Could 2019 really be the year of the Wolves? Phil Spink seems to think as he returns with an outright preview of the new Super League season...
"Rather than lick their wounds though there is every reason to expect further improvement from Warrington this year"
Warrington set for Super League glory
Change is on the menu as the 24th season of Super League gets underway and it could be a new name set for Old Trafford glory in October. Remarkably, only four different clubs have been crowned Champions since the Grand Final was introduced in 1998, Leeds, Wigan, St Helens and Bradford, but 2019 could be the year the Warrington Wolves finally break their duck in Manchester after a host of near-misses.
The Wolves did everything but lift a trophy under new coach Steve Price in 2018, reaching both the Challenge Cup Final and Grand Final, falling at the last hurdle in Super League for a fourth time in seven years as Wigan ran out 12-4 winners in October. Rather than lick their wounds though there is every reason to expect further improvement from Wire this year and they can get over the line with silverware in their sights.
Their recruitment has been impressive and marquee signing, stand-off Blake Austin, has quickly been installed as the Man of Steel favourite (8/1 with the Sportsbook). Expect the former Canberra man to light up Super League. NRL Grand Final-winning prop Jason Clark looks another quality addition, as does Jake Mamo, who had little luck with injuries at Huddersfield, but still managed 17 tries in 25 appearances, and could make up for lost time judged on his eye-catching hat-trick on his debut in Ryan Atkins' testimonial against Widnes recently. The loss of Kevin Brown on the eve of the campaign is a big blow, but the Wolves have enough strength in depth to cope, with Declan Patton likely to get the chance to shine.
You can be forgiven for thinking you are looking at an old ante-post preview for any season in the last decade but take it from me, 2019 really IS Warrington's year!
Back them to win the Grand Final, while at 3/1 there is also mileage in backing them for the regular season also.
The hunt for the play offs
Gone are the much-derided Super 8s and 2019 will see the top five teams in Super League battle it out for a place in the Grand Final. It looks a given that Wigan Warriors and St Helens will fill two of the spots once again.
The reigning Champions Wigan begin life without the much-loved Shaun Wane, while Sam Tomkins and Dream Team no 11 John Bateman are among those in the playing staff to have moved on. Adrian Lam takes the hot seat and all eyes will be on the mercurial Zak Hardaker (pictured), who is surely in the last chance saloon. You get the feeling the Warriors aren't as strong this year, but despite all the changes going on at the DW Stadium the 9/2 for them to win a sixth Grand Final now could look massive come October. Write them off at your peril.
St Helens missed the boat in 2018 but seem sure to use that disappointment to spur them on. Justin Holbrook's side were comfortably on top in the regular season, losing just two games, but in the end didn't even reach the Grand Final despite being odds-on from a long way out to land a sixth title. Man of Steel Ben Barba was unstoppable at times but has quickly returned Down Under, with Lachlan Coote coming in as his replacement. Fiji Captain Kevin Naiqama could turn out to be the bigger signing and the centre could do some real damage alongside Golden Boot-winner Tommy Makinson.
Leeds Rhinos will take heart from the fact that the last time they were dumped into the Qualifiers they bounced back the following season to become Champions again. It's a very different set-up at Headingley these days, and club favourite Dave Furner is the man tasked with bringing back the glory days. Rather than relying on promoting from within as they have done over the years the Rhinos have turned to talents in the NRL, bringing in the giant centre Konrad Hurrell (pictured), half-back Tui Lolohea, and the more-experienced forward Trent Merrin. If they can all click then Leeds should be right back in the hunt for a place in the Grand Final, but they face a tough start, with their first four fixtures, including games against Wigan, St Helens and Warrington, all away, while building work continues at Headingley.
2019 could be a big year for the Catalans Dragons. Last season saw an almost-unbelievable turnaround from Steve McNamara's side, who went from rock-bottom in the league in Round 13 to Challenge Cup Final winners and Super 8 qualifiers. The signing of Sam Tomkins, who was winning his third Grand Final for Wigan in October, highlights their ambitions, while the arrival of Matt Whitley from Widnes looks a masterstroke. The young second-rower is a real workhorse and was the leading player for carries, offloads, metres and tackles made for the Vikings last season. Not many sides will visit Perpignan and win and there is a good chance the Dragons will earn a top-five finish.
