With just a few weeks to go until a brand new Super League season, I am presenting my dreaded predictions on the final League table, Grand Final winners and Challenge Cup winners, as well as the individual awards.
1. St Helens
Very, very difficult to look past Saints finishing top. They have the best players in virtually every position, the best team across the park and should enter 2020 with immense confidence following their outstanding consistency in 2019 and eventual Grand Final victory.
There hasn’t been a great deal of recruitment from new coach Kristian Woolf and who can blame him; his confidence in this outstanding squad is completely justified.
Now that elusive Grand Final success that evaded them in both 2017 and 2018 has finally been met, one would think Saints will also be a little more mentally assured.
If Walmsley and Thompson both stay fit it’s very difficult to see any team realistically getting the better of Saints through the middle and with so many quality backs playing off the back of a dominant platform including the outstanding Jonny Lomax, they will remain a desperately difficult side to contain.
It will be interesting to see how many games the great James Roby plays next season which is possibly the only cause for concern for St Helens supporters.
Key Player – Jonny Lomax. He just gets better and better. He has tremendous vision, link-up play, outstanding pass timing and he can apply his ability week in week out. Will be a strong early contender for Man of Steel after somewhat controversially missing out last season.
2. Wigan Warriors
It was clear for all to see in their fatal final two games of last season that Wigan needed more power and size in the front row so the signing of George Burgess is key.
He’s still only 27 so has improvement in him yet and brings with him a wealth of NRL experience combined with his huge frame and aggressive style of play. Wigan’s backline is impressive.
Oliver Gildart and Zak Hardaker are two of Super League’s most dangerous players and of course the arrival of Jackson Hastings has hit the headlines.
He was the best player in Super League last season. He also isn’t injury prone and he has a good attitude so it’s very difficult to see him being anything but brilliant for Wigan, however it’s clearly a very different challenge to the one at Salford.
Bevan French looks exciting. He has speed and a good rugby brain which is a dangerous combination. If their home form remains as strong as ever and they have reasonable fortune with injuries they look set to challenge come the back end of the season.
Key Player – Jackson Hastings. If he settles in at Wigan and performs as well as he did in 2019 he will light up the competition once again.
3. Warrington Wolves
The pressure will be on Steve Price. Despite the memorable Challenge Cup win over huge favourites St Helens, the way Warrington ended the league campaign was horrendous for a squad with so much quality.
It just wasn’t good enough. Obviously going into next season their squad on paper still looks very strong especially in the pivots.
Daryl Clark and Blake Austin are two of the best players in the competition and if Gareth Widdop can hit the ground running and get through the season relatively injury-free, Warrington should have a genuine chance of getting back to Old Trafford in 2020.
They need to be more ruthless against the “lesser” teams however and I’m not too inspired by their backline, despite Josh Charnley still being devastating on his day.
Mike Cooper was very good last season but captain Chris Hill isn’t getting any younger. They should have more than enough to comfortably finish top five but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re looking over their shoulders rather than pushing Saints all the way.
Key Player – Daryl Clark. A tough one this as marquee signing Gareth Widdop is clearly the highest-profile player in the Warrington squad and will arguably have the highest expectations but I just think Daryl Clark staying fit is priceless for Warrington. The difference when he is on the pitch to when he isn’t is astonishing.
4. Hull FC
Unless they’re ravaged by injuries, Hull need to make the top 5 with the squad they have. They’ve recruited well. Mahe Fonua is an outstanding winger and will be one of the most feared players in the competition.
Crucially the pack looks quite a bit stronger, fitter and more mobile than last season which was a big issue for Hull. They had two or three forwards that stayed a season too long and the signings of heavyweight, durable forwards Manu Ma’u, Josh Jones and Tevita Satae should make Hull a physically more competitive side up the middle and on the edges.
