Archive for the ‘Preview’ Category

Playoff Preview: Eyes On The Prize

September 17, 2009

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After 189 grueling matches, we get to the real stuff. Only eight teams and nine matches remain before the end of the season. With the end of the season counting down, the importance of every game picks up exponentially, and we get to see the best teams left in the competition go all out in their quest to become Champions. Successful campaigns got these eight teams here, now it’s up to them to prove that they are worthy and that they can go all the way. Everyone will be aiming to follow Leeds Rhinos as champions, but I don’t think the Rhinos want to let their grasp go just yet. 

There’s been a fair amount of criticism of the new playoff format, and it’s not hard to understand why. In allowing a top eight format, over half the teams to make it past the end of the season including a Catalan Dragons side who have actually lost more matches than they’ve won. Many people prefer letting the league table decide the champion, and at the very least it’s hard to deny that this new system could devalue the final league table. I think the idea of a side losing more games than they win during the season potentially being League champions is a disconcerting one for many people. 

Even so, allowing so many teams into the playoffs isn’t that big of a deal in my opinion. For one thing, there are many playoff systems throughout the world which allow half the teams or over (the NRL for one, the NBA and the NHL both do it as well). Secondly, the odds are firmly stacked against the teams in the lower four positions and clearly stacked in favour of the top two sides (who get a bye week if the win their opening game). It’s worth pointing out that they’ve got their league positions for a reason, and if any side wins the playoffs from eighth spot, they deserve it because it’ll be a hell of an achievement (quick tangent, but here’s a nice article by RL historian extraordinaire Sean Fagan about the Australian models – as you can see, only one side has ever done it from fifth).

In fact, I really like the playoff system moving to eight teams, for the following reasons:

  • By making it a top eight instead of a top six, the race for the playoffs stayed interesting until the final round. 
  • The current system opens up the competition a lot more. I think we’ll see more teams reaching the Grand Final from 3rd or 4th place in the future. I really like the concept of four teams in semi-finals the week before the Grand Final, instead of having one team dawdling about having already qualified. Okay, so that could potentially mean a minor devaluation of league positions, but it also could end this monopoly Leeds and Saints have on the Grand Final).
  • It means more matches, and more importantly more meaningful games, and this in turn leads to potential for more coverage of the game. In case you hadn’t noticed, there will be four televised games on Sky over the weekend. The only other time that happens is Magic Weekend.  I’d really like to see Super League and Sky have a tailor made playoff marketing campaign.

The new part of the format that I’m not convinced about is this ‘pick your opponent’ gimmick for the semi-finals. My main problems with it are that a) it seems a bit tacky and b) it seems a bit pointless, as I very much doubt anyone will chose any opponents other than the lowest-ranking ones. I think Justin Morgan even said he thought the side getting the pick would come out and say this during their bye-week before their opponents could be determined, which would completely undermine the suspense element of this plan. I’m willing to give it a shot, but I remain skeptical. 

But anyway, it won’t detract from what should be an exciting playoffs with several intriguing plotlines: Wigan’s revival and Brian Noble’s playoff record; Castleford’s aiming to repeat former glories; Wakefield aiming to cap off a tough season with success; Catalans continuing the French interest;  Huddersfield and Hull KR attempting to prove they are true contenders; Saints trying for one last hurrah; Leeds aiming to become only the third ever side to three-peat the league title, and the first in the Supe League era. In the playoffs the hits get bigger, the runs get quicker, the pressure gets more intense, the drama becomes that much greater, because success means that much more. I can’t wait.

Wigan Warriors: No shortage of brawn, but is there the brains to mount title challenge?

February 8, 2009

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Wigan have had a relatively turbulent existence in Super League. Entering summer Rugby as the undoubted alpha dogs of the game, they’ve seen that crown slip and with one title in the Super League era they have not lived up to their potential in the same way that St Helens, Bradford and even Leeds have. A few seasons ago their priorities kept getting lower and lower, going from hoping to make the the playoffs to trying to avoid relegation. The Warriors appear to be over that phase now and should be challenging for honours once again this year.

