I got in nice and early with my predictions of where the twelve Super League clubs will finish in 2021.
Now I’m picking a key player for each, starting with those sides I think will end up in the bottom four. So, in reverse order…
I’ve already tipped Trinity to finish bottom of the table, and if they are to prove me wrong, they’ll need their big-game players to really step up.
Chris Chester has quite a few available – just look at Dream Team member Kelepi Tanginoa, with whom a contract has been agreed through to 2024, versatile Ryan Hampshire and try machine Tom Johnstone.
And big things are expected of new Samoan halfback Mason Lino, who has come in from Newcastle Knights.
But for me the man who could really make a difference is prop David Fifita, who I believe owes both his club and his coach Chris Chester big time.
Having handed him one of the biggest contracts in Wakefield’s history in 2019, both have stuck by the big man after he made waves, and not in a good way, last season, when he refused to wear the GPS vest needed to meet Covid protocols.
For one reason or another, he made only eleven appearances last season, which doesn’t represent a great return on the investment in that deal, which runs until 2022.
I can see why he was handed the contract, because on his day, he’s a cracking player.
Since signing from Cronulla in 2016, he has become a big fans’ favourite, because he is entertaining to watch and he has produced some really powerful performances.
But there weren’t enough of them in 2020, and Trinity need him on the field and focused fully on doing what he does best.
I can’t stress enough that Leigh’s sole target this season should be not finishing bottom and therefore preserving the Super League status they worked so hard to be awarded in the wake of Toronto Wolfpack’s demise.
It’s a tough task, and it’s going to take solid teamwork week in, week out, and those flashes of inspiration that can turn tight matches into victories.
It’s an old line, but Jamie Ellis is one of those players who has had more clubs than Jack Nicklaus.
St Helens, Hull, Castleford, Huddersfield, Hull KR… and a previous spell at the Centurions in 2011, when he played alongside current coach John Duffy.
Other then perhaps in his previous stint at Leigh, who were then in the Championship, you couldn’t say he’s been a standout star, but this is his big opportunity to change that and be the main man.
At 31, he certainly has the necessary top-flight experience, and Leigh are going to need that, especially in those crucial must-win matches against the sides close to them in the table.
They also need an organiser who makes the right decisions at the right time, and Ellis can be that man, whether it’s as a stand-off, scrum-half or hooker.
He’s got a pretty good kicking game, but has a tendency to go missing during matches, and that can’t happen this time around.
The pressure is on for Jamie, who needs to be producing eight or above out of ten every week.
Rovers have made a host of interesting signings as they try to build on some very encouraging performances last season and avoid becoming embroiled in a battle for survival.
In Albert Vete (ex-Melbourne), Korbin Sims (St George Illawarra) and Brad Takairangi (Parramatta), they have three impressive new arrivals from the NRL, and we’re all looking forward to seeing how Ryan Hall, a player very well known to coach Tony Smith from their time together at Leeds, performs after a disappointingly low-key spell with Sydney Roosters.
They also have promising Leeds prop Muizz Mustapha on a season-long loan.
But I think an existing player, halfback Jordan Abdull, could be the man who really makes things tick and writes an East Side Story in the passionate Rugby League city.
He has good hands and is great with the boot – some of those high kicks come down with snow on them and cause real problems for defenders.
There were tantalising glimpses of his talent when he was at Hull, but he didn’t emerge as the really outstanding player it looked like he could be.
He gained valuable experience with London Broncos as they so nearly stayed in Super League in 2019, before joining Rovers, where he had a spell on loan from Hull when they won promotion in 2017.
I think he is benefitting from playing under Tony Smith, who will carry on giving Jordan the chance to express himself, and it’s up to the player to grasp a great opportunity.
What a year 2017 was for both Castleford, who topped the table and reached the Grand Final, and stand-off Jake Trueman, who, at 18, burst onto the scene with that exciting hat-trick against Wigan in what was only his second first-team appearance.
The former Bradford player looked sensational, exactly the kind I love watching, inventive but also composed and able to take control.
No wonder Daryl Powell labelled him “the most promising halfback in the English game”.
Three years on, he has been named Super League Young Player of the Year (2018), signed a new contract until 2022, and even though he wasn’t given a game by Wayne Bennett, he toured New Zealand and Papua New Guinea with Great Britain (2019).
Last season people were labelling him and Tigers team-mate Danny Richardson as a future England pairing at six and seven.
Both still have work to do to get to that level, and while I’m not sure Richardson has what it takes, I think Trueman could be hugely influential – if he can add that bit extra to his game.
I don’t always see the spark that was so evident in the early days. Too often he disappears, and too often he gets stuck around the ruck area when he should be standing further away ready to link with his second rows and centres.
I don’t think it’s down to the way he has been coached, because Daryl, Danny Orr (now, of course, at Salford) and Ryan Sheridan know a thing or two about playing in the halves.
It’s down to Jake to take responsibility, dig in and find some consistency.
Benji’s last hurrah
And finally – quite a few eyebrows, mine included, have been raised by Benji Marshall’s move to South Sydney Rabbitohs.
It’s a last hurrah for the New Zealand star, who has provided quality service to Wests Tigers, St George Illawarra and, briefly, Brisbane, where he played under Souths coach Wayne Bennett.
I think he still has something to offer, but Souths already have Cody Walker and Adam Reynolds, the man I like to call Burt because of the way he stands around looking like he’s on a film set and waiting for the director’s instruction.
And when he does feature, will he be given the necessary freedom by Bennett, who is certainly a coach who likes structures?
Benji, on the other hand, tends to play off the cuff, and that approach was not encouraged when Wayne was in charge of Great Britain, and, as already mentioned, he didn’t want to know about Jake Trueman and managed to stifle the skills of Gareth Widdop and Jackson Hastings.
There was plenty of talk of Benji joining Hull, but I can’t say I’m that disappointed it didn’t come off, because the more overseas arrivals we see, the fewer chances there are for home-developed players.
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