The start of the new Super League season is less than six weeks away, and I’ve already predicted how the bottom half of the table will look in September.
Here’s how I see the top half, again going upwards.
6 HULL FC
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the biggest season in the club’s Super League history.
Lee Radford was twice a Grand Final winner as a Bradford Bulls player, but as coach of the Black and Whites, he’s not yet made it to the big one.
Two Challenge Cup final triumphs show he knows what’s needed to be winner, but the stature of the club, not to mention the passion of the supporters, means some league success is a must.
Hull have had decent squads for a while now, but they have been far too inconsistent.
There are a string of new signings, but I’m not certain they will lead to a change in Hull’s style of play, because they seem too similar to the kind of players Radders has had in the past.
It must be frustrating for the fans, because Hull have a strong pack and some capable backs, but the side just doesn’t fire on all cylinders often enough.
Too much hinges on Marc Sneyd’s kicking game, and then there is Jake Connor. On his day, he’s one of the best players in the competition, but the challenge is to get the best out of him week in, week out.
It’s all about Luke Gale for me.
His partnership with Robert Lui is one that should excite the fans, and should help lift Leeds up the table after last season’s turmoil.
It’s a huge shame that Luke has suffered his injury problems, because we’ve been denied the chance to watch a great player.
There are bound to be some question marks over his fitness, but Leeds are very professional and thorough in their approach, and he’ll have had a stringent medical.
The plus of his time on the sidelines is that he’s had the chance to rest up and hasn’t had to absorb the physical punishment that comes with regular rugby.
Luke will be full of hunger as he returns to the fray, and Leeds as a team will be full of hunger to build on the good things they managed to produce at times in 2019.
Richard Agar did more than enough to show he has the ability to get the best out of his players, and he has a solid pack and some decent outside backs at his disposal.
I think the Rhinos will make the top five, and from there, anything can happen.
Castleford might have lost Luke Gale, but they have an exciting halfback pairing in new boy Danny Richardson and Jake Trueman.
They are both going into their third season of regular games, so both have that tantalising blend of having some experience, but also room for further development.
And given the make -up of the Tigers’ coaching staff, with Daryl Powell, Ryan Sheridan and Danny Orr all being former halfbacks themselves, what better place could they be at when it comes to learning?
I’m a big fan of Daryl’s coaching, because he favours an exciting style that is very easy on the eye.
While St Helens had an unforgettable 2019, it wasn’t that great for Danny Richardson. But there’s no doubting his potential, and I’m sure Daryl and his staff will be enjoying working with him on the training ground, just as Danny will enjoy his new surroundings
Castleford have some good forwards, with George Griffin adding to the options after his switch from Salford, and we all know what their backs are about. So with Tongan winger Sosaia Feki added from Cronulla, scoring tries shouldn’t prove a problem.
If Powell’s side can keep the concession of tries to a minimum, they’ll be up there challenging strongly.
If, if, if…
If Gareth Widdop can hit the heights, if the pack can step up to the plate, if the team as a whole can cope with the pressure in the biggest games, then it could be Warrington’s season.
But will it be?
The heat is on, especially when you look as the calibre of the signings made in recent years.
Warrington don’t just need to repeat 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2018 by reaching the Grand Final, they need to win it.
Widdop is a great signing, because he’s been an outstanding operator for St George and, before that, Melbourne.
That NRL experience will be a huge asset, and I believe that, unlike Great Britain coach Wayne Bennett, Steve Price will get him playing with a smile, rather than a look of real misery, on his face.
The Widdop-Blake Austin pairing is one you’d pay hard-earned money to see.
But the feeling persists that Warrington have put all their eggs in one basket.
I’m not at all sure the pack is strong enough or has the nous to answer the kind of questions that will be posed by the strongest sides.
Neither am I convinced Warrington have the mental toughness to claim a first title since 1955.
I’m expecting good things from Wigan.
The signing of George Burgess from South Sydney is big in all senses of the word, and he will help Adrian Lam get the best out of Jackson Hastings, assuming he joins up as planned.
Wigan could have done without all the speculation over whether Salford’s Man of Steel, having signed a Warriors contract, will actually wear the cherry and white.
But if Hastings does in fact report for duty on January 3, as he is due to do, the uncertainty will be put to bed.
That will be good news for Lam, who did a good job last season after the Shaun Edwards sideshow ended, even if Wigan lost out to Salford when it really mattered.
Lam and his players will have learned from that bitter experience, and of all the eleven other Super League sides, I think the Warriors are best equipped to deny St Helens a second successive title.
The pack has a nice balance of power, aggression, skill and mobility, and the forwards are well capable of looking after Hastings and Widdop.
Wigan should be about not just winning, but winning with style, and under Lam, they can do that.
1 ST HELENS
Let’s go round again!
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, should be Kristian Woolf’s approach as he replaces Justin Holbrook as Saints coach, and apart from the odd tweak here and there, I think that’s what he will do.
Woolf is very capable in his own right – just take a look at what he’s done with the Tonga national team – so Saints fans shouldn’t be too concerned about the transition from one coach to another.
Woolf has inherited a super squad, with strength in every position and some very capable cover, and I suppose the only real question is after being so dominant in 2019, does the hunger remain?
I think it does, and while the strength of Sydney Roosters means the World Club Challenge will be exactly that, the domestic treble of League Leaders’ Shield, Grand Final and Challenge Trophy is very definitely doable.
Saints remain the team to beat.