5 Things We Learned #100

Gareth Widdop contract

Cheshire’s worst kept secret confirmed

Hats off to Warrington. Their signing of England international Gareth Widdop is a statement of intent if ever I’ve seen one and a huge coup for both the club and Super League. He was strongly rumoured with both Huddersfield and Leeds but a move to the Wolves always looked likely and will see him form a mouth-watering partnership with former NRL rival Blake Austin.

The pair could suit each other perfectly and, on paper, strike the perfect balance between organisation and creative flair. Widdop is the classic orchestrating half and will lead that team round the field, while Austin will have licence to roam and play what’s in front of him. The latter made his debut against Widnes on Sunday and impressed, scoring a try. Jake Mamo also stood out, grabbing a hattrick and looks to be a very handy pickup. At this stage I’d certainly say Warrington are the favourites for the Super League title.

 

Return of the Zak

All eyes were on one man during Sunday’s friendly between Salford and Wigan – Zak Hardaker. The controversial England international made his comeback in the game after a 16-month drugs ban, turning out at both fullback and left centre. The verdict – nothing but positive.

He had a solid 70 minutes, playing a role in Wigan’s attacks and organising their defence, before marking his unofficial Wigan debut with a try, after supporting Joe Greenwood’s break. In all, things are looking very positive for Hardaker. There’s no question about his physical fitness – he was the only Wigan player to play the full 80 minutes – while he still has plenty of nice touches to his game and hasn’t lost the quality that won him the Man of Steel award in 2015.

Of course, he’ll still be rusty and will take a while to get back up to speed with the intensity of Super League but it shouldn’t be too long before we see the Zak Hardaker of old making headlines again – and this time for the right reasons.

 

Broncos looking comfortable

They’re the side that have been touted for relegation in 2019, but London Broncos seem more than comfortable and will take plenty of confidence from their 64-6 win over Doncaster on Sunday. You obviously can’t read too much into the game, given that it was against a League 1 side, but it was Danny Ward’s first chance to give his side a run out ahead of Super League and see how his combinations are coming along.

It’s looking like Jordan Abdull and James Cunningham are Ward’s starting halves, with Morgan Smith and James Meadows waiting in the wings for a chance. That’s not a bad group of players to be selecting from and with each of them having something to prove, should create some good, healthy competition for places. Realistically the Broncos have nothing to lose this season as even they didn’t expect to be in this position. It’s to be hoped, therefore, that their style mirrors that and we’re treated to some exciting, free flowing rugby from them if nothing else.

 

Thunder aiming high

Having established themselves as one of the foundations of the League 1 competition, this could finally be the year where Newcastle Thunder move things up a gear. They’ve been a steady club for a number of years now, building a good development system and squad along with some good signings thrown in for good measure. But on the basis of this weekend’s result, you’ve got to feel as if this could be the start of something really big for them.

Jason Payne’s side beat Wakefield 16-6 at Kingston Park, with six home-grown players and nine Northumbria University graduates/current students taking part. Trinity weren’t at their strongest but still had 13 first-teamers on display, including Kyle Wood, Keegan Hirst and Pauli Pauli. It’s a massive confidence boost for Thunder, who can consider themselves genuine title contenders in 2019. Their mixture of academy talent and senior players like Liam Finn and Misi Taulapapa is what’s needed to take them to the next step.

It would be great to see an expansion club with such a strong fanbase and off-the-field staff reach the Championship.

 

Bradford start as they mean to go on

Despite just being promoted from League 1, Bradford Bulls are asserting themselves as Championship contenders already after edging out Batley to win the Yorkshire Cup. Jordan Lilley’s second half penalty goal proved vital as his side held on to win 14-12, coming ahead of seasoned Championship sides Featherstone, Halifax and Dewsbury over the past three weeks.

Given the Bulls’ squad, it’s hardly surprising that they’re being tipped to do so well. They’ve obviously had a tough few seasons following their relegation through the leagues as a result of financial difficulties, but the future is finally looking bright. They’ve got good backing and an established backroom staff, as well as a whole host of quality on the field, including Ethan Ryan and Brandon Pickersgill – two home-grown gems that have been unearthed in recent years.

I don’t think they’ll be promoted this year but there’s definitely enough potential to make it in coming seasons. The Bulls were a cornerstone of top flight English rugby league for years, so it would be great to see them back up where they belong.

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