So, it looks like this is going to be another season of off field turmoil for Bulls fans. After all the glory years at the start of the summer era, you’d hardly believe this was the same club who brought so much razzamatazz to the game. New chair, Mark Moore has rubbish any suggestion of the Bulls returning to administration, but they have revealed the club may have to make redundancies because of debts left by the previous owners. Moore took over as chairman at Odsal from Omar Khan in September. The local support has as always been superb, but a lack of play-off football again will hinder the Bulls chances of attracting the sort of high calibre players like Robbie Hunter-Paul, now the Bulls CEO, that they have in the past. The Bulls have extended their dual registration deal with Championship club Dewsbury Rams for a further year. All members of the Bulls squad, with the exception of overseas players, will be available to play for Dewsbury. Head coach Francis Cummins said: “Playing against fully grown men is absolutely vital for the development of some of our younger guys. “A fantastic example is Adam O’Brien, who played so well for Dewsbury he won a place in our first team.” Dual registration aside, Cummins will be looking for his established stars to be wary of the younger talent that the Bulls will be keen to nurture if they are to enjoy the sort of success that they have in the past. For their opening game, Bradford Bulls host Castleford in a West Yorkshire derby at Odsal. Last season the Bulls won this fixture, 38-12.
I’ve already written elsewhere about the Tigers coach Daryl Powell and how his chance to coach again with a top flight club was long overdue. Daryl’s record as a coach is a 70% win rate with Leeds, Featherstone and so far with Castleford, so no pressure there then… 2013 now behind him, Daryl will be looking to push on and hopefully, with a stable base to build on and a strong squad both on and off the field, we should see a return to the “classy Cas’ rugby of old. Powell’s teams are known for an attacking style of play that excites (and frustrates at times) the fan on the terrace. With Ryan Boyle signing a two-year contract extension to stay at the club to the end of 2016, the future is certainly looking good for Tigers fans. The 26-year-old Cas academy graduate played 17 times for the Tigers after returning from Salford in April in a swap deal involving prop Ryan Emmitt. Boyle told BBC Radio Leeds: “We’ve got a good competitive squad so fingers crossed it will be a big year for us.” I felt like I was playing the best rugby I’ve played in my career for the last third of the season.” He added: “The coaches Daryl Powell and Danny Orr have really brought my game on and they’re really fair blokes.” I think the fans can be really optimistic. With the side we’ve got you have to think top eight is a possibility.” Having been beaten by Bradford last season, they will be looking to put one over them at Odsal when they meet on the 16th February.
Strictly speaking, Catalan have had more players involved in the World Cup than any other club. 16 of the first team were in the French national squad that went out to England in the quarter finals. So, they should be pretty much the most match fit team in the league come February. Catalan Dragons full-back Morgan Escare has signed a new three-year contract, keeping him in Perpignan until 2016. Escare broke into the Dragons squad in 2012 before becoming a regular last term, a season in which he scored 14 tries in just 17 Super League games. That form won him a place on the shortlist for young player of the year at Super League’s Man of Steel awards. Also Catalan Dragons have signed winger Michael Oldfield from Sydney Roosters on a two-year contract. Oldfield, 23, was part of the Roosters squad that won the 2013 NRL title, having also been part of the Manly Sea Eagles side which did so in 2011. He also won his first international cap for Tonga earlier this year. Dragons head coach Laurent Frayssinous said: “He is a young and fast player and his pace will be a great value in our back line next season.” Oldfield is the Super League club’s third, and probably last, close-season signing. “We found an agreement with the Sydney Roosters and his agent to release Michael from the final year of his contract and allow him to join the Dragons,” said chief executive Christophe Jouffret. “After the signings of 2011 Lance Todd trophy winner Jeff Lima and Ben Pomeroy from Cronulla, we were looking for a fast winger and we are delighted to welcome Michael to Perpignan.” Having lost their last league match of 2013 away to Hull FC 14-4, they make the trip back to the banks of the Humber to open their season in 2014, hoping for a better result.
