Friday, 12 April 2013

The Salary Cap and the Future of Super League

British Rugby League at the elite level is facing a number of challenges at the moment. Several clubs seem to be struggling financially, aggregate crowds are beginning to dwindle and there seems to be some consensus that the standard of entertainment delivered by the Super League competition isn’t quite at the level it was four or five years ago. Add to this the continuing growth of English Rugby Union and the injection of astronomical funds into the Australian NRL competition, and it seems clear that Super League has some serious thinking to do.

I am not convinced, however, that the severity of the situation has been recognised by enough people in the game. To get a sense of perspective, let’s look at the salary caps of the Super League and NRL competitions. The Super League currently operates a £1.65m cap on salary payments to any club’s top tier of 25 players. This figure has remained the same for approaching a decade, and as such has reduced fairly significantly in real terms after inflation is taken into account. The NRL, by contrast, has seen its salary cap steadily rise since 2006. Last season their cap was at $4.4m (just over £3m). Thanks to an enormous broadcasting deal worth around $1bn, that figure has been hiked again; the ‘Collective Bargaining Agreement’ between the players’ association and the governing body has resulted in an immediate jump in the salary cap to $5.85m (just over £4m – well over double the Super League figure), and a timetable of annual increases culminating in a figure of $7m (£4.8m) in 2017. By that time a minimum salary for NRL squad members of $60,000 (£41,000) is expected to be in force.

The most noticeable effect of the NRL’s newfound riches to date has been the decline in quality of overseas imports attracted by our big clubs. The days when the pound was strong and players like Jason Smith, Trent Barrett and Shaun Berrigan would finish off their careers with a lucrative stint in the Super League are gone. More importantly, though, the flow of talent has changed direction. We have recently lost the Burgess brothers and James Graham to the NRL, and will by all accounts soon lose Tom Briscoe, Gareth Hock and Lee Mossop. It also seems inevitable that Sam Tomkins will go either to the NRL or Rugby Union within a year or two. This in itself isn’t ideal, but the reality is that it is the tip of the iceberg; if the Super League salary cap remains where it is, then by 2017 NRL clubs will be able to outbid their British counterparts for their very best players by rummaging down the side of their sofa cushions. When players like Jonny Lomax, Josh Charnley, Liam Farrell, Ryan Hall, Kallum Watkins, Stevie Ward, Ben Currie, Stephan Ratchford and Richie Myler next come up for contract renewal the likelihood is that they will be subject to offers from the NRL which our clubs cannot hope to compete with. And that is not to mention the generation of young players yet to make their name in the British game.

British Rugby League is all too familiar with having a rich competitor. English Rugby Union has had vastly superior spending power for quite some time now. But, while the odd young talent has been lost to the other code – Kyle Eastmond, Chris Ashton and Joel Tomkins spring to mind – the damage has always been limited by the fact that Rugby League is played predominantly by people who love Rugby League. An offer from a Rugby Union club may be financially attractive and may offer the potential of playing on a world stage, but it still means going to play a game which many League players feel indifferent towards. There is no such security against the threat posed by the NRL. Super League’s top players will sooner or later be offered the chance to play the game they love in a sunny climate and get rich and famous in the process. Surely only a few will turn that chance down.

The Super League talent pool is already diluted too thinly. A steady siphoning off of our top players and our most promising youngsters will leave us with a genuinely sub-standard competition. If the game is to avoid this happening, or at least minimise the damage, it needs to act immediately.

Equality or Excellence?
If the Super League is to improve or maintain its current standard it needs to adapt its philosophy to the current climate. For a long time, and probably as a result of the 1989-1995 period of one-club domination (wonderful for Wigan, dreary for everybody else), the RFL has focused on manufacturing a ‘level playing field’ in the sport. This has generally involved restricting the game collectively to a pace with which the weakest clubs can just about keep up. The flat-rate salary cap is the most obvious example of this mindset.

The equalising aim that the salary cap represents is a noble one, but how effective it has been is debatable. While no single club has run away with things, only four clubs have won the title since 1996 (1989 if you include pre-Super League years), and nobody in their right mind would suggest that Castleford, Widnes, Hull KR, Wakefield, London, Salford or Bradford have even the remotest chance of winning the title, even with a preposterous eight-team playoff system. A serious problem with the cap is that, in attempting to find a figure that works for everyone, the RFL seem to have arrived at one that works for nobody. The bigger clubs are held back by it but the smaller clubs continue to cripple themselves in trying to reach it. £1.65m is a modest amount to Leeds, who recently announced a turnover of over £10m, but it is too much for the backers of Hull KR, who have announced that they are to pull out of the club at the end of the season, and was certainly too much for Salford and Bradford until recently.