If the tremendously talented but somewhat unsettled Jake Connor finds a dominant position next season he should really kick on. A squad with Connor, Albert Kelly, Mahe Fonua, Carlos Tuimavave, Marc Sneyd and Josh Jones should be achieving top 5 and I believe if their home form improves on last season, they will get there.
Key Player – Jake Connor. An absolute match winner on his day, a very naturally skilful player but he has well-known temperament issues and needs to perform at his best on a more consistent basis.
5. Castleford Tigers
A lot of Castleford’s season will come down to the halfback partnership of Jake Trueman and Danny Richardson and how well they click.
They are both relatively inexperienced players in crucial positions so it is certainly a gamble from Daryl Powell, but an exciting one.
Richardson will be hungry to prove a point after being effectively told he wasn’t good enough at Saints and Trueman will be keen to kick on following an encouraging 2019.
I do feel ultimately Cas peaked in 2017 and went slightly and steadily downhill in 2018 and 2019 but still looking at their squad, if they have better luck with injuries than last season, they should scrape into the top five.
The pack is formidable. Liam Watts was phenomenal last season and the fact he was somehow overlooked again on the international stage will keep him motivated.
Grant Millington, while ageing, still has plenty to offer and the back-row of Sene-Lefao, McMeeken and Milner has plenty of power, aggression and experience.
Last season Castleford certainly weren’t at their fluent, free-flowing best which obviously wasn’t helped by the loss of talismanic halfback Luke Gale but looked quite a dogged defensive unit. If the Tigers can emulate that, the Jungle will still be a very hard place to get results at.
Key Player – Paul McShane. Accurate distribution, durable defender and has plenty of guile around the ruck. Not a superstar but Cas are a much better team when he is on the pitch.
6. Leeds Rhinos
I think it will be a season of steady improvement and stability for Leeds in 2020 following some astute progression during the final third of last season.
There was a clear improvement in defence and mental toughness under Agar. A halfback partnership of Robert Lui and Luke Gale meanwhile looks very promising.
They compliment each other well. Lui is a maverick of a player that takes the line on, good at beating defenders with his footwork and power and has the ball skills to create something out of nothing.
Everyone knows what Luke Gale is all about. An organising scrumhalf with a good long-range kicking game. If he even gets close to the level he reached in 2017 and Lui is more consistent than he was at Salford, Leeds could be in for a very promising campaign.
The backline has some quality and strike too. Konrad Hurrell is an absolute juggernaut of a centre and the exciting Harry Newman will be looking to kick on after his breakthrough year.
It’s the pack where I think Leeds look a bit vulnerable and the loss of Trent Merrin clearly doesn’t help that but the signing of experienced NRL forward Matt Prior should be a solid recruit.
The lack of genuine power and size in the pack might result in Leeds struggling away from home especially against the better sides.
Key Player – Luke Gale. It will be a big test of the veteran scrumhalf to get Leeds round the park following two serious, long-term injuries. He has proven he possesses the skill and intelligence but can he physically cope with a full season of high-intense rugby league? He will be keen to prove the doubters wrong.
7. Catalans Dragons
The hardest team in Super League to predict. They can beat anyone and lose to anyone. Scintillating to watch when at their best but little more than diabolical when they aren’t up for the fight. Which Catalans will turn up next season?
What was concerning about last season for the Dragons is the Stade Gilbert Brutus wasn’t quite the fortress it normally is and coach Steve McNamara will be under serious pressure if their performances don’t pick up.
Tony Gigot, Brayden Williame and Kenny Edwards are all big losses but Sam Tomkins is still an absolute match winner on his day and I do feel Josh Drinkwater, despite coming off the back of a disappointing stint at Hull KR, is an upgrade on an ageing Matty Smith.
If the immensely talented and experienced James Maloney is here to apply himself and avoids the holiday culture in the South of France, he can definitely guide Catalans to some results with his terrific game management though I’m not convinced he compliments Drinkwater too well given the fact they have such similar styles of play.