What more is there to be said about the Giants after last season? Apart from the fact that they managed to almost prove all of the critics wrong by going on to finally win the league leaders shield, but then going out of the playoffs to finalists Warrington, 30-22. Close season signing Jodie Broughton from Salford Red Devils on a four-year deal. Leeds-born Broughton, 25, scored 12 tries in 22 Super League games for Brian Noble’s side this season. He is the third player to sign for the Giants in the last two weeks after Chris Bailey and Antonio Kaufusi joined from London Broncos. “Once I’d spoken to [coach] Paul Anderson I knew this was the place to be,” Broughton told BBC Radio Leeds. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Salford albeit we never finished in a play-off place. It was a good experience but coming here now will help me to push on. “I needed a new challenge and this was it. I think they can come away with some silverware next year.” With reigning Man of Steel and Scotland captain Danny Brough organising things, and Eorl Crabtree who narrowly missed out on a place in the England squad for the World Cup, the Giants will certainly be there or thereabouts when the business end of the season kicks in. The Giants will be opening the season away to the current champions, Wigan, on the 7th February, ahead of other clubs to allow the Warriors to take part in the World Club challenge.
The Arlie Birds will be on the hunt for silverware this year under new coach Lee Radford. With a host of new faces, the Old Faithful at the KC will have plenty to smile about with players like Fetuli Talanoa, former rugby union international Tom Biggs, Tonga’s World Cup forward Mickey Paea, ex-New Zealand prop Feka Paleaasina, Wigan forward Chris Tuson and utility player Jordan Thompson all arriving through the doors ahead of 2014. With Joe Westerman and Richard Whiting also signing new deals until 2016, Radford will be hoping to lure silverware and success to the stadium as well as top class support and talent. Off the field, Hull have partnered with local firm Veolia Environmental Services has further strengthened its partnership with the Hull FC Foundation after becoming one of the first local businesses to back a new project aimed at improving the lives of local people. A key supporter of the foundation’s State of Mind project in recent years, the UK’s leading recycling and waste management company will now play an active role in supporting the club’s mental health awareness workshops as part of the new “Play80” initiative. Recently launched by the Black and Whites, the scheme will deliver a range of health projects in the local community focused on obesity, healthy hearts, lifestyle and mental health. Gavin Smedley, business manager at Veolia Environmental Services, said, “We are delighted to be involved in the Hull FC Community Foundation partnership. “Social value is at the heart of our business and we look forward to working closely with Hull FC to inspire, educate and engage students across the city.” Hull FC’s community director Richard Munson added, “Once again, we are delighted to have Veolia on board with another exciting project for the Hull FC Foundation. “They have been excellent partners ever since I joined the club and their passion for helping the local community really shines through in the support they offer to a wide range of projects. “With the State of Mind scheme and now Play80, they have shown a particular passion for the mental health side of our work and we look forward to continuing our ongoing partnership into the New Year.”
HULL KINGSTON ROVERS
Across the great divide that is the River Hull, the Robins will be preparing for life after Dobbo. The talismanic playmaker who has headed off to the Newcastle Knights was the go to player for the club for so long, it’s now up to players like Greg Eden and Travis Burns, along with returning player Ben Cockayne to step up and take charge on the field and lead the robins to another top 8 finish. Last season Coach Craig Sandercock started the campaign with 17 players either injured or unavailable. That’s an entire first team, out. Hopefully, barring any injuries, He will be able to start with his strongest team from game one. The recruitment has been thick and fast at MS3 Craven Park. 10 new players have arrived, whilst 9 have left. Hopefully, Craig will be able to mould a team spirit into the squad that will allow them to make progress on the field and secure a top 6 spot. Rovers kick off 2014 at home to the Leeds Rhinos. Last season’s meeting ended 10-44 to the Rhinos, but with the addition of the new North stand being filled, it is hoped that the swell in numbers on the terracing will translate to atmosphere around the ground and improved performances on the park.
