Warrington Wolves are the favourites to win Super League X1X which begins on Friday but Wigan Warriors look better betting propositions on the basis of last season’s form. Wigan won the League and Cup double but have been significantly weakened by the departure of Sam Tomkins. The highest paid player in Super League has moved to New Zealand Warriors in the NRL, attracted by a salary that is apparently double his earnings in England.
Super League began in 1996 when it replaced the Rugby Football League Championship and it became a summer sport. Before then matches were played in the depths of winter on poor pitches and in front of sparse crowds. The sport was transformed when Sky Sports became involved. This is a UK based sports subscription channel that is part of the Rupert Murdoch empire. The channel has made huge investment in live sport and rugby league is one sport that has benefited hugely from this involvement.
Matches are now played across a full weekend with one fixture scheduled for Friday night. Stadiums are generally full to capacity for the big matches and television audiences, especially in pubs in the north of England, have increased substantially. The television money has allowed the clubs to invest in players and stadia and now all the teams in Super League play at a modern and safe ground.
The sport in England received a boost from the Word Cup last autumn. Matches were spread around the country which meant fans of all the Super League teams could see an international at their own ground. Ticket pricing meant that all the matches were well attended. The final between Australia and New Zealand at Old Trafford attracted the largest attendance ever for a rugby league international. England just missed out on reaching that final but the tournament still meant the sport had a great profile and was in seen in a very good light.
There are 14 teams in the Super League. Each team plays 27 games between February and September, 13 home and 13 away and a Magic Weekend game at a neutral venue. At the end of the season eight teams qualify for the play-offs which culminate in the Grand Final, usually at Old Trafford, the home on Manchester United Football Club. The Super League champions play the winners of the Australasian National Rugby League in the World Club Challenge.
St Helens won the first Super League in 1996. In that year and the following one there were no play-offs and Grand Final so the team at the top of the table at the end of the regular season were the champions. St Helens have since won four Grand Finals but lost five of these matches, four times against Leeds Rhinos. That side have won five of the last seven finals while Bradford Bulls and Wigan Warriors have each won three in total.
The structure and regulations of the Super League will change in 2015. The 2013 Annual General Meeting passed a reduction in the number of teams to 12 and the return of promotion and relegation. Teams will play each other on a home and away basis with the top eight qualifying for the post-season. The other four sides will feature in play-offs with the top four sides from the Championship and they will determine which sides are promoted and relegated.
Wigan won the Challenge Cup and Grand Final last year and the town’s football club also won the FA Cup. It is the first time in the history of both sports that a club from the same town has held each trophy at one time. Sadly Wigan FC were relegated from the Premier League but it was still a great year for the two most popular sports in Wigan.
There’s no doubt that Wigan will miss Sam Tomkins. He was just about the best player in Super League last season and is a dangerous runner from any part of the field. His skills and speed mean he can break the line even from within his own territory. It will be a tough act to follow but the money involved in the move to the NRL meant it was on offer the club and player could not refuse.
In 2009 Tomkins became Wigan’s first choice stand-off and was named in the Super League Dream Team and as Wigan’s Player of the Year. In 2010 Tomkins moved to fullback and played every game as Wigan won the league title for the first time since 1998. In a Test match in 2010 against France Tomkins equalled the record for most tries scored by an England player in an international with four tries.
Its always difficult to replace the best player in the side in any sport but Tomkins in particular will be a hard act to follow at Wigan. In addition to Tomkins Lee Mossop and Pat Richards have also left the club. Seven players have been recruited in the close season but the key man is still Sean O’Loughlin. The club captain showed his value to the team in 2013 and his experience will be even more important this season.
Wigan beat Warrington in last season’s Grand final. Nine of that squad have left the club for various reasons, including the retirement of Lee Briers and Brett Hodgson. Four players have been signed, including Roy Asotasi and Matthew Russell from the NRL. The retirement of Briers will give Stefan Ratchford a chance to shine and even after losing so much experience the side have enough quality to qualify for their third successive Grand Final.
St Helens and Leeds are the other main contenders for this year’s Super League. The St Helens squad has been strengthened and they should improve on last year’s fifth place finish. The Rhinos also look stronger but on form and ability there could well be another Grand Final between Wigan and Warrington.