Indeed, the progress that Brian Noble has made in his spell at Wigan is often overlooked. Their run in the 2007 playoffs (including away victories at Bradford and Hull) was thrilling to watch, and they also had a morale-boosting away victory in Catalonia during last year’s effort. For the past two seasons their campaign has ended in honourable defeat to the eventual champions Leeds Rhinos at Headingley. Now there’s no shame in that, but the players must really be getting itchy to reach the Grand Final and it is up to Noble to show that he can lead them there. Finishing higher in the table so they don’t need so many heroic away victories in the playoffs would be a good start.

The key to Wigan’s season will be how they cope with the loss of Trent Barrett. He wasn’t as eye-catching in his second year, but that was because he was under far more scrutiny from defenses, which in turn meant that less pressure was on Thomas Leuluai who had his best year at Wigan yet. Tim Smith is an erratic player, so Leuluai needs to step up the effort. The forwards should do the job in providing go-forward, but they will also need to provide some extra guile. You have to wonder about the creativity of this side no it has lost Barrett (and Mickey Higham). They also need to add an extra dimension through their back three, although the addition of Amos Roberts to Pat Richards and a fully rehabilitated Richie Mathers might just be able to do this.

Wigan have recovered from their Super League lows of a few seasons ago, and this is the year that they need to prove they can hang with the big boys. They have definitely been on an upward curve on the last few seasons,  but now they need to make the transition to A Grand Final victory will undoubtedly be their target (as it should be) but there are question marks as to whether there’s enough outstanding quality in the side to achieve this. They should also be aiming to get back to what used to be their home away from home and usurp their rivals at Saints who have taken their title of cup kings. Wigan are starting to reach the oint where trophyless seasons are a disappointement in themselves again, and there’s only one cure for that…

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Warrington Wolves: Exciting yet erratic Wolves need firm footing

February 7, 2009

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Warrington are definite contenders for the title of Super League’s most frustrating team. There’s no denying the level of talent within their squad, but this simply makes it more lamentable that this side has never really made a serious run at a trophy for some time. They seem to be involved in entertaining games on a regular basis, but often because they aren’t putting away sides quick enough. With moves made in the offseason to add some more power to the forwards and more creativity around the ruck, the Wolves really are running out of excuses for not performing.

There were high hopes for the Wolves last season, so what actually transpired (silly defeats, Paul Cullen sacked) turned out to be a relative disappointment. Two of their big-name signings, Michael Monaghan and Matt King, had what could best be described as mediocre seasons. Conversely Chris Hicks, a signing brought in with much less fanare, had an excellent season both on the wing and covering at full-back for Stuart Reardon. Warrington really could do with Monaghan and King having much better campaigns this year, and in King’s case it could be a simple matter of moving him to the wing.

What will help Monaghan is the introduction of Mickey Higham and Gareth Carvell to the Wolves. Carvell is just the kind of forward that the Wolves need, with a proven pedigree (although he had an injury-hit campaign last year) and a never-back-down attitude. With Warrington’s pack not exactly lacking in dynamism, adding Carvell to offer support to Adrian Morley as an enforcer adds a different quality to the forwards. Higham and his sniping runs should also draw some more attention around the ruck and also provide a decent service to Monaghan, Lee Briers and their exciting back-line.

Warrington have been threatening to become a mjor player for the last few seasons now and it’s about time they justified it. They have a team as talented as any other in the competition but they somehow don’t show it. More than anything they need to discover a killer instinct, as they get drawn into far too many close games for their own good (they were involved in seven games decided by six points or less last season). If Warrington start to impose themselves on the opposition a lot more it could mean that we finally see this side live up to the hype.