After a season that will be classed as a failure by some, the Rhinos will be looking to take the Super League title back to Headingley in 2014. Success on the pitch is vital to this club who have had more than their fair share over the last ten years or so. It’s not luck that wins you as many titles as the Rhinos have done, its hard graft and planning. With a settled squad, the signings have mostly been making certain that the crop of younger players are tied to the club until 2016, with players like Jimmy Kleinhorst and Alex Foster committing to the cause alongside newcomer Paul Aiton, although the loss of young signing Andy Yates will be a blow to the coach, The St Helens-born prop joined the Rhinos from Hunslet Hawks for the 2014 season but will now face a lengthy spell on the side-lines after an operation earlier in the week. Commenting on the news Head Coach Brian McDermott said, “We are all desperately disappointed for Andy, especially at the start of his time at the club. However, the six months will not be wasted time for him, instead he will have a full programme of rehabilitation from the conditioning staff and we will get him fully up to speed so he is ready for the step up to Super League. He is in the best possible hands here at the Rhinos and I am sure this will just be a minor setback for him given the determination he has already shown to succeed.” Leeds will be buoyed by the fact that their England stars all came through a tough tournament without any serious injury, add in the players they lost towards the back-end of last year, like Danny McGuire, returning and you can be certain that Leeds will be back on the silverware trail.
After a close season of turmoil (yet again), the Broncos will be glad to start the season at the Hive, home to Barnet FC and actually get on with the task of avoiding relegation at the end of the season when Super League reverts to a 12 team structure for 2015. As it stands, the Broncos have avoided a point’s deduction by not going into administration and probably some very frantic calls between Red Hall and Barnet to secure the use of the ground. I’m not one of those who feels that a London-based club in the top flight is essential for the good of the game, because at the grass root level, there are plenty of clubs beginning to grow regular interest in the sport. Another problem will be, has Sean Long got enough players, because looking at the amount of support the club has on twitter (8000+ followers) if half of those who claimed they want to see rugby league in the capital actually turn up, then they should be a roaring success OFF the field, but as we all know, it’s the on field success that brings in the fans.
SALFORD RED DEVILS
It’s been a very quiet close season at the newly named A.J. Bell Stadium…Only 14 or so new signings and none of any real note.* Just a real mixture of youth and experience that will (according to the good Dr Koukash) ensure that the way the game is played and run in the UK will change forever. When you sign players of the quality of Harrison Hansen from the champions on 4 yearlong deals and then look at who he will be joining, former Castleford Tigers star half back and international Rangi Chase, and fellow England player Gareth Hock. The former Warrington Wolves captain Adrian Morley, ex-Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ Tim Smith, and Samoa internationals Francis Meli and Tony Puletua, both formerly of Saint Helens, complete the signings from Super League teams. Signings from the Australian NRL were the former Parramatta Eels fullback Jake Mullaney, ex-Melbourne Storm centre Junior Sa’u and Steve Rapira, previously of New Zealand Warriors. Also signed were former Salford Academy product, Jason Walton, and Greg Johnson, both from Championship side Batley Bulldogs. You know that the club means business. With one of the most experienced British coaches in charge, this season the place to be is the A57, just before City Airport, Salford. The wealth of talent on display is breath-taking and if Dr Koukash has his way, once the salary cap is raised, he will no doubt be bringing in more quality over the next few seasons as the Devils push for the silverware that the Dr has promised the loyal and vocal support that the club has.
Here is a club that is building on the foundations laid last season by new coach Nathan Brown. Only 5 new signings, but a new 5 year deal to James Roby says a lot about the direction the club is moving in. With Paul Wellens saying he is happy to hand the No.1 shirt over to Jonny Lomax, shows maturity within the club that only comes when you move talent like Keiron Cunningham into the back room to give a club a sense of continuity. I see a couple of fallow years for the Saints, but they will as usual make the top 5 and the quarter finals, if not the semi-finals of the Challenge cup. With players like Luke Walsh at 7 and the arrival of Matty Dawson, who says his goal is to play as many games as he can this season. The 23-year-old’s signing from Huddersfield Giants has gone under the radar a little with the arrival of Walsh, Mose Masoe, Richard Beaumont and Kyle Amor, but he is keen to make his mark. “I only played a few first team games at Huddersfield so it’s understandable I’m under the radar,” he said. “Hopefully that will help me.”I was coming off contract and I heard Browny (Nathan Brown) was interested in signing me. He took me from Castleford to Huddersfield but I never had the chance to play for him because I had some bad injuries. The loyal saints following will be looking to actually take silverware back to Langtree Park, but they will have to wait at least one more season in this writers view before the club hits the heights of seasons past.