The best of the rest
2018 promised so much at the start for Castleford Tigers but it all ended rather tamely with back-to-back nillings against St Helens and Wigan. Their task this year has been made much harder with Luke Gale set to miss most of the campaign and the pressure will be on Young Player of the Year Jake Trueman to work his magic. You can be sure of another mighty campaign from Paul McShane, who was among the top tacklers in the league last season as well as contributing 16 assists.
A third successive fifth-placed finish for Wakefield Trinity would see them into the play offs and there is plenty of confidence around Belle Vue, not least with the return of Danny Brough, who will be pulling the strings. Their three Dream Team players, Tom Johnstone, Bill Tupou, and Matty Ashurst will be key to their fortunes, with the brilliant Tupou, last season's top metre maker in Super League, having completed a remarkable 43 consecutive appearances.
Huddersfield Giants will be hoping to kick on with Simon Woolford set for his first full season in charge. The Giants went on a fantastic run upon the appointment of the former Newcastle Knights assistant in the spring, winning 12 matches out of 14 before their campaign petered out in the Super 8s. They have some of the most exciting youngsters in the league, including the free-scoring Darnell McIntosh, and Matty English, who looks a future England forward. If they can shrug off the loss of the talismanic Brough then the Giants will surprise plenty of teams.
Who will rule in Hull?
An early shot will be fired for bragging rights in Hull on Friday as the two sides kick off their campaigns with what should be an explosive derby at Craven Park.
Hull Kingston Rovers left it too late in 2018 to avoid the Qualifiers but ended their campaign on a high, and Tim Sheens' side could be set for a good year if picking up where they left off. Danny McGuire will play his final season and there is something of a Leeds old-boys reunion going on at Rovers with Weller Hauraki, Mitch Garbutt and Jimmy Keinhorst now pulling on the red and white. Josh Drinkwater, who ended last season with a massive 22 assists for Catalans despite only joining them in April, adds huge quality to the halves.
Not many sides start a new Super League season on the back of eleven straight defeats, least of all one that had won back-to-back Challenge Cups in the preceding years, but that is the albatross around the neck of Hull FC. Lee Radford remains in charge and you suspect a good start is vital if that is to remain the case. Hakim Miloudi has shown flashes of brilliance in his time with the Airlie Birds and could be a big influence if getting more game time, while winger Matty Dawson-Jones, who notched up 41 tries in 56 appearances for Leigh in the Championship, should be adding plenty to his Super League tally for his new club.
The wooden spoon battle
I can't oppose London Broncos, even at odds of 1/4, in the market to finish bottom in the new format. One of the founding members of Super League, they upset the apple cart with a stunning 4-2 win over big-spending Toronto in the final Million Pound Game to win promotion. They'll relish their underdogs-status and have a fair bit of quality to ruffle some feathers, believe me, I'll be getting stuck into them on a handicap or two on their artificial pitch at home, but it's hard to see them getting enough points on the board to avoid the wooden spoon.
Salford Red Devils (5/1 to finish bottom) start the season once again amidst rumours of financial difficulties, but the quality they showed to top the Qualifiers table in 2018 suggests they can win enough games to survive. The half-back partnership of Rob Lui and Jackson Hastings has the potential to be one of the most destructive of all. Winger Ken Sio is a big signing back from the NRL, having scored 26 tries in two seasons for Hull KR in his last stint in Super League.
Charnley a must bet for top tryscorer
If Warrington Wolves are to have the big year expected then Josh Charnley has to be backed at 6/1 in the top tryscorer market. The former Wigan man, who inherits the number 5 jersey, was relentless upon his return from the other code in 2018, ending the campaign with 25 tries. Expect him to score for fun again in the new 29-game regular season if he stays injury-free.
2019 sees a host of changes on the field in Super League. You can read more about them from Betfair colleague Matthew Crist here.
Bring it on!