So how can the game respond to the external threat posed by Rugby Union and the NRL given this set of circumstances? In my view, it needs to give up on, or at least relax, the drive towards maintaining equality between clubs. That ambition was sustainable when the game wasn’t so dangerously exposed, but the current circumstances demand a different approach. It seems to me that a radical overhaul of the salary cap is urgently required. We need to give some of the wealthy individuals that have recently been introduced to the game the power to invest more of their money in the on-field product. Clubs that can afford to spend more should be given more freedom to do so. It also needs to be ensured that clubs only spend what they can afford to (something which the current cap does not do). With this in mind, I propose the following amendments to the salary cap.

A New Salary Cap
My proposed salary cap would:

  • Have a flat limit of £2m.

  • Reintroduce the link between a club’s turnover and the amount it can spend on salary. A club can only spend the overall maximum of £2m if this figure amounts to less than half of the turnover stated in the club’s most recently published accounts. If a club’s most recently published turnover is less than £4m, then the maximum that club can spend is 50% of that turnover figure.

  •  Allow benefactors to directly fund player salaries that cannot fit under a club’s salary cap limit. For example, if Salford have a turnover of £2m, they can only spend up to £1m. However, if Marwan Koukash wants to invest up to the flat limit of £2m he is allowed to do so, on the proviso that the legal responsibility for that investment is with him and not the club (in other words, in these situations the benefactor directly pays the player to play for the club).

  •  Introduce an additional ‘Star Player Allowance’ of £500,000. This allowance can be spent on a maximum of two players, but would be subject to the same restrictions as the standard £2m cap (i.e. it can only be spent if spending it does not take the total salary spend beyond 50% of club turnover, or if the spending is underwritten by a benefactor or group of benefactors).

A salary cap run along these lines would incentivise good off-field practice. It would stop clubs from spending money that they can’t afford to spend and it would allow clubs with spending power to make competitive offers to the best players in the game. The introduction of a clause allowing a benefactor to underwrite player salaries would mean that club owners who wish to invest large sums of money in players’ salaries could do so, but at their own risk rather than at that of the club. The ‘Star Player Allowance’ would help to ensure that the increased spending power of clubs wouldn’t simply lead to inflated wages being paid to the same set of players.

These measures wouldn’t mean an end to top players leaving the game, but they would allow Super League clubs to be competitive in the market for players. Ideally it would be combined with a reduced number of teams in the top division and the reintroduction of promotion and relegation; ultimately this may lead to some clubs dropping behind, but that is not to say that other ambitious clubs cannot take their place. If the game wants to continue to be competitive, it needs to let the strongest clubs take the lead.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Well, I must admit, England's game against the Exiles didn't quite go off with the bang I was hoping for. Perhaps the powder was somewhat moistened by the down pour that greeted kick off.

The Exiles, with the wind and rain in their faces gave away some cheap possession and territory early on and, subsequently, a lead they could never re-gather.

Whilst it was a very wet night, the rain did abate at periods through the game but I'm afraid that it didn't have the intensity that you expect from a test match. Whilst it can be debated about how emotionally stirring an appearance for the Exiles can be, that should not be said about winning an England cap and I'm sorry to say that there was not the speed and pressure applied in defence that your expect from a side filled with a sense of occasion. The forwards trucked the ball up well enough although without the sense of venom that I was looking for.

I mentioned before, what I really wanted to see was our pack rip in to the opposition mercilessly, mate vs mate - state vs state style. They didn't manage that, but they did control the majority of the game. Unfortunately, we did very little to capitalise on this, scoring all our tries from kicks. The link between Chase and Sinfield and therefore through to our main danger man Tomkins was rough and stuttering.

The Exiles played a bit more expansive rugby, grabbing a try on the wing for Francis Meli who's out of contract at Saints and rumour has it leaving at the end of the season. He's vilified by some sections of the Saints support for some big game gaffs over the years, but he certainly seems a handful; when I see him. If only his forwards on Saturday had the same motivation to smash someone, then we may have had a few more firework to entertain us.

So for me, a verdict of "Could to better" for the England team and "Must try harder" for the Exiles. I reckon the next fixture may go up a gear, though.

We get the usual poignant debrief from McNamara, which he seems to have built his reputation on, but they tend leave me somewhat uninspired.

Meanwhile, Ellery's been in the press stating how gloomy things are regarding the standard of the English league and national team. I'm pretty sure you'll find good old Gary Schofield complaining about something as well.

Whilst I appreciate the opinion of guys who've been there and done that, it does grate on me that there always seems a queue of guys to tell us how rubbish we are without much sensible comment to help rectify said situations. If you fancy helping Ellery, why don't you coach England - or is that your plan all along? Hanley for England?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

England Vs Exiles

They say that when Orson Welles started a project, he would hire one extra crew member, and then fire them in the first week of filming to demonstrate his authority to the others.
One wonders if something similar was going through Steve McNamara's mind all those months ago when he left Ryan Atkins out of his Elite Training Squad. Atkins might not be everyone's cup of tea at centre, but his form was fairly undenyable.
Now,  few months on, his (and Danny Tickle's) inclusion in the England Squad has shown players that they shouldn't lose hope of achieving international honours and, if they can mantain form, will always have a chance.

