We can all now say that another whirlwind Super League Campaign has finished, and what a ride it was.
Firstly, we must say congratulations to Leeds Rhinos on their remarkable grand final success, given the position they were in 12 months ago.
However, there were 11 other sides at the start of the year all hoping that their name would be etched onto the Grand Final Trophy come September, and each one of those sides has experienced highs, lows and some dramatic moments along the way.
We are going to take a look at each of the 12 top-flight teams and see how they performed during the 2017 campaign.
There’s no better place to start than with Daryl’s Powell’s side. For much of the campaign, they were the runaway winners, scoring over 200 points more than any other side in the opening 23 rounds of the season.
On paper, their squad looked like it had a good mix of youth, experience and flair, yet no-one would’ve foreseen that the Tigers could barge their way to the Grand Final in the attractive manner that their fans became accustomed to.
Despite the controversial nature surrounding Rangi Chase’s departure from the club, the Mend-A-Hose Jungle side were able to take that in their stride, with Man of Steel winner Luke Gale stepping up to the plate, alongside the likes of Ben Roberts, Zak Hardaker, Greg Eden and co, who all showed their class week-in, week-out.
One might wonder whether the announcement of full-back Hardaker’s omission from the Grand Final squad, for an apparent failed drugs test, might have caused significant disruption to the camp on Grand Final week.
However, they were ultimately outclassed on the night by a slick Rhinos side fighting to provide the perfect send-off for Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire.
Nevertheless, the Tigers were far and away the best attacking side in the league, and, if they can perform with the same intensity next year, they will be hoping that they can go one better.
Castleford Grade- A
Every season, it always looks like the Dragons are going to be dark horses to claim silverware, and every season, it seems that they become more and more underwhelming.
Lets not forget that their side contained former NRL stars such as Greg Bird and prop forward Sam Moa, as well as a wealth of experienced French and English talent in their ranks.
Despite this, the Dragons endured another season of hardship, eventually ending up in the Middle 8’s and having to save their skins in the Million Pound Game at Leigh Sports Village to seal Leigh Centurion’s fate.
The Perpignan side’s star men never really seemed to get going, especially away from home where they looked extremely fragile and never capable of closing a game out.
Last season moderately good showing was based on the Stade Gilbert Brutus being a fortress for them; a stadium and occasion which struck fear into visiting players. However, nine defeats at home throughout this campaign have highlighted that this is no longer the case.
The Dragons limped their way to retaining their Super League status on the last day, and they will be hoping that there is no repeat of this kind of lacklustre, mediocre season next time around.
Catalans Grade- D-
In contrast to past seasons, the Giants have largely gone under the radar, despite securing themselves a spot in the top eight, and finishing the season with some decent results, most notably a 46-18 away victory over Challenge Cup winners Hull FC.
However, their season petered out with five defeats in the last six, form not too dissimilar to their early season performances, where they picked up just two wins in their opening 12 matches.
A shock Cup exit to minnows Swinton Lions at the John Smith’s Stadium will not have gone down well with the locals, yet some of their mid-season performances showed glimpses of a side which could cause serious problems if everyone was firing on all cylinders.
The only problem was that, for most of the campaign, they were not.
Rick Stone will know that his main task over the off-season will be trying to find a way for the Giants to cope when influential half-back Danny Brough isn’t playing.
If they can find another play-maker who not only compliments Brough’s skills, but also provides the Giants with another attacking spark, they will undoubtedly be aiming for higher in the table come 2018.
Huddersfield Grade- C
If you would’ve asked Hull fans at the start of the season whether they would be satisfied with back-to-back Challenge Cup trophies and a semi-final play off spot, where they would run the eventually champions so close to the end, I’m sure most would’ve bitten your hand off.
It wasn’t really a case of FC not being able to produce the goods and claiming a spot at Old Trafford. It was simply that Leeds showed more desire on the night at Headingley and ultimately deserved their appearance at the Theater of Dreams; but only just.
The KCom stadium outfit looked close to the finished package this year; they had the perfect combination of attacking panache and level-headed game management at the right times, through stand-out stars Albert Kelly and Marc Sneyd.
Their forward pack, filled to the bring with hungry young forwards and more experienced veterans like Gareth Ellis, paved for way for the outside backs to show what they could do, but ultimately it was not enough in this campaign.
The main challenge for Lee Radford’s troops will be replacing influential winger Mahe Fonua, who is on his way back to the NRL, with another top quality finisher, and I’m sure that will have already been identified by their senior management.
