Annus Mirabilis: Super League XXI shaping up to be genuinely extraordinary

Now in its 21st year, Super League has come of age. The RFL’s marketing in 2014 talked of a ‘League of the Extraordinary’, while last season’s fanfare was accompanied by the hashtag everymomentmatters.

While 2014 mightn’t have been all that extraordinary and while last season ultimately mattered little to championship clubs with top flight aspirations, Super League XXI is shaping up to be an absolute rollercoaster. The 2016 season could be the Annus Mirabilis, the extraordinary year the competition has been promising – it’s certainly tighter than ever with the gap closing on the ‘big three’. Smaller clubs have genuine designs on Super League glory and are backing themselves against the best. For newcomers to the Greatest Game, there’s never been a better time to follow English rugby league.

Pundits pre-season predictions have been dashed with treble winners Leeds enduring their worst start to a Super League season. Widnes, meanwhile, were almost a unanimous choice for a potential drop to the championship. Instead, they’ve roared to the top of the table with a string of simply fabulous performances. As round five approaches, let’s take a look at the big stories of the competition so far:

Rhinos in ruins?

Can anyone stop the Rhinos in 2016?, asks the BBC website’s Rugby League homepage. At present, Catalans, Widnes and Warrington have all succeeded. With only one win in four Super League fixtures and a beating in the World Club Challenge, Leeds are struggling to cope with life after Peacock and Sinfield. The champions’ problems are compounded by an ever-increasing injury list. The transformation in fortunes has been a shock for the Rhinos and for everyone involved with the sport. Psychologically, they’ve entered the season knowing that they cannot surpass the achievements of the last campaign – hardly a winning mentality. The challenge for McDermott and his players is to salvage their reputation and regain the respect of their opponents. Last season’s air of invincibility is long gone. Will the Rhinos recover their mojo?

Widnes winning BIG

Most observers’ pick for relegation before the season started, the Vikings have torn up the form guide and stormed to the top of Super League. With perhaps the most dynamic halfback pairing in the competition in the form of stand-off Kevin Brown and scrum half Joe Mellor, Widnes have unleashed some devastating attacking rugby on a largely unsuspecting league. The Vikings destroyed champions Leeds Rhinos in their opening home fixture, a week after inflicting a smash-and-grab raid on the Wakefield Wildcats. The Huddersfield Giants have been slain and even in their sole defeat against Salford, Widnes had the Red Devils hanging on by their fingernails at the final hooter. There’s a long way to go in the season, but Denis Betts’ men have played some fabulous football so far. Relegation worries are a long way off for the Vikings.

Salford are for real

The perennial Salford hype-job was muted in pre-season, although many expected the Devils to endure yet another disappointing campaign despite some astute signings under the watchful eye of new coach Tim Sheens. Despite encouraging signs in their opening defeat against Hull FC, nobody saw the annihilation of St Helens coming. Since what could already be a season defining win, the Devils have made life hell for all to cross their path this season. They’re the only side to beat table topping Widnes and after years of unfulfilled hype, have finally arrived as a genuine Super League side.

However the season pans out, Salford have earned the respect of their peers and have evolved from something of a freakshow to an actual team in its truest sense: players playing for each-other and for the jersey. Josh Jones, Robert Lui, Michael Dobson, Tommy Lee and Ben Murdoch-Masila have all stood out, as has the Beast himself, Justin Carney. Like Widnes, Salford’s upsetting of the form guide has made the competition all the more enthralling in 2016.

Live Wire

Since its inception, only Wigan, Saints, Bradford and Leeds have won Super League, but with the competition tightening, Warrington are considered by many to be the team to break the stranglehold of this ‘gang of four’.

The Wire have already seen off the champions on their home patch, and in their most recent fixture snatched a thrilling victory from the jaws of defeat against Salford. Tony Smith has got the Wolves hunting as a pack, with prop Ashton Sims and hooker Daryl Clark different animals compared to last year, and new recruits Chris Sandow and Tom Lineham fire, Warrington look like genuine contenders.

Airlie Birds flying

Lee Radford has given the black and whites a shot in the arm, recruiting some phenomenal talent who have quickly gelled into a formidable outfit.  Sika Manu, Carlos Tuimavave, Mahe Fonua and of course Frank ‘the Tank’ Pritchard have almost osmosed into the squad. The starting XIII looks like it’s been playing together for years and the boys are clearly enjoying their football and playing together.

Based on their showing so far, like Warrington, FC should be there or thereabouts at the business end of the season.

Every moment is extraordinary

These teams and their performances are part of what’s making Super League XXI such a fabulous spectacle. There have been some nailbiting results, particularly in the last round with Sandow’s drop goal winner for the Wolves sailing through the sticks as the hooter sounded. Thrilling comebacks, few blowouts, with every side in the competition looking competitive at times and showing patches of genius. If you know someone new to the sport, why not share the love? Give them a taste of the Greatest Game – it’s intoxication they’ll never forget…

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