lee Radford had a clearout and made lots of new signings, accompanied by many positive noises. But on Sunday at Headingley their best metre maker was Josh Griffin, who ran for 186 metres, while former Albert Goldthorpe Rookie of the Year Medallist Andre Savelio made a great contribution with 119 metres and some neat touches, including playing a key role in Josh Bowden’s try.
Andre has had some bad luck since he was the Rookie of the Year in 2015 when he was at St Helens, spending a frustrating year with Brisbane Broncos in the NRL, when he was out with injury for most of the season. But I was confident he had the talent to succeed and on Sunday afternoon he showed that he will demand a place in a star-studded Hull team.
Hull Kingston Rovers
The Robins were everyone’s favourite for relegation at the start of the season, but their convincing 30-12 victory over Wakefield Trinity should make everyone think again. Their coach Tony Smith had made a massive number of personnel changes during the close season, and conventional wisdom suggests that new players need time to bed in.
On Friday night he began with a halfback combination of Jamie Ellis and Ryan Brierley, with Jordan Abdull playing at loose forward, while he had Harvey Livett and Super League debutant Matthew Storton in the back row. It didn’t look promising.
A tougher test will surely await them in the Hull derby on Friday night. But the lesson for Robins’ fans is not to underestimate the creative coaching ability of Tony Smith.
Until fairly recently the Rhinos would always perform on the big stage, in particular when it was at Old Trafford. But when confronted by the big stage at Headingley on Sunday they capitulated badly, going down 4-30 at home to Hull FC.
Whereas Hull made 1,421 metres with the ball, Leeds made just 935. Their most successful metre maker was Cameron Smith, with 72, which suggests that the Rhinos need some reinforcement in the front row quickly. Luke Gal and Robert Lui were restricted at halfback by their pack being beaten by Hull’s forwards and they only had one retained kick out of twelve. The Rhinos need to improve quickly, starting this Sunday at Huddersfield.
Salford Red Devils
The Red Devils learned a simple lesson on Friday, that St Helens are again in the mood to dominate Super League this season. Salford made just 678 metres with the ball, which was the lowest figure in Super League but was partly down to St Helens’ impressive defence. Fortunately they won’t be playing Saints every week.
Clearly they will need time to adjust to losing so many of their leading stars from the 2019 season and to integrate their new recruits. But at this stage of the season their supporters would be wise to adjust their sights downwards a little from what they achieved last year.
After their 48-8 victory over Salford I tweeted to advise St Helens supporters to buy their tickets for the Grand Final at Old Trafford in October. I just can’t see them not getting there after such a high-powered performance that was achieved without James Roby, Tommy Makinson and Morgan Knowles.
Saints have this week announced that they will be saying goodbye to prop forward Luke Thompson at the end of the season. But their game against Salford revealed another potential superstar in the making in young Jack Welsby, who is still aged only 18 but who is making a massive impression. His pass to create a try for Kevin Naiqama was out of the top drawer and the lesson here is that he will be an England contender for the 2021 World Cup.
The lesson for the Wolfpack after their 10-28 defeat to Castleford Tigers is that the standard in Super League will be much higher than in the Championship and it will take some getting used to.
And, more specifically, they can’t afford to make errors and expect to get away with it. The Wolfpack made 17 handling errors – four of them from Sonny Bill Williams – and they are unlikely to start winning until they can address that issue.
The lesson for Wakefield is that, despite making many changes in personnel during the close season, they are more likely to be looking over their shoulder at the relegation battle than at the race for the top five and they can’t afford to underestimate any of their rivals in the battles ahead.
Already they have suffered injuries, although the news about Danny Brough this week has been far better than the initial diagnosis on his knee injury appeared to suggest. The good thing for Wakefield, however, is that the club does have a big squad, with several players having utility value, and that could be very useful as the season unfolds.
The obvious lesson for the Wolves is that indiscipline loses matches, as we saw with Chris Hill’s dismissal on 23 minutes against Wigan and his concession of a penalty try, while Mike Cooper was also sinbinned for a professional foul and Wigan scored while he was off the field.
Warrington coach Steve Price was proud of his side’s efforts, and that can’t be questioned, but pride in defeat will soon pale if the Wolves continue to earn the wrath of referees. Fortunately for Price, that problem shouldn’t be too difficult to cure.
One obvious lesson for Wigan is that it’s unwise to select players – even marquee ones – who clearly look to be unfit.
George Burgess only lasted for around 16 minutes for what was an underwhelming debut against Warrington, but fortunately the rest of the Wigan squad was able to deliver a victory. The real lesson for Wigan is the awesome ability of Bevan French, who scored an outstanding try and made another outstanding try with a magical pass to Liam Marshall. But what is French’s best position, given that he appears to be equally adept at fullback, wing and at stand-off?
It’s a great problem for coach Adrian Lam to have, and I wonder whether in the long run French is the replacement for the departed George Williams at stand-off. He is already wearing the number 6 shirt.
See Martyn Sadler’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ column every week in League Express.