With Super League about to get underway this evening, when St Helens face Salford Red Devils at Emerald Headingley in a game that kicks off at 6.00pm, here I look at six key battles between individual players on opposite sides that I am particularly looking forward to seeing.
St Helens v Salford
St Helens are the clear favourites to win this game and it would be very surprising if they failed to do so.
But the intriguing thing for me is to see whether Kevin Brown (below), who is now the oldest player in Super League at the age of 36, can handle Saints’ stand-off Jonny Lomax (above), who has also turned 30 but last year was playing as well as ever. Brown has always been a smart operator, but will time be catching up on him? And if it is, will we see his potential replacement Dec Patton, signed from Warrington Wolves in the close-season, get his once highly promising career back on track against Lomax? Whoever begins the match at stand-off for Salford, the clash with Lomax holds out tremendous promise as a personal battle that will form one of the major sub-plots of the opening match of the new season.
Leigh Centurions v Wigan Warriors
The Centurions have appointed Liam Hood (below) as their captain for the 2021 season, and a big responsibility will therefore rest on his shoulders if the Centurions are to have any chance of avoiding the drop back down to the Championship at the end of the season.
Hood, now 29, has had three previous cracks at Super League, in 2012 with Leeds, in 2015 with Salford and in 2017 with Leigh, but he has never been able to establish himself at the highest level of the game. He will be facing his opposite number Sam Powell (below), who will play at hooker for a Wigan team that is significantly weakened by absentees and injuries. Powell is an established Super League star, but if Hood can really step up to the plate tonight he could lead the Centurions to what would have to be considered a major shock, however unlikely that may appear.
Wakefield Trinity v Leeds Rhinos
Two newcomers could be on display on Saturday at Emerald Headingley, when Kyle Eastmond (below) is likely to make his Leeds debut at stand-off half against Trinity’s new signing Mason Lino, a Samoan international who has joined Trinity from Newcastle Knights.
Leeds coach Richard Agar has played his cards close to his chest on whether he will field his new signing. Eastmond last played in Super League in 2011, before pursuing an illustrious career in rugby union, and he will inevitably face questions about how he will adapt on returning to the competition ten years later. If he retains any lingering union habits, or isn’t yet up to speed with his fitness, then Lino (below) could be the one to shine, with Wakefield coach Chris Chester confident that his side will make a successful start to the new season.
Catalans Dragons v Hull Kingston Rovers
Hull Kingston Rovers’ new signing Ryan Hall (below) had two injury-hit years in the NRL with Sydney Roosters and returns to Super League at the age of 33 hoping for more luck and, perhaps, even a call-up to Shaun Wane’s England squad for this year’s World Cup.
Directly opposite him on Saturday will be Catalans winger Tom Davies (below), who scored some great tries last year for the Dragons while playing outside Israel Folau. The battle between the two will be the equivalent of the young pretender seeking to impose himself on the ageing star. Davies has international ambitions of his own, although much may depend on who his centre partner will be on Saturday. With Samisoni Langi not in the Dragons’ 21-man squad, it could be Dean Whare or Matt Whitley who takes on that role.
Hull FC v Huddersfield Giants
One of the most riveting clashes of the weekend will be that between Hull FC newcomer Josh Reynolds (below) and Giants captain Aidan Sezer.
While Reynolds will play at stand-off and Sezer (below) will be at scrum-half, all eyes will be on the pair in a match that could be the most tightly contested of the weekend. Reynolds is here to revitalise his career after three disappointing seasons with Wests Tigers, while Sezer was mightily impressive for the Giants last season, but will now want to kick on and lead his side to silverware under new coach Ian Watson. Both players will want to put down a serious marker in the first game of the season, as both of them did in 2020, when the Giants won 12-32 in Perpignan against the Catalans, while Hull registered a 4-30 victory with an impressive performance against Leeds Rhinos.
Castleford Tigers v Warrington Wolves
Liam Watts (below) and Mike Cooper are both outstanding prop forwards for their respective club sides and they are both contemplating a season that could result in their last chance to play for England in a World Cup.
In the last match of Round 1, both players will be wanting to make a big impression on England coach Shaun Wane. Watts, 30, and Cooper, 32 (below), are likely to cross swords several times on Sunday afternoon and their clashes will be meat and drink for Rugby League fans who like to see forward carrying the ball up into the defensive line, while being met by solid defence. And to add spice to the contest, this will be the last season in charge for the respective coaches Daryl Powell and Steve Price, so neither will want to go down in the opening game of the season, and they will look to Watts and Cooper to lead their troops into battle and to come out with a victory.