The England squad looks OK, doesn't it? We've not got a bad set of lads and I'm sure we'll have the Exiles worried. There is a couple of eyebrow raisers, mainly the inclusion of a whopping 6 players from a much maligned Leeds Rhinos squad.
Jamie Peacock, fresh from a tweeting match with Gary Schofield, will captain the side.
Leeds have shipped a lot of points over the past few weeks and have suffered convincing defeats to Wigan, Saints and Wire - all of whom have fewer players than the Rhinos. This is especially head scratching when Wigan are currently flying head and shoulders above the rest of superleague with a raft of British players pulling up trees for them.
Peacock himself should count himself pretty lucky he hasn't been displaced by the likes of Chris Hill and Louis M-Scarsbrick who are growing in stature, or Andy Lynch, who seems to have transferred his metronomic go forward from Bradford to Hull. Adrian Morley's omission suggests some intent to move forward, but only so far it seems.

Our failure at international level grates on me as much as anyone and my opinion is that until we can compete physically, we'll never compete on the scoreboard. So, when selecting my squad, bashing seven bells out of the opposition is my main objective. So the selection Rob Burrow and Luke Robinson, presumabley as hookers rather than halfbacks, isn't really down my street, not when you've got Danny Houghton in the reserve squad and Michael McIlorum left to one side completely.

Come the end of the season, we'll have James Graham, Sam Burgess and Gareth Ellis to swell our forward ranks as almost automatic choices & I wouldn't personally look further than Roby for the hooker shirt.
The trio of Wigan forwards, Mossop, Hock and O'Loughlin excite me and I think combined with the players above and the bull headed Ben Westwood, we're only a couple of choice picks away from a forward pack that can genuinely take the game to the best international opposition.

The inclusion of Danny Brough is interesting. A half back with an organising and kicking game should mean that the almost automatic choice of Kevin Sinfield, shoehorned in wherever we can fit him, should be a thing of the past.
If Brough is given the seven shirt, you'd think that the maverick charms of Rangi Chase will find their way to the 6. Let's see if he can work his magic on this stage. If Brough takes to it and Rangi not, you could swap in someone like Lomax for the next game to add a running element to the halves.

The 3/4s don't concern me greatly, we've a few good options, and peoples favourites probably co-incide with who you've had the chance to see more of, but until out forwards are demolishing their Exile opposites to such a degree that the backs can be accused of holding us back, it a bit like complaining about the colour of the icing on a cake before you've baked it.

Good luck England. Go get'em.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Opening Weekend

Well, we’re off! Did the opening weekend give you that fix you’ve been lusting after?

The weather wasn’t ideal for rugby but our lads made the most of it as we saw seven games unfold to an interesting set of results.

First off, Widnes re-starting their Superleague careers against Wakefield. After backing Widnes, I’d already started to gather my excuses when I heard about  some of the injuries they were carrying in the forwards, this didn’t seem a problem though as their highly motivated forward pack rolled up the pitch early doors and the young fullback poached a nice try with a kick through.
Wakefield reacted quickly though and, in my opinion, the writing was on the wall when they’ve spread the ball wide and rip up the defence, only for Ben Cockayne’s foot to have brushed the line as he touched down.
The Wildcats really impressed me with their attacking rugby, with Tim Smith running things at 1st receiver, they always seemed to have lots of runners, coming from deep, giving options and stretching the defence.

On the other hand, Widnes struggled for attacking penetration, despite the forwards getting up the pitch and them having an extended period camped on the Yorkshire men’s line, the attack was flat. With Watts out, too much was forced through Hanbury, who the defence concentrated. His makeshift partner Clarke looked far too pedestrian in the first and second receiver roles and seemed to spend half his time harassing Scott Moore for a turn at dummy half.
However, sheer bloody minded determination actually saw Widnes leading 14-10, following an opportunist try by the Widnes second row Cahill and, had two borderline video ref calls not gone against them, could have been going home with the points. As the second half wore on, though, the more dynamic Wakefield pack were getting quicker play the balls so that their backs were able to play on the front foot. The penalties then came into the Vikings’ game and eventually the dam broke. The movement through the hands was slick and the Widnes defence had no answer to it, with tries from Mathers , Smith and Fox (2) seeing the Wildcats run away with it.
Dennis Betts has some work to do, but I’d say the Wakefield fans will be looking forward to next week and indeed the season.

The other Friday night game was Leeds at home to Hull KR. The score was 34-16, but with Dobson missing four out of four conversation attempts, it sounded like a well contested game and HKR coach Sandercock was reasonably happy. Leeds started the game with Rob Burrow at hooker, his performances at the back end of last season obviously shaping McDermott’s plans for him, and took the victory largely thanks to a hat trick from young centre Kallum Watkins.