The inclusion of Kelly and Fonua in the 2017 Dream Team it indicative of how well FC performed in this campaign, and we wholeheartedly expect them to be fighting at the top again this time next year.
Hull FC Grade- B+
It not often happens where the eventual Grand Final winners are not the side that performed the best during the regular season, but that is the case with the Rhinos this year.
Nevertheless, it is testament to the character of the side that they could perform in the manner that they did at Old Trafford on Saturday night, and give the perfect send-off for the retiring Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire, bound for Hull Kingston Rovers.
Given the situation that Leeds found themselves in last year, it is amazing to think that they could bounce back with such desire and passion this time around.
The template for the Headingley side’s success was their ability to grind results out regardless of their performance. This was highlighted by eight of their victories during the season, all with a margin of less than six points between them and their opponents.
Despite success this year, the Rhinos will have it all to do next year to achieve similar success; the incoming Richie Myler from Catalans knows that he will have huge boots to fill in McGuire, and young Liam Sutcliffe will need to prove that he can be a long-term successor and leader in the Leeds halves.
Only time will tell, but the Rhinos might well have an incredible fight on their hands if they wish to secure repeat Grand Finals triumphs once more in 2018.
Leeds Grade- A
Ultimately, the Centurions did all they could to retain their Super League status, but have fallen back to the second tier at the first attempt.
Had Leigh shown the same fight and desire in the regular season than they did in the Middle 8’s, most notably a 30-6 away win in Perpignan, we might well have been talking about losing our only top-flight French side.
However, Neil Jukes’ men couldn’t do enough, and not even the late arrival of Keiron Cunningham as Director of Rugby could sway things back in their favour.
In all fairness, they had a largely balanced squad which was able to compete with the top sides on several occasions. However, they didn’t really have the quality in the half-back positions to really challenge the ‘big boys’ of Super League on a regular basis.
The arrival of Daniel Mortimer perhaps came too late to really add depth into their creative positions, yet, if Leigh can keep the likes of Josh Drinkwater and Ben Reynolds together next year, they might have enough to bounce back up.
Make no assumptions, the Championship is going to be a fierce competition next year, with impressive looking Toronto, Toulouse, and Centurions’ sides trying to make it to the big time.
However, if Leigh looks at the Hull KR blueprint for returning to Super League, they might just be able to manage it, although a lot will hinge on the possible departure of their biggest names.
Leigh Grade- D+
Salford Red Devils
Like so many other sides, things were looking good for Salford midway through the campaign, with some even tipping them to nestle themselves into the top four of Super League.
However, that proved to be way off the mark, with the Red Devils ending the campaign in seventh following 10 defeats in their last 11 matches.
So what went so wrong?
It looks a lot like the Reds simply ran out of steam at the crucial time. With the likes of Gareth O’brien, Robert Lui and Ben Murdoch-Masila in their ranks, the AJ Bell side were always likely to perform well, but their inability to keep competing until the end of September was unfortunately their downfall.
Dream Team forward Murdoch-Masila was a shining light for the Red Devils, but with rumours of a possible departure to either Warrington Wolves or Hull KR on the cards, their side will be a lot weaker without him.
With Michael Dobson among a possible collection of top players departing the club in the off-season, Salford either need to buy well in the market- without the investment of Dr Marwan Koukash- or prepare for a long and difficult 2018.
Salford Grade- C
This campaign has really been a mixed bag for the Saints, littered with negatives, most notably their failure to reach the top four and the departure of Keiron Cunningham midway through the campaign, but also with glimpses of a positive 2018 to come.
New Boss Justin Holbrook has got his side playing a fine brand of rugby which will go down well with the locals, yet the signing of Ben Barba could suggest that he is starting to assemble a squad capable of winning rugby.
Regan Grace was perhaps the stand-out young player of 2018, and he could be crucial for his side going forward.
Likewise, the consistently impressive showings of prop Alex Walmsley and hooker James Roby- both of whom have been selected for England’s forthcoming World Cup squad alongside the outstanding Mark Percival and Jonny Lomax- show reasons to be cheerful for the Saints.
Yes, their early season viewing, not helped by the untimely leg break of Matty Smith weeks before the proceedings kicked off, will not have gone down well with season ticket holders. However, their side is now looking a lot more promising and, like many other teams, a couple of additions to the forward pack might pave the way for 2018 success down at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
St Helens Grade- B-
To some extent, the fate of Wakefield was not too dissimilar to that of Salford.