They both play to a structure and take control of the long-range kicking game but don’t offer too much in the way of support play and taking the line on. Their pack meanwhile needs to start consistently turning in 80-minute performances especially on the road if Catalan are to seriously challenge for the top 5 and beyond.
Key Player – Sam Tomkins. He still has so much to offer. He may have lost his pace but remains one of the best readers of the game in attack and defence. One of the most creative Fullbacks in the competition due to his skill and guile and is a big game player.
8. Wakefield Trinity
Blighted by injuries last season but the vulnerability was always there. Too reliant on Fifita up the middle, defensively weak out wide and lacking ruthleness against the weaker sides in the competition.
After such a dreadful second half of 2019 the pressure will be on Wakefield to start next season with good results or the confidence in the camp will be low.
If key players such as Bill Tupou, Tom Johnstone, David Fifita and Matty Ashurst stay fit I expect Wakefield to moderately improve on last season’s position.
A squad blessed with plenty of power in the forwards and plenty of pace in the backs, Wakefield have plenty of points in them and will remain tough to beat at home.
A possible concern is in the halves. Ryan Hampshire is much improved but the role of the scrum-half restricts him somewhat from playing his natural off-the-cuff game and I think veteran 37-year-old Danny Brough might struggle to physically cope through a full season of top-flight rugby league.
They have enough strike power and quality to steer well away from the relegation battle but need to improve their consistency if they’re to seriously trouble the top 5. Explosive, athletic back-row forward Kelepi Tanginoa is one to watch next season.
Key Player – David Fifita. The emotional leader on the pitch for Wakefield. He possesses raw aggression, outrageous offloads and explosive power in the contact. His leadership and go-forward gives the rest of a team a real lift.
9. Salford Red Devils
I do feel Salford will lose some fear factor next season having lost the competition’s best player in Jackson Hastings. The departed Josh Jones was also comfortably their best forward.
Teams will go to the AJ Bell with a bit more confidence and fearlessness than last season. However, they have recruited reasonably well bringing in the likes of Sebastine Ikahihfo and Luke Yates.
Ikahihfo has explosive power and Yates is an absolute workhorse. Pauli Pauli meanwhile will be an interesting signing. He can be a match winner but he can also be a passenger.
The likes of Niall Evalds and Joey Lussick are both very dangerous players but the squad as a whole is small and they may not have as much fortune with injuries as they did last season.
A few players in their squad also, to their credit, had career-best-seasons in 2019 and may struggle to emulate the same level of efficiency next season but they may prove the doubters wrong once again.
Key Player – Tui Lolohea. After a pretty disastrous stint at Leeds, Lolohea was a borderline revelation at Salford and demonstrated his dazzling footwork and unpredictable ball skills in both the Grand Final and for Tonga during their famous win over the Aussies. If he consistently applies his undoubted ability next season he will go very well indeed for Salford but can he deliver week-in week-out now he has that bit more responsibility without the great Jackson Hastings?
10. Huddersfield Giants
The Giants have an average though hard-working squad and they never seem far away from a load of injuries which is unfortunate.
The talented Aidan Sezer should be a comfortable upgrade on Matt Frawley if he stays fit and performs to the best of his ability.
I think Sezer staying fit is crucial for the Giants, they should have no genuine relegation fears if he settles in, links up well with the much-improved Gaskell and consistently performs to level he is capable of.
Darnell Mclntosh is a very good young player. He is athletic and skilful but needs to mature his game next season in order to offer his team more stability.
The squad as a whole lacks genuine power, speed and quality in several positions to compete with the stronger teams.
They might produce some scalps but they will likely struggle for consistency especially on the road. Kenny Edwards is a promising signing and should offer the Giants some real power, aggression and destructive running on the edges.
Key Player – Aidan Sezer. Huddersfield’s big off-season signing. Sezer has 155 NRL appearances under his belt and could offer the direction and organisation they badly lacked in attack at times last season.
