Super League X1X has already begun with a match between Wigan and Huddersfield but most of the first draft of fixtures take place this weekend and the pick of the schedule is the fixture between Warrington and St Helens. The outcome of this match could provide an early pointer as to whether these two contenders can win the Grand Final in October.
Salford City Reds finished bottom of the table last season but with no relegation in place have another season to become established in the top flight. A new owner has invested in the stadium and players and there will be an immediate return if they beat Wakefield at home this Sunday.
The two Hull sides have home fixtures this weekend. Hull FC are favourites to beat Catalan Dragons while Hull KR look unlikely to beat Leeds in their first fixture of the new season. Warrington are favourites to win the Grand Final having lost that deciding match in the last two years.
Wigan won the league, Challenge Cup and Grand Final last season. The town’s soccer club also won the English FA Cup and never before has clubs from the same town won major trophies in these two sports in the same season. The soccer club were relegated from the Premier League but it was still a great year in sport for the town.
Both the ruby league and soccer club have lost key personnel in the last six months and how both adjust will provide a subplot to other matters. Roberto Martinez became the manager of Everton and that side are still contenders to qualify for the Champions League. Wigan’s rugby league loss was Sam Tomkins who joined the New Zealand Warriors in the NRL.
Tomkins was the highest paid player in Super League history but he was offered double his salary to move to the Southern Hemisphere. The best runner from deep last season was also approached by clubs in rugby union but decided to stay in league and move to New Zealand. Wigan lost to Huddersfield at home last week but it’s too soon to say how much Tomkins will be missed.
There’s no doubt that Wigan will be weaker in the absence of 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.
Warrington have also lost a key player with the retirement of Lee Briers. He has been a stalwart for the club for many years and his experience will be missed. Several players on the periphery of the squad have also moved on but there have been some key signings to maintain the overall quality of the side.
Warrington coach Tony Smith from Australia decided to stay with the club and it’s a positive that a coach in such demand sees the potential for success at Warrington. The squad appears to have the strength to figure in the league and the ability to win that elusive Grand Final.
Salford’s expectations are to reach the play-offs. There is a new structure in place this season whereby the top two leagues will be split into three sectors of eight teams at the end of the regular season. As usual the top eight qualify for the playoff while the bottom four compete with the top four teams from the Championship for places in the Super League and the rest stay in the Championship.
Marwan Koukash is a successful businessman who has invested in British horse racing, buying more than a hundred Flat horses to run in his colours. He has bought Salford and his ambition is to make them the biggest club in the world. A new stadium has been developed and several players proven at the highest level brought in. He has recruited Brian Noble to coach the side and he is one of the most successful coaches in the history of the game.
Salford are located near the city of Manchester and within easy travel distance of Liverpool and the north west of England conurbation. Population is as congregated as in Greater London so there is a huge catchment area of supporters. However, the north west of England is a soccer hotbed and Salford will face stiff competition in trying to attract decent support.
Within 40 miles of the new stadium there are four Premier League football clubs (Manchester United, ManchesterCity, Liverpool and Everton) and several others further down the league pyramid. In Salford’s favour are excellent transport links and 5 million people living with one hours travelling distance by train or car. Momentum is key and if Salford start well they should qualify for the post season at least.
However, overall Warrington still look to have the best squad and this could be the season at the end of which they finally win that elusive Grand Final.