On Saturday afternoon, another good tussle saw St Helens run out victors against the Broncos, despite trailing at half time 18-16 in the snow and sleet. For Saints, stand in Captain James Roby was apparently star of the show, young backrow Dixon scored a lovely long range effort and with club Stalwart Paul Wellens missing, new signing Lance Hohaia took the #1 jersey to decent affect. Both sets of fans seem happy; with the new look Broncos appearing a stern test for last year’s grand finalists, especially up front and with veteran Craig Gower showing that he’s still got some class - forming a promising partnership with former Crusader, Witt.

Our second televised match of the weekend was the opening game at Salford community stadium, where they welcomed Castleford tigers on a very snowy night. Just as you’d expect from Ian Millward’s side, the tigers seemed to pay no heed to the conditions and looked to throw the ball around, whereas Salford started more sensibly by driving up the middle and looking for a good kick. It was the Reds who had the first joy, with Matty Smith jinking between two forwards from ten metres out for the score. As the match wore, however, on Cas's young pack, led by a rather muscular performance from Jacob Emmit, started to get the better of the arm wrestle and a difference in class started to appear. Richard Owen scored his first from full back with a sweeping move, before being heavily involved in the second. Having spotted a defender out of position, Daryl Clarke made a half break with a scoot from dummy half and his offload found its way to Owen, who chipped across field. The ball was delicately hacked on by Josh Griffin to touch down in goal, finishing a very impressive try.
Once they were behind, the Reds started to play with a bit more adventure, trying to get the ball to danger man Patten, with some success. Dropped balls from half breaks by Anderson and Gleeson could have been the difference, but by now the Cas half backs had got the measure of the conditions and were pinning Salford back with a impressive short kicking into the snowy in goal areas; one kick finding its way into the arms of hooker Milner to score between the posts.
That looked like the game until one last burst from Salford from their own half saw Matty Ashurst finished an early contender for try of the season until Owen struck back at the death.
Despite being on the wrong end of the result, I must say that Salford looked a lot better than I had perhaps expected.

On to Sunday, where the big results came in. A depleted Huddersfield side travelled away to Wigan and won, with Larne Patrick, only just declared fit after a broken wrist, coming off the bench to score 2 tries. I’m afraid, given Huddersfield’s injuries; this is two points lost for Wigan, but credit the Fartowners for taking hold of such a big game. The Wigan fans are bemoaning a lack of kicking game, but seem reasonably happy with the forward effort. Giants fans don’t seem to want to pick out individuals, it sounds like it was a very rounded team performance.

Possibly a bigger shock would be the Hull v Warrington game, which Wire rescued with a try late on (and could have won, if Westwood had made the conversion). Reports make it sound like an exciting match up. The Hull speccies were disappointed not to take the two points, but fairly happy with honours even, using the old adage “I’d have taken a draw beforehand”. New signings on both sides in the form of Lynch and Waterhouse seemed to impress.

Following me saying I fancied Bradford to improve this season, it sounds like the Dragons gave them quite a thrashing, with last year's dream team #7 Dureau pulling the strings and ensuring that they had things sown up by half time, leading 20-0. The Bradford scores came towards the end, seemingly as nothing but consolation.

So who's happiest? Wakey fans must be looking forward to an entertaining season and certainly show they could threaten the play off places, although it will be interesting to see how their forwards go against a more established opposition pack. Hull FC fans, too, must fancy their chances of putting a cat amongst the pigeons. As for Huddersfield, to take down Wigan at the DW with a host of players missing is testimony to their squad and perhaps shows that they're capable of a more consistant season?

Unhappy? Bradford fans must wonder if they'll ever see their former glory regained. Potter's now in his second season, so really needs to start getting a grip of things. Saying that, Catalan could be a real force this season, so perhaps its not the end of the world?
Wigan fans will have to resist that nagging doubt that could creep in to the minds, that life after Michael Maguire is going to be less than rosey. Wane seems like a determined chap, though, and has some real quality to work with.
Don't write them off just yet.

Wakefield are going to ask the appropriate authorities about the excessive grazes their players suffered in the match played on the new iPitch, which you could see on the knees and elbows (check Mather's elbow after he scores), but have a look back at the last 20 minutes of the Cas/Salford game and you'll also see a lot of blood on the joints (look in the back ground when the Howarth is being treated for concussion). The players may pick up scratches, but do we think its any worse than the ones you can get from some hard and dry pitches in the summer? What do you think?

So week one is down, seven fixtures, only one of which seemed one sided and three matches being attended by 10,000+ crownds despite horrid weather. A good weekend, and I reckon things are only going to get better.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Kick-Off’s Here!

Get your Sky set on record, dig out your long johns and Woolley hats and get ready for Superleague 2012!