Another club who have been very busy recruiting are the Wildcats. After losing players like Paul Aiton, Justin Poore and Ben Cockayne move on in recent weeks, they have recruited players like Samoan international Pita Godinet, former Parramatta Eels forward Matt Ryan, Scott Anderson, Paul McShane and Richard Moore to the cause and Richard Agar will be hoping for a larger points tally than the 21 garnered in 2013. After his stint coaching France in the World Cup, Agar will arrive in 2014 with some fresh new ideas to make certain that he isn’t relegated at the end of the season. An opening fixture against the Salford Red Devils will give fans and commentators alike a good idea of where the Wildcats will finish. A six game losing streak towards the end of last season undoubtedly cost them a place in the play-offs, but a strong start to the season will be needed and better fitness levels across the full eighty minutes will see them make it over the line this year I think.
The perennial cup kings will be looking to go one better in 2014. Last season’s beaten grand finalists will still be smarting from the defeat to Wigan at last year’s grand final, and nothing is more dangerous than a wounded animal! Tony Smith is one of the shrewdest coaches in the game, and his policy of recruitment has paid dividends in the challenge cup and is beginning to show it in the league as well. As Smith told the clubs website: “We just want to be one of those clubs that’s up there competing. There’s no guarantees, as we’ve found out over the last couple of years, as to whether you win those trophies or not. A lot of things have to line up and fall into place but we’ll certainly be up there competing for those and giving ourselves every chance. I’m excited about the young talent that we’ve got. We are going through some transition but I think it will be fairly smooth as there’s an opportunity for some of the young guys to really step up and some are ready and fully prepared now. It’s only natural that as your team ages and matures that some need to move on. We are really grateful for all the contributors who have helped to bring this team on but it’s all been preparation for this team to come through. We’ve got plenty of depth and competition for places this year which is really healthy.”
Head coach Denis Betts will remain with Widnes Vikings until the end of the 2016 Super League season after agreeing an extension to his contract. Betts, 44, has overseen a steady progression since He took over in 2010. The ex-Great Britain forward guided Widnes to 10th last season and has sights on a top-eight spot next term. “We are in a really strong situation. We have a very good board of directors, playing staff and fan base but there is still so much to do,” he said. Widnes Vikings have signed prop Paul Johnson on a one-year contract after his release by Hull FC. The 25-year-old only joined the Black and Whites last year but was released early from his two-year contract after struggling to stay in the first team. The former Wakefield and St Helens forward joins recent new signings Danny Tickle, Danny Galea and Liam Carberry. “I’m confident that moving back home will show itself in my performances,” Johnson said. On signing Johnson, the Vikings head coach Denis Betts added: “As an out-and-out front-rower, his work ethic, ability and no-nonsense approach make him the person that he is. “There were certain times last year when we were missing those character traits, and his inclusion will certainly go a long way towards steering us in the right direction.”
So, we finally come to the current Champions of Super League.
The big question here is how will they fare without a certain Sam at one and perfect Pat at 5. In coach Shaun Wane is probably the hardest man to please at any club. He demands nothing less than 100% commitment and perfection from his players. I’m certain that He will have looked at the squad, made a few alterations and that the Warriors will once again finish in the top 2. You don’t become a bad team overnight a good friend of mine often says, it takes years of hard work, but losing those two plus Harrison Hansen to Salford will mean that Wigan will need a period of adjustment on the field. Shaun won’t allow anyone to rest on their laurels, and you can be assured that preseason will be tougher this year with a trip down under to look forward to as they take on the Sydney Roosters for the world club challenge, the first time it’s been contested outside of the UK since 1994, when Wigan beat Brisbane. I can see Wigan bringing back the trophy that Leeds allowed Melbourne to borrow last season home to the UK and then they will embark on a run of tough games in Super League.
Top 8 (in no order)
Leeds Rhinos or Salford