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St Helens: Saints’ need to prepare for the future with success in the present

February 5, 2009

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Since the start of the Super League era St Helens have perpetually started each campaign as one of the favourites, and this year is certainly no exception. With the names of Cunningham, Long, Pryce, Roby and Graham amongst the superstars of the British game, there is certainly no lack of quality amongst their squad. This year the Saints start the season with a new coach who did very well with limited resources before, and no doubt Mick Potter will enjoy having more toys to play with at Saints. So Saints are definitely a team to be reckoned with, but with two Grand Final defeats in a row there is also a sense of unease at Knowsley Road.

I’ve wondered about Saints ever since the 2007 Grand Final. For that match, Saints picked Sean Long (who had played one match in the prior month) over Matty Smith (who had been a more than adequate replacement for Long in his absence, especially in their narrow victory over Leeds in the Final Qualifier). I understood the logic behind the pick (after all, up until that point Long had never lost a Grand Final) but something about the move didn’t sit right with me. Long missed an easy early kick and Saints got steamrolled by the Rhinos, and to me it showed an unwillingness to give the kids a chance to shine at Saints.

Well, the day is rapidly approaching when they won’t have a choice in the matter. Long and Cunningham are both 32, and it’s hard to see either of them being around in three years time and still playing at this level. Saints have already dabbled with finding their successors and there are two heirs apparent. James Roby is of course the long term future of the club at Hooker, but he needs to show he’s just as effective when he starts as when he comes off the bench. Kyle Eastmond showed flashes of brilliance last year, but now he needs a sustained period of playing at a higher level, if for no other reason than to remind Long that he has competition. Saints have actually done very well integrating youngsters into the forwards in the last few years, but it could be to no avail if they don’t sort out the future of their pivots.

I’ll admit, for all my my scaremongering here there’s little doubt that Saints are the most likely side to ruin Leeds’ quest for a third title, and they are developing their own mastery of the Challenge Cup as well (they’ve won the last four finals played in London). There’s no reason to think that Long and Cunningham won’t be still playing at a high level, which in turn means they can seriously aim to win every trophy on offer to them this season. I just think that this great side is coming to its natural end very soon, and this season is the time they really need to start considering the possibility.

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Salford City Reds: Potential growing pains for returning Reds

February 4, 2009

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I think it’s fair to say that Salford have never really set Super League alight when they’ve been involved, save for their 2006 season when they made the playoffs for the first and only time. Their last season in the top flight was a poor one indeed, with their relegation confirmed long before the end of the season. However, the last time Salford were relegated it served them some good by allowing them to build up some momentum in the lower leagues, and they look to have done the same thing again with their victory in National League One last season.

Whilst the Reds now have to build themselves up from the bottom again, they do have some things going in their favour. Shaun McRae is a coach with a successful track record in Super League and he will be looking to take the Reds to another level. They still have some crafty veterans like Robbie Paul and Willie Talau on their roster, complimented by some very talented youngsters in Richard Myler and Jordan Turner. Both of these two looked very impressive during the Reds’ NL1 campaign (Myler looked good enough to reach the England train-on squad for the World Cup) and will be looking to hit the ground running in Super League.

Of course, there’s a world of difference between looking good in NL1 and looking good in Super League, and the key to their success this year is whether the players who were so successful last season can make the adjustment in standard and intensity required. They haven’t recruited as extensively as teams who get promoted usually do (although the players they have brought in are of a decent quality) and the jump up in standard could prove to be a shock to the system at first. If they can adjust, then the Reds should be fairly competitive.

For Salford this season a successful campaign would involve reasserting themselves as a Super League mainstay. I think they’ll be competitive for the most part but they’ll probably have to endure some rocky patches as well. Of course if they get lucky they might scrape into the playoffs, but there’s a logjam of teams trying to sneak their way into the bottom of the eight and I think Salford’s priorities should involve re-establishing a firm footing in Super League before aiming too high too early. With the licencing system now in place, I think they can take their time in letting Myler and Turner get used to the rigours of Super League.