So much early season hype and promise suggested that their side could be challenging in the upper reaches of the league, yet narrow defeats at the wrong times- especially two-point and one-point defeats to St Helens and Hull FC at the start of September- really killed any momentum that Trinity had going forward in the Super 8’s.
Chris Chester’s side will be immensely proud of their performances this year, given that their budget is far less than the likes of Wigan and Warrington.
However, their 32-0 last day victory over the Warriors, among a host of other impressive scalps, has showed that it is sometimes more about team cohesion and togetherness than it is about having the top-paid stars.
Jacob Miller and new-recruit Sam Williams really came to fruition this season, and their partnership, alongside the steady hand of Liam Finn, might be pivotal to more success next time around.
If Wakefield can work on improving their existing squad and maybe adding three of four quality additions across the park, might the Trinity fans dare to dream of possible silverware next season?
Wakefield Grade- B+
It is almost a repeat of Leeds Rhinos 2016 debacle, and has perhaps become a trademark of the Super 8’s and Middle 8’s split; a top side with a large budget and star-studded set of players finding themselves playing against Championship opposition to secure their top-flight futures.
However, this way the case with Warrington, who were largely underwhelming during the 2017 campaign, which sadly signaled the end of Tony Smith’s nine season tenure in charge at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
One key problem for The Wire during the 2017 campaign was perhaps the inability to replace the creative Chris Sandow upon his untimely departure from the club.
Declan Patton was perhaps the star of Warrington in a creative sense, but Kevin Brown, their off-season signing from rivals Widnes Vikings, was unable to show his talents on a week-by-week basis.
Yes, he showed glimpses of his skill set, but he was unable to prove on a consistent basis why he became a fans favourite alongside fellow Vikings half-back Joe Mellor at the Select Security Stadium.
Young Patton really looked at home when he was played in the number six role, and having Brown alongside him maybe put too much pressure on him to be the creative spark.
Eventually, the Wolves managed to steamroll their way through the Middle 8’s on a high, winning Smith’s last 10 games in charge.
However, with new coach Steve Price taking the reigns and around 10 players departing the club, not least Ashton Sims and Joe Westerman heading to Toronto, this could well be a pivotal off-season for the Wolves.
Their forward pack and half-back slots are in need of some freshening-up, and the sad departure of star man Peta Hiku for family reasons will leave some gaps on the edges too.
With rumours of Tyrone Roberts and Ben Murdoch-Masila heading to the Wolves, If Price and co can highlight the right players, Warrington might well be a formidable side going forward, and will hope to erase the memory of this catastrophic campaign.
Warrington Grade- D-
Despite having to save their Super League lives in a regular season final-game shootout with Catalans Dragons, Denis Betts’ men can be mightily pleased with their performance in a campaign littered with injuries.
For large parts of the season, the Vikings were without half-backs Joe Mellor and Tom Gilmore, meaning that Danny Craven- a man who was told by Betts he was surplus to requirements in the winter break- had to step in.
Craven did a fine job as did Rangi Chase during his short stint in the side before his suspension for banned substances.
However, if Widnes want to improve next season, they must invest in a new creative player to give the side more guidance around the park.
The Vikings secured some impressive results against the likes of Leeds Rhinos at home and Catalans Dragons away during 2017. The key now is to have the ability to compete for 80 minutes on a more regular basis.
They have already signed Will Matthews, a seasoned NRL front-rower, and young forward Sam Wilde from Warrington, who will surely provide more substance up the middle of the park next time around.
If the Vikings don’t keep investing in tried and tested talent, their side, which features a lot of younger academy graduates, may struggle to bed themselves into the top eight.
Widnes Grade- C-
Yet another side with hefty Grand Final ambitions, Shaun Wane’s men ended 2017 with no silverware to show for what had been a very up and down season.
Huge credit must be given to them for reaching the Challenge Cup final, something which every side dreams of achieving.
However, the big challenge for Wigan will be converting cup form into victories week-on-week in league competition; something which they found difficult for spells in the campaign.
Warriors fans might be worried at their side’s reliance on the leadership of skipper Sean O’Loughlin- their side lost every game that he was absent from.
Mr Wane and his team of trusted coaches must try to find a way of coping without their talisman, who has often been unable to complete a full season due to injuries.
If they can solve this problem, they most certainly have the creative backs and robust forward men needed to challenge at the top end of the League.
If O’Loughlin-syndrome hits again in 2018, it could be another case of so near, yet so far for the Cherry and Whites.
Wigan Grade- B-
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