Whilst we’re not quite into summer rugby territory, yet, I think we’re all in the same boat that we’re ready for some real blood and guts action. Pre-season friendlies whet our appetite, but now it’s time for business, to stop the speculation, no more unlimited substitutes to experiment with combinations and test youngsters – there’s league points at stake now.
The broadcasters have chosen two less glamorous fixtures to watch from our armchairs, but I’m glad we’re getting a chance to see the new boys Widnes and I’m sure the cameras will enjoy having a look around the new Salford ground. 

Widnes vs Wakefield will be an interesting game between two squads that have a lot of new comers. In my season preview I picked out a half back from both teams as their Star Man and now Tim Smith and Rhys Hanbury are set to go head to head. They’re both talented, but as always, your forwards need to carry the piano before the backs can play it.

Salford and Cas should be a good game and, if I know Ian Millward, the Tigers will arrive full of energy and keen to throw the ball about. I reckon this could lead a few good scores from either side with enthusiasm for attack trumping defences that are missing missing match practice.
Phil Veivers isn’t getting ahead of himself and gave CODE 13 this rather understated interview. 
He has a good little percentage gamer in Matty Smith who has a nice long boot on him, so perhaps a solid showing from the Salford pack could mean that they could frustrate the Yorkshiremen in the territory game.

I hope televising the above games doesn’t take away too much from what should be good attendance figures, with Widnes having their first game back in Superleague and Salford with a competitive debut for their new ground.

I would have preffered to be able to see at least one of the more top end Sunday fixtures, with Wire travelling away to the KC Stadium to play Hull FC and Huddersfield going to Wigan. I reckon both of these fixtures will pull big crowds  and pit two established coaches trying to build on previous seasons with two newly appointed men who’ve spent the off season settling in to their new role. My gut says that the Ws will both be victorious.  I do love an upset, but with Huddersfield starting the season missing some key forwards, including O’Donnell, I reckon this one’s beyond them. 

Looking through the fixtures, there’s none that I can be that confident in predicting and as Cas and (what were) Quins proved last year, your overall standing in the game isn’t always indicative of how you’ll start the season.
Saints fans should be confident against the Broncos, but it’s a long trip and the London side have beaten them early in the season a couple of times to my recollection.

The only ominous one for me is Leeds at home to HKR. Another game with a bumper crowd, Rovers will have to start with some real intent or else the Rhinos have the ability to run away with the game. 

Having fancied Bradford to improve this season, the opening fixture against Catalan is an interesting one. On a level playing field I’d have no doubt about backing the Frenchmen; so can the Bulls build on home advantage and make a statement of intent for the season? Let’s see what they’ve got, but turning over the Dragons is a substantial task. Mind you, on top of home advantage, I’m sure a freezing cold afternoon on the Pennines won’t do Bradford’s chances any harm and Catalans have had what could be a disrupting set of injuries in the three quarters. This may be closer than some suspect, but I still lean towards the continentals.

I’ll go – Widnes, Cas, Warrington, Wigan, St Helens, Leeds and Catalan for victories this week.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Looking Forward to the 2012 Superleague Season

With the new season kicking off this Friday, I thought we could take a look at the clubs competing and what we have to look forward to. Are we going to see the best superleague ever?

The fallen giants. Bradford’s season is one I’m going to watch with real interest. I think a lot of us expected a bit more from them last year, with Slick Mick Potter replacing the much maligned McBanana. Matt Orford’s withdrawal late in the off-season probably didn’t help and the year certainly had more lows than highs for the Bullmania Massive.
I have slightly more hope this year, mainly due to heavy recruitment in the backs, including halves Jarrod Sammut and Luke Gale, especially Gale, who impressed greatly at Quins last year. They also have some up and coming forwards in Kopczak, who was impressive for wales in the 4 nations and the likes of Whitehead, Donald and the humungous Burgess, who will all be a year older. I reckon they may creep into the play-offs this year, which will be welcome relief for the fans, for whom the 2005 success must feel a very long time ago.
For me, the re-signing of Karl Pryce epitomises the potential for both success and disappointment this season. We’ll have to wait and see how he and his new(old) team fare.
Star Man: Luke Gale. Someone to boss things in the middle could really make a difference for this team.
One to Watch: Tom Burgess. Big as a house, surely the mark IV model can only get better.