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Leeds Rhinos: Can the Rhinos charge into the history books?

February 4, 2009

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Life seems pretty good in Leeds right now. They are the regining Super League champions again, and have been in four of the last six Grand Finals. They have a very large base of support, indeed possibly the largest in British club rugby. They have a successful Academy programme, which in turn is increasing the level of competition in their 1st team. They have a very talent coach who has become a proven winner in a very short amount of time. They’re welcoming to the club this season some world-class talent from the NRL. If you’re at the Leeds Rhinos, you’ve got to be feeling confident heading into the new season.

This year, here are a few wrinkles to throw into this situation. Firstly, they sent a lot of players to the World Cup, and whilst the likes of Jamie Peacock, Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire probably want to prove a point, it remains to be seen whether they have the energy or preparation to do so straight away (Peacock is already on record bemoaning this situation). Secondly, this season is the nearest the Rhinos have come to disrupting the great side they’ve built up over the last few years, with Gareth Ellis leaving and Matt Diskin being replaced as the no.1 hooker by Danny Buderus. For the most part I doubt these changes will affect the Rhinos adversely too much, but I do think it could affect their rythmn to start with.

Even so, you would have to think that the Rhinos are the team to beat again this season. They have a matchday seventeen of outstanding quality, and on top of that their Academy leaves them with strength in depth. They’re able to tough it out in the forwards if they have to (as last year’s Grand Final showed) but they’re at their best when their strikeforce is causing mayhem from deep. With even their forwards like Jamie Jones-Buchanan able to break from within their own half, you have to be really on the ball defensively to slow down the Rhinos’ charge.

The first trophy Leeds will be aiming for is the World Club Challenge against Manly in three weeks time. Then they will probably be aiming for the League Leader’s Shield which has narrowly eluded them for the past two seasons. They might also be hopin for a run at the Challenge Cup this year as well, as they have traditionally underperformed in the later stages of that competition. But most of all, they will be looking to make history as the first side to win three Grand Finals in a row on the 10th October. Now matter how good they are, history shows it won’t be easy.

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Hull KR: Robins need to take flight to become contenders

February 3, 2009

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Last season was a season of massive upheaval at Craven Park, practically half a squad’s worth of new signings coming in at Hull KR. It was a sign that Justin Morgan knew changes had to be made to compete at Super League level and compete last season Rovers did, ending up just outside the playoff spots. By contrast this season has seen much less player movement, which seems to imply that Morgan doesn’t think that KR are that far off with what they’ve got.

Most of their off-season action has seen the introduction of more props to add a new layer of depth to an already talented forward pack. In Nick Fozzard they have a potentially destructive front rower who brings experience of winning to the KR pack. In Scott Wheeldon they have a player who looked like a potential world-beater but never really lived up to that expectation. He’s still a more-than-adequate player and I suspect he’ll benefit from a change of teams and also from the greater strength in depth up-front that KR now have.

Since the forwards look like they should do the business this season, there’s a burden of sorts with the backs. The key to Hull KR’s success will probably be the play of Paul Cooke and Michael Dobson. Both have proven to be highly effective in Super League, and if they can move the forwards around the pitch in a productive manner it could prove to be a fruitful season. However both are distributors more than attacking threats, and there seems to be a lack of out-and-out firepower in the side. Cooke in particular might find himself having to engineer attacking opportunities for the backs.

If the current playoff system was in effect last season then Hull KR would have scraped themselves into the postseason, so that should be a minimum target for this season. There’s a definite glut of teams who could scrape into the bottom half of the playoffs, and KR will struggle to elevate themselves above that pack, but a playoff game should be within their grasp. Now it’s up to the Robins to show that they can exceed the expectations put on them from last year and show their talent on a consistent basis.

