St Helens remain the team to catch as Super League returns

St Helens remain the team to catch as Super League returns

Sweeping changes and same-old-stories will shape the course of Super League 2023 when the 28th edition of the summer competition kicks off with Warrington’s clash against Leeds at the Halliwell Jones Stadium on Thursday.

Four-time defending champions St Helens may be starting the campaign over 10,000 miles from home as they prepare for next weekend’s World Club Challenge, but they start as heavy favourites to resume their path to a historic fifth straight Grand Final crown.

Off the field, a revolution is looming in the form of the sport’s long-term partnership with sports media giants IMG, the next stage of which will see all 36 professional and semi-pro teams advised in March of the criteria which will determine their status once the straight promotion and relegation model is dismantled from 2025.

St Helens v Leeds Rhinos – Betfred Super League – Grand Final – Old Trafford
St Helens are targeting a fifth consecutive Grand Final triumph (Richard Sellers/PA)

Buoyed by last year’s relatively successful if ultimately disappointing World Cup, all 12 of this season’s top flight sides aspire to improvement and potentially a place in the top six and the end-of-season play-offs.

But they must also contend with the cloud of uncertainty that dictates no matter the strength of their exploits on the field, their future will also be be determined by factors like facilities, accounts sheets and their respective geographical location.

From Thursday, the assembled squads must put such questions to the backs of their minds and focus on the daunting task of hauling in the ground-breaking Saints, whose new head coach Paul Wellens, steeped in seven years and almost 500 games wearing the famous red ‘V’, aims to extend their recent dominance of domestic competition.

Huddersfield Giants v Wigan Warriors – Betfred Challenge Cup – Final – Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Matt Peet has led a quiet revolution at Wigan Warriors (Mike Egerton/PA)

Once again it is Wigan who present the most logical alternative, led for the second season by Matt Peet, the former youth coach who arrived at his position in a different way to Wellens but is equally embedded in his own club’s culture and tradition.

Peet has brought in centres Toby King and Jake Wardle to bolster a defence that was found wanting at times last term, and if they can add steel to a side whose biggest pre-season coup was the retention of all-action winger Bevan French, it could well be the year in which the Warriors step back to the summit.

The fight to fill out the remainder of the top six play-off slots is the most open in years, with arguably every side, even including perennial relegation battlers Wakefield and ambitious, rebranded Leigh Leopards, harbouring realistic hopes of extending their respective seasons.

Huddersfield Giants v Castleford Tigers – Betfred Super League – John Smith’s Stadium
Huddersfield are looking to wrestle out their illustrious rivals (Simon Marper/PA)

Huddersfield have restocked wisely, not least in landing playmaker Jake Connor from Hull, and present the sturdiest threat to the top two, whilst Lee Radford’s Castleford have also enjoyed an eye-catching close-season after strengthening their spine with the additions of Gareth Widdop and Jacob Miller.

Rohan Smith’s Leeds, who turned a shock relegation battle into a Grand Final appearance last term, remain something of an enigma, and Salford’s hopes of sustaining last season’s success rest perhaps a little too heavily on the shoulders of their reigning Man of Steel, Brodie Croft.

Warrington’s bolstered pack should ensure no repeat of 2022’s nightmare for Daryl Powell, while Catalans, Hull KR and Hull FC – the latter re-energised by the cross-city switch of veteran coach Tony Smith – can all make confident noises about what lies in store.

Warrington Wolves v Leeds Rhinos – Betfred Super League – Halliwell Jones Stadium
Warrington boss Daryl Powell is determined to improve on a disastrous 2022 (Richard Sellers/PA)

The fight to avoid the drop is especially pertinent in the penultimate year before automatic promotion and relegation may be banished, and while it is hard to look beyond a straight fight between Leigh and Wakefield, there are plenty of factors – not least Leigh’s brash confidence and Trinity’s sheer bloody-minded resilience – that could suck others into the vortex.

For the sport as a whole, and the continuing financial health of clubs in the top-flight and beyond, the 2023 season is pivotal with Sky’s existing contract set to expire and the value of any extended arrangement likely dictated by the immediate attractiveness of the product on the pitch.

With a degree of limbo over the future structure of the game, there was always a danger that clubs would enter the new season in something of a holding pattern, too nervous to throw caution to the wind until the exact nature of IMG’s proposed requirements are made plain to them in March.

Hull Kingston Rovers v Castleford Tigers – Betfred Challenge Cup – Quarter Finals – Sewell Group Craven Park
‘Sold Out’ signs are already being propped up at Craven Park (Will Matthews/PA)

On the contrary, Wigan and Salford grasped hold of their respective stars French and Croft – the latter tied to a historic eight-year extension – while a robust pre-season promotion is set to lead to the sold-out signs being propped outside Craven Park for Hull KR’s home opener against Wigan.

They may be familiar hands grasping the Grand Final trophy on October 14 at Old Trafford, but the intervening eight months promise to lead the game to areas it could never have imagined.

Rugby league’s willingness to embrace change will be critical when it comes to charting its future course.