So, we’re into a new year, and I’d like to kick off by wishing readers a happy and healthy 2022 and providing something other than Covid to think about by dusting down the old crystal ball and revealing my five predictions of what lies ahead in Rugby League.
1. Saints to do the treble for the third time
There might not be a six in the year, but that won’t stop the current St Helens side from following their predecessors of 1965/66 and 2006 by winning their fourth successive Grand Final, this time after lifting the Challenge Cup and claiming the League Leaders’ Shield.
Leeds were the last team to do the treble back in 2015, when Kevin Sinfield signed off his time as a Rhinos players in style, with Hull KR swept aside at Wembley and Wigan edged out at Old Trafford.
I think Richard Agar’s men, with that new halfback combination of Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer (by all accounts the pair of them looked promising in the win over Wakefield on Boxing Day), will shape up better than they did last season.
However, I’m predicting another Saints versus Catalans Dragons Grand Final, because I like the work Steve McNamara is doing over in Perpignan, and I think Mitchell Pearce from Newcastle Knights is a cracking signing alongside two other NRL men in Dylan Napa from Canterbury Bulldogs and Tyrone May from Penrith Panthers.
But while I’m not completely convinced by Konrad Hurrell, there will be chances for him to take in Saints colours, and in Will Hopoate (Canterbury Bulldogs), Curtis Sironen (Manly Sea Eagles), Joey Lussick (Parramatta Eels) and James Bell (Leigh), Kristian Woolf has freshened up and already impressive squad.
I’m looking forward to seeing Jack Welsby and Lewis Dodd maintain their progress, while I’ve previously written about the value of Morgan Knowles, whose recent four-year contract extension gave the club a big boost.
Woolf, who is an astute coach, will demand that extra bit of consistency this campaign (Catalans had more of it last time, and so topped the regular-season table), and I think he’ll get it.
2. Mitchell Pearce will be Man of Steel
Catalans have the reigning award winner in Sam Tomkins, who will again have a huge part to play for the French side this season.
He’s a great operator, whose year will hopefully end with a bright World Cup, but I think Mitchell Pearce will be the real star turn at the Dragons.
As I’ve said, it’s a really good acquisition, and James Maloney’s replacement will excite and entertain, the sort of player who will light up Super League.
I loved watching him play for Sydney Roosters, where Steve had a spell as assistant coach, Newcastle Knights and New South Wales. And while he will be 33 in April, he reportedly looks after himself well, and I think the quickness of his brain will outweigh any loss of speed.
Mitchell is a great organiser who will have some talented players to direct around the pitch; he is dynamic and he has a very good kicking game.
If he stays fit, he will function really well and produce performances of eight or more out of ten on a regular basis.
3. Toulouse to be Super League wooden spoonists
We have two French teams in the top flight for the first time, and few can deny Sylvain Houles’ side their right to promotion, particularly after a season in which every game before the play-offs was away from home because of the effects of the pandemic.
But Super League will be a very different ball game from the Championship, and Toulouse’s domination of the second tier – they have won 20 out of 20 matches over the last two seasons – might count against them, because they are not used to dealing with defeats and the issues they pose.
Defeats are bound to come at the higher level and I suspect Toulouse will lose on a regular basis, because for me, the squad does not have enough quality to bridge the gap between the divisions.
The newcomers to that squad are what I’d term journeymen and I’m surprised they haven’t made a high-profile signing to attract new fans in a big city.
Their home results are going to be key (and they are not that used to playing at their current stadium), because after doing so well on the road, I think they’ll struggle going to Super League grounds.
Their results against other potential strugglers, like Salford and Wakefield, are sure to be important for their survival hopes.
4. Featherstone will finally win promotion
It’s going to be another competitive Championship, with a whole host of clubs having been busy on the recruitment front.
The uncertainty over the structure of the leagues has only added to the desire of many teams to do all they can to finish as high up the table as possible.
Unfortunately, that brings further financial jeopardy, and it’s to be hoped there are no long-term casualties after the shorter-term push for success.
Halifax, having finished third last season and reached the play-off semi-finals, have made some solid signings, while Widnes and Bradford are both looking to return to the big time and York and Newcastle are also ambitious.
But it’s hard to look past Featherstone and Leigh, both of whom have determined owners in Mark Campbell and Derek Beaumont.
That’s shown by the appointment of Brian McDermott and Adrian Lam as the respective coaches and both will have capable squads to call on.
Leigh have a bit of work to do to get a vastly-changed pool of players to gel, but at least there should be no major relegation hangover.
I reckon the Centurions and Mac’s men will contest the Million Pound Game and, given their experience of two such occasions in the last three years, Rovers will do it this time around.
5. Australia and Tonga to contest the World Cup final
I’m still scratching my head over a ranking system which has Australia as only the fourth best team on the planet. The Kangaroos should be first, and that will be shown when they come over in the Autumn.
Given the strength of the game Down Under, I can’t see past the holders, and while I’d love England to be at Old Trafford on November 19, I think Tonga will reach their first final, making it a special year for their coach Kristian Woolf, who has done a great job internationally as well as with Saints.
Tonga have beaten New Zealand, Great Britain and Australia over the last four years, and that will give them genuine belief and confidence, although when it comes to the crunch, Mal Meninga’s side will likely have the edge, with Nathan Cleary their star performer.
Hopefully we’ll get a tournament which reflects the tremendous work the organisers have put in.
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