Wheelchair Super League season preview

IT’S a common refrain ahead of a new campaign, in any area of the sport, to promise that this will be the ‘best season ever’.

But it’s not too great an exaggeration to make that claim for the Wheelchair Super League.

The wheelchair game is firmly on an upward curve, with the recent participation boom beginning to translate into more top talent emerging in the premier division.

And while the number of Super League teams has reduced from six to five (Warrington, winless in 2023, have been demoted), the quality should only go up as a result.

As England and London Roosters coach Tom Coyd puts it: “Anyone can beat anyone.”

That means, in theory, that every match matters.

The league format is otherwise unchanged from last season, with the top four teams going into the play-offs, the top two holding semi-final home advantage and a League Leaders’ Shield for the table-toppers.

Only one team will miss out on those play-offs, and Hull FC player-coach Mike Swainger admits his side will be considered the favourites to be the one.

But they only finished two points behind eventual champions Wigan in an encouraging 2023, after a narrow defeat to the Warriors in the final round of the season – and intriguingly the two meet again this Sunday at Hull’s Allam Sports Centre.

“I think we’re going to push a few teams and hopefully get some surprise wins as well,” said Swainger, who can again call upon ex-England stalwart Martin Norris and the powerful Tristan Norfolk in his squad.

“On the back of last season, they’re not going to take us lightly now.

“Year on year, we’re making good steps. Last season, we exceeded all expectations really, the way that we went about our business.”

No side comes into the season with as much match preparation as Wigan, who have lost both the European Club Championship and Challenge Cup final to Catalans.

But their cup run, knocking out both Halifax and Leeds along the way, showed that their success last season was no fluke and that they should be considered Super League contenders again this term once their wounds have been licked.

Skipper Declan Roberts said after their Challenge Cup final defeat: “Our gameplan didn’t work out but the effort was there and that’s what we wanted from everyone.

“Ultimately we want to keep getting to big games and keep giving it another crack.

“We need to come down from this and not have a Challenge Cup hangover, as it were. Just get stuck back into the league and get started on the title defence.

“Last season has been and gone now. That’s old news. The Challenge Cup has gone, the Euros have gone, 2023 has gone. It’s 2024 now. No one has won anything in Super League.”

Wigan denied Leeds in a thrilling Grand Final last October, meaning James Simpson finished his first season in full charge of the Rhinos after his playing retirement with defeats in both major finals (they also lost to Catalans in the Challenge Cup).

“I’m probably still getting my head around being the coach. Having been player-coach for three years before, all the players were used to me being on the pitch, talking, directing, geeing each other up,” said Simpson.

“I am still slowly trying to transition myself fully away from the pitch. I go on at breaks to give information and ideally I want to phase that out and have someone else going on with the messages like you do in the running game. I’m not quite there yet, but I really love coaching.

“The players have had a bit of time now to get their heads around that change so things may be a bit more settled on that front this year.”

Their squad again features England World Cup winners in national captain Tom Halliwell and lightning-fast Nathan Collins, as well as Super League’s young player of the year in 2023, Josh Butler, and captain Jodie Boyd-Ward.

“Pre-season has been very technical and we’ve put a lot of emphasis on the individual players and how they can each be better to help the wider team,” added Simpson.

They also begin their season on Sunday, going to Sedbergh Sports Centre to face Halifax, who won the Super League crown in 2022 but were a disappointing fourth last season.

The Panthers have registered Catalans’ Seb Bechara and Jérémy Bourson again and their availability may determine how competitive a side which boasts England star Rob Hawkins will be.

Player-coach Wayne Boardman admits he is still developing players to add the necessary depth to his side but is aiming high.

“I want to make the Grand Final. We were very disappointed that we didn’t make the Grand Final last year,” he said.

“Every game now is competitive. Every squad I put out there has to be a competitive squad. In our game, if you blink there are 20 points on the board in five minutes.

“I’ve got players who can play Super League and players who are learning very quickly but are not quite there yet.”

And then there is London, who have a blank weekend to start but will take on Wigan at home on Saturday, June 22 in round two.

After finishing a very impressive joint-top last term, the Roosters were stunned by the Warriors in last year’s play-off semi-final.

“I really thought that, on our form, we deserved to make the Grand Final last year,” said coach Coyd, whose brother Joe Coyd and fellow England World Cup winner Lewis King – the inaugural Wheels of Steel last year – are London’s biggest threats.

“We won eight games in a row and earned ourselves a home semi-final. Wigan just seemed to click on the day and that’s sport.

“All of those players who were important for us last season have returned for pre-season with even more hunger in their belly.

“There are cliches about having to lose a Grand Final in order to win one. I’m hoping we lost our Grand Final last year against Wigan, so when we hit play-off football this time around, the guys have learned a really painful lesson.

“Hopefully if we do make the Grand Final this year, we’ll know how to win it, we’ll know how to win knockout rugby.”

First published in League Express newspaper, Issue 3,434 (June 10, 2024)

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