Classy Cas started last year like a house on fire before slipping down the table in the second half of the season to disappointingly miss out on the playoffs. They’ve started a decent conveyor belt of young players coming into the team, highlighted by exciting talents like Arundel and Owen in their backs and Clarke at hooker, as well as more established Cas boys like Huby and Orr. They also have the often irresistible Rangi Chase, who adds a real element of danger.
Making sporting predictions isn’t often easy, especially when Ian Millward is involved. I’m sure he’ll get them playing some exciting rugby, but his skills at Super League level were never really tested against a fully affective salary cap. I predict quite an emotional season for the Cas faithful. They’ve not been very busy in terms of big transfers, but have lost some real experience in the likes of Fozzard and Widders. Whilst they may get some memorable victories, Cas fans should brace themselves for at least a couple of 60 point spankings.
Star Man: Rangi Chase. Reigning Man of Steel, he’s got some some real magic up his sleeve.
One to Watch: Daryl Clarke. The young hooker showed a lot of guile last year playing in a difficult position.

A slow start last year was washed away with a strong second half of the season which saw the Dragons drag themselves into a play-off spot and regain the prominence they had before the disappointment of the 2010 season. The theme with signings has been quality and not quantity with two very big names coming in. Louis Anderson will add some appreciated, if hardly needed, biff to the pack already bustling with Gallic charm, and if Leon Pryce can recover from last year’s injury woes he’ll return to being arguably the most dangerous individual in Super League. Combine that with a hopefully fit again Thomas Bosc and you have some mouth-watering combinations on the field. The only problem will be finding space for both of these alongside Dureau and Henderson.
Another boost for the Dragons is that they’ve finished some work on their ground, which means the capacity has been increased for the upcoming season.
Star Man: Scott Dureau. Really pulled the strings for them last year, getting himself a Dream Team selection.
One to Watch: Jason Baitieri. Abrasive and strong running, this young forward is going to cause the opposition problems for years to come. Interestingly, the young Frenchman was on the books of, and had 1 first grade appearance for, the Sydney Roosters.

I like Huddersfield. They have tough forwards, clever half backs and exciting three quarters. They have a seemingly astute coach and they promote young British players. So what’s missing? Consistency, for one; they seem to have a wobble most seasons and last year’s lasted longer than usual. I wonder if Nathan Brown’s bag of tricks is looking a little bare the longer he’s been away from the NRL, but I’m always reasonably impressed with not just their recruitment, but also their ability to get the best out of players who other clubs don’t fancy. I feel it will be another year of competing well, but still lacking enough to grab a trophy. They’ve knocked off some big names in the past couple of years, with notable victories like the one over Wire at MM, but they need to turn a corner in order that they’re still doing it at the business end of the season.
Star Man: Danny Brough – the little general. Has a swagger that harks back to the likes of Goulding and Gregory.
One to Watch: Jermaine McGillvary. Some outstanding performances brought him to our attention last year, but can he kick on a level to challenge the likes of Ryan Hall?

Hull FC
Fairly busy transfer activity and a new coach will give the Hull fans hope that they can return to the competitive level they reached in 2005-6. Since then its felt like Hull have under achieved, given the alleged talent they have had in their ranks.
Despite the departure of Fitzgibbon, Dowes and club champion Radford, the new recruits, led by the indomitable Andy Lynch, should bulk up the pack well and lay a decent platform for new boys Brett Seymour, Aaron Heremaia and a man who I believe could prove to be a very interesting long term signing – Jamie Ellis. Released by St Helens, it didn’t take long for a Super League club to notice him starring at 7 for Leigh and re-ignite his topflight career.
The usual suspects Manu, Yeaman and Briscoe will mean a lot of threat out wide, but, again, the biggest influence is going to be the new coach. A few years ago, the prospect of a visit from the Black and Whites could put the shivers  up any team, but I feel like it’s a long road back to that stage and I worry that if the new coach doesn’t settle in well they’ll miss out on the playoffs in the coming term.
Star Man: Willie Manu. Extraordinarily hard to pull down when he taking the ball in, he’s a real danger out wide.
One to Watch: Jamie Ellis. Has a look of an old-school scrum half general and impressed at Leigh. I wonder whether he’ll get the chance with new signing Seymour around, but if he does, I’m sure he’ll take it.

Hull KR
Traditionally one of the most famous names in rugby league, the Robins have received a fair bit of flack over their recruitment policies over the past few years, favouring imports over British talent, but they certainly can’t be accused of not adding to SL since their promotion. The Hull derby itself is a massive day in the sport and there’s plenty of big clubs that have been turned over at Craven Park.
As well as some solid additions to the squad, this year they’ve imported Mickey Paea, who comes with a ferocious reputation and classy fullback Shannon McDonnell, who impressed in the friendly derby match. I think it’s fair to say things had gone stale under the amiable Justin Morgan, so perhaps the squad will flourish under the fresh approach of the amusingly named Sandercock.
They have some big game players, do HKR, and a smart driver in the form of Dobbo, so they’re another team that should not be underestimated.
Star Man: Michael Dobson. No surprise, but this guy is the brains behind all the Robins do.
One to Watch: Kris Welham. He can really rip it up in attack, so if he tightens up the defensive side he could perhaps threaten the international squad.