11. Toronto Wolfpack
This might be very controversial having Toronto down in 11th but I’m not convinced by their squad as a whole, especially in the crucial positions (pivots).
Sonny Bill Williams is clearly a fantastic signing for both on-field purposes for his power and aggression and off-field purposes such as marketing and exposure.
The majority of the current squad consists of journeymen and cast-offs, though if they find some good home form towards the second half of the campaign or gel well as a team and find a style that suits them, they may perform above expectations.
Toronto are also in a position to recruit in genuine quality should they end up in a relegation scrap which might well save them if they find themselves in a difficult situation.
Gareth O’Brien is certainly one of Toronto’s better players, it will be interesting to see him back in Super League and Ricky Leutele will give them some genuine power and strike out-wide.
Key Player – Sonny Bill Williams. Ridiculously powerful, he is both hard-running and hard-hitting and also has a great work-ethic. If SBW stays fit he will give his teammates a real boost.
12. Hull Kingston Rovers
Clear favourites to go down having well and truly dodged a bullet last time out. I rate Tony Smith as a coach but this Hull Kingston Rovers squad looks weak in almost every department.
The club appear to have gone for quantity over quality regarding recruitment. The signings of Sean Kenny-Dowall and Greg Minikin should mean slightly more progress at the start of sets and more try-scoring prowess out-wide along with the powerful Kane Linnett but I’m not convinced the halfbacks Drinkwater and McGuire have been adequately replaced and the pack isn’t too intimidating.
Given the lack of quality in the squad the Rovers need to be difficult to play against, fast aggressive line-speed and good kick-pressure which was a theme of Tony Smith’s Warrington side, or 2020 will be a very long season for them and their supporters.
Matt Parcell is a dangerous dummy-half on his day and the Robins will need to keep him fit if they are to pull off big scalps.
Key Player – Adam Quinlan. Hull Kingston Rovers’ best player, Quinlan is a crafty Fullback that possesses deceptive strength, good positional play and playmaking skill. He will need to stay fit if the Rovers are to make a shock push for the top 5.
Young Player of the Year – Harry Newman
Leeds’ nineteen-year-old Centre Harry Newman looks a good shout for this award come the end of the season. He is abnormally good at reading the game defensively for his age, abnormally good at beating players, can make good yards when carrying the ball and is a lot stronger than he looks.
Newman also has a lot of confidence in his own ability. His game is raw in a couple of areas but I’m backing him to kick on from an encouraging 2019 and have a big season this year wearing the no.3 shirt.
Man of Steel – Daryl Clark
He just seems to get better every year. His distribution out of dummy-half is top class, he can beat players for fun, has a terrific engine and is a big game player. He is a quality hooker in both attack and defence. I’m backing Daryl Clark for Man Of Steel. Jonny Lomax and Jackson Hastings to make up the top three.
Top Try Scorer – Tommy Makinson (26)
With the likes of Tom Johnstone, Tommy Makinson, Ratu Naulago, Josh Charnley, Regan Grace, Mahe Fonua, Bevan French and Liam Marshall all in the same competition, the race for Top Try Scorer is surely nailed on to be a tight one.
I’m backing Tommy Makinson to win the award for the third time in his career. He applies his pace and agility better than most wingers, possesses stunning finishing ability and should continue receiving quality service.
Johnstone to finish second. He is a terrific player that can score any type of try both long-range and close-range. Should he get back to the level he reached during the back end of 2018, we will see some more devastating finishes from him.
Grand Final Winners – St Helens
It is difficult to see past Saints winning the Grand Final back-to-back. They have the best players and the best squad in the competition and now have the experience of winning at Old Trafford.
Challenge Cup Winners – Wigan Warriors
Wigan’s typically tough and gritty mentality suits cup games and I’m backing them to prevent Saints from winning the treble. The added quality of Jackson Hastings combined with the added power of George Burgess means this already-strong Wigan side should be picking up some silverware come the end of 2020.