Written off by us all as contenders by midseason 2011, people ridiculed McDermott’s appointment and consigned the Rhinos to the scrap heap as has-beens. The decision to release two of their first team props half way through the campaign seemed madness, but whatever strategy Brian Mac applied worked incredibly, as they knocked favourites Warrington out of the playoffs after being chosen in the club call, and went on to give Saints yet another kick in the proverbials.
Brent Webb summed it up for me; after a season full of gaffs and penalties for descent, the full back burst through Chris Bridge’s tackle to break the game against the league favourites when it counted. The JJB inspired squad seem like they’d walk across hot coals for the Blue & Amber shirt and should never be underestimated on the big day.
A modest off-season of transfer activity, but Griffin and Moore will be solid acquisitions to replace the dead wood they shipped midseason. More interesting will be the development of Zak  Hardaker, along with the other promising youngsters like BJB and Watkins.
Can they continue to pull it out of the bag? I’d say no, but I did the same last year, so what do I know?
Star Man: Danny McGuire. Following a season decimated by injury last year, he’s back and striking a formidable partnership with Sinfield in the halves.
One to Watch: Zak Hardaker. Took his chance in the centre last year and was mighty impressive. Let’s see if he can kick on. There’s some big boots to fill since the departure of Keith.

London Broncos
Another year, another set of wholesale changes, including the acquisition of Michael Witt from the Crusaders, Julien Rinaldi from Wakey, the return to rugby league of former Penrith bad boy, Craig Gower and two NRL Grand Final winners in Robertson and Rodney.
Another team that started 2011 well before dramatically losing form, the players inbound look of decent ability and have respectable reputations, but the London club has failed to put things together over the past few years and with a very young coach, improvement could be slow and steady, which is no great disaster in the grand scheme of things for a club still trying to fulfil its potential in the capital. I’m happy about the return of the Broncos moniker and, given the apparent success of the sport at grass roots level in London, hope that the senior club can get themselves on a decent footing as the ambassadorial club outside our traditional heartlands.
Star Man: Craig Gower. Rightly or wrongly, Gower’s going to command a lot of headlines this year. I hope this character can still cut it in the faster paced game of League.
One to Watch: Michael Robertson isn’t the biggest name import we’ve had, but with a try every other game during his 5 years at Manly, he’s obviously a winger of some talent.

Given they’ve just moved into a brand spanking new home, there didn’t seem an awful lot of positivity about the Salford speccies, and you can’t really blame them, given all the palaver over their new coach. A decent showing in the friendly against Wigan seems to have buoyed them somewhat, however.
With The Dingo now in charge, I certainly hope they do well, but I’m not sure if they’ve been busy enough recruiting to make a dent in the league this season with such an inexperienced coach.
It’s been a less than inspiring round of signings, although from what I’ve read about Shannon McPherson, he sounds like a real rough competitor (despite having a girl’s name) who could be a much needed boost to their pack. They’ll also be marshalled steadily by the trio of Smith, Holdsworth and Patten.
The new stadium means they’ll go on my list for away visits this year, but I reckon 2012 is going to be a tough slog for them.
Star Man: Shannon McPherson. If the reputation is true, this guy could be the driving force behind their pack. Watch for him on the “tackles made” list and expect to see him towards the top.
One to Watch: Jodie Broughton. A very exciting young winger, the like of which we don’t see an awful lot of these days. Give him the ball and a bit of space and you’ll get some real excitement.

An interesting season in prospect with a lot of focus away from the pitch and onto the shiny new stadium they’ll be playing in and the encouraging season ticket sales that have followed.
Over the past few years, Saints have turned from the ultimate big game club into perennial runners up, annually falling at the final hurdle. The loss of James Graham is a massive one, although with the recruitment of Anthony Laffranchi and Mark Flanagan, Coach Simmons will be hoping Graham’s massive work rate will be shared around with no detriment to the team. I’m not so sure, but they should still have enough firepower to end somewhere near the top.
The other big-name signing they’ve made is World Cup winner Lance Hohaia, apparently signed to play half back. Unfortunately for him, since he put pen to paper, Saints unearthed the wonderfully talented double act of Lomax and Gaskell. Will Hohaia’s big name get him picked before the impressive and in-form youngsters? Thinking ahead to the next World Cup, I’d be wanting those two to be getting all the game time possible.
The young guns at Saints excite a lot of people, but they don’t have the most robust squad, especially in the forwards.
Star Man: James Roby. Not only is he nigh on unstoppable if Saints get a quick play the ball, but the guy is a machine in defence.
One to Watch: Lee Gaskell. Flew under the radar last year due to the exploits of Johnny Lomax, and Saints fans are expecting a big season for this mercurial young half back.

To be honest, who knows!? Their transfer activity is vast, with players of varying ability coming and going. There’s some gooduns on the list, Fox is a proven winger, Mellors is a danger in the centre and the like of Raleigh and Kirmond coming in from Huddersfield are tough additions to a  seasoned squad, but there’s some questionable ones too, most notably Tim Smith, a man with a chequered career who I know is not well remembered by Wigan fans following his stint there earlier in his career, despite glimpses of talent. There’s also a few Aussies I know little about, which hinders any comprehensive analysis of their chances from me.
The biggest change though, surely, is the coach. Out goes lovable Penfold and in comes Richard Agar. The general consensus from the Hull fans didn’t seem a good one and I do wonder whether he’s the man to pull Wakefield up the table. They’ve given local rivals Cas a good hiding in the pre-season friendlies, though, so a fresh start may see his plans unfold better.
Star Man: Tim Smith. The jury’s out, but if he holds it together, he is a man that could really shunt the Wildcats up the table.
One To Watch: Danny Washbrook. His progress as a player stuttered at Hull, despite him being a promising youngster. I hope this exciting ball player has some luck on a new stamping ground.

Seemingly invincible two months from the 2011 season end, they crashed out the playoffs to an un-fancied Leeds team. Despite the Challenge Cup wins of recent times, the year of the wolf remains somewhat an enigma, with the biggest prize consistently eluding them.
Not much of a change around of players, with Waterhouse coming in for Anderson and the exciting young Ratchford coming in for Matt King. Young Chris Hill could be one to watch for the future. So Tony Smith doesn’t have many unknowns to gamble on with his preparations for the next campaign, but let’s not forget that his squad aren’t the youngest, with star players Morley, Briers, Hodgson, Carvell and Monaghan all over of 30. People assume they’re the wrong side of the hill – there’s no substitute for experience, though.
Star Man: M. Monaghan. Saints and Wire fans will argue all day about who is the best hooker (maybe the best player) in the league. Monas’s craft around the ruck is a marvel and he’s a tough defender to boot.
One to Watch: Rhys Evans. Appears big, fast and skilful – exactly what we want from our backs if we’re to compete with them lot down under.
The promoted team in any sport always has a tough time, the majority of their recruitment normally coming from whatever clubs been relegated. However, I see a little bit more light at the end of the tunnel. They’ve gathered experience with the likes of Cross, Clarke and Phelps, a very interesting half back combination of Watts and Hanbury and some promising youngsters in the form of Ben Davies, the return of Anthony Mullally from a year at Brisbane and the late addition of a very substantial chap called Sione Kite. They’ve also given some big names a run for their money in the preseason friendlies.
Watch this space, but, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, I suspect they’ll do better than some might expect. The team may have problems gelling, but they’ll also have players out to prove themselves at a new club.
We’ve also got their super new iPitch to look forward to, don’t forget.
Star Man. Rhys Hanbury. He’ll be in the middle of pretty much anything that goes on and has a very complete game. Didn’t get the credit I thought he deserved at Crusaders, I think he’ll have a wow of a season.
One to Watch. Anthony Mullally. Spent last season impressing with Brisbane’s reserve grade. I’m not sure how much we’ll see straight away, but I’ll watch his development with a keen eye.

Michael Maguire came and went like a whirlwind, turning a Brian Noble led team of also-rans into a slick, physically dominating team of rugby machines. The announcement of his departure prompted much speculation as to whether his successor Wane could maintain those high standards as they romped to Challenge Cup victory last year. However, the season ended with a relative whimper with a double derby loss to a team they convincingly outgunned earlier in the season. I suspect things won’t be that simple for Wane as he takes that precarious step from assistant to head coach.
The playing staff haven’t changed much, the substantial hole left by Martin Gleeson apparently being filled by the signing of little known Anthony Gelling and the departing Coley and Hoffman hopefully being compensated for by the return of long-term absentees Hock and Fielden and the substantial new frames of Dudson, Flower and Luaki.
Wigan’s work ethic in the forwards, especially in defence, should see them grind their way to the right end of the table, but the obvious key to their success will be the quality and frequency of the ball getting to Sam Tomkins. However, if he stays at full back, they’ll be looking a little light in the half back area following Paul Deacon’s retirement, especially the way Tommy  Leuluai has been gravitating towards hooker. Perhaps a youngster will step up – Mellor is a name banded about by the fans.
Star Man: Sam Tomkins. ‘Nuff said.
One to Watch: Gil Dudson. Massive lump of a lad, let’s see if the boyo can impress when he’s playing for a team at the right end of the table.

So there you go. I'm not going to give a prediction for every clubs finish, but I do think that, along with the usual suspects, Bradford and Hull FC will be the ones to sneak the last couple of playoff spots ahead of the likes of Cas and HKR. I see improvement in most squads, especially those from the bottom end, but someone still has to finish bottom. I do suspect, however, that it won't be the new boys Widnes.
Top spot? I think my money will be on Warrington to repeat last years acheivement. As for the Grand Final, we'll, as Leeds proved to us all, it's anyone's game.