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Hull FC: Black & Whites need to get back on track

February 3, 2009

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I think it’s fair to say that FC will want to take a mulligan over last year’s efforts. After reaching the playoffs six times in the previous seven years (and only just missing out on them in 2003) last season turned out to be somewhat of a disaster. Finishing second from bottom ahead of a struggling Castleford (and only just ahead in the end) was not in the plans of a side who had been in the Grand Final a mere two seasons before. Worse yet, they surrendered Humberside’s bragging rights to Hull KR, who were victorious in three of their four meetings and finished above them in the table. A run to the Challenge Cup final did little to ease the suffering.

What really set FC back last year was an absolutely dire injury situation, which saw Adam Dykes barely get out of his sick bed and left them without Richard Horne for all but three matches. It also left them without a first-choice pack for the majority of the season. If the Airlie Birds want to challenge for silverware this season, their imperative must be to make sure that they have their first-choice out on the field for as much of the season as is possible. Although they have a talented core of youngsters, relying on them for too much of the season is asking for trouble.

Of course, one of the (very few) positives to come out of last season for FC last season was that they blooded an awful lot of those youngsters. Considering they had been hyped as one of the best group of Academy players, last season may have done some damage to their reputation. However it is not their fault that FC weren’t able to introduce them to Super League in a sensible manner (it’s not really FC’s fault either). If any of them are able to take last season’s experience and use it to kick on this season them perhaps it will all have been worth it. Plus added to the current squad come Chris Thorman and Mark Calderwood, players who have both been around the block when it comes to Super League and also tend not to miss too many games.

Hull will probably be aiming to win the title, thinking that last season was an aberration and that they can get right back onto the course they were heading before it. Whether that’s realistic or not I’m not so sure. What they really need is stability in the halves, and that’s something that Thorman should bring. If Horne is fit and able to last the course then that can only be a good thing for FC. But having taken a few steps back last season Hull might find it tricky to get back to where they were, and they’ll be hoping they haven’t fallen into that pack of teams hoping to scrape into the bottom of the playoffs. (more…)

Huddersfield Giants: Fresh start for the birthplace of the game

February 2, 2009

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It’s odd to think that a mere eight years ago the Giants were the laughing stock of Super League. Finishing bottom of Super League for four straight seasons (saved from relegation only by bureaucracy) with a side with journeymen players overlooked by small crowds engulfed within their large stadium. What made it sadder was that this was a club with great history, not to mention the club located in the birthplace of the game. It says a lot about how far the club have come since those earlier follies in the Super League era  that last season was probably their most disappointing since their return to the top flight.

After the increased levels of success they had in the years prior to last season (reaching the Challenge Cup final, reaching the playoffs for the first time) finishing in tenth place and sacking Jon Sharp didn’t really cut it in the achievement stakes. Therefore it’s understandable that this year the Giants seem to have pressed the reset button. With a new coach and an influx of new players, they will be looking for a return to the upward curve they were on prior to last year.

Huddersfield enter this season with a fairly solid squad with quite a few under-appreciated players. Their pack is a pretty mobile one, with Eorl Crabtree and Stephen Wild on the peripheries of international consideration. They also have a decent line up in the backs as well, with the incoming Brett Hodgson looking to add a touch of class to a usually dependable back-line featuring the likes of Kevin Brown, Martin Aspinwall and the emerging Michael Lawrence.

Huddersfield will almost certainly be targeting a playoff place and it’s definitely within their grasp. Their success will largely depend on how quickly they are able to gel as a unit. It’s also not entirely certain who will be partnering Luke Robinson in the halves, with their ludicrous plan to sign Todd Carney now aborted. Partly due to their early Super League disasters the Giants never seem to get the respect that they deserve, and they seem like a team that could get some success flying under the radar. The Giants’ main hope will be that Nathan Brown can put them back on the right track this season.

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Harlequins: Consistency is the key for capital gains

February 2, 2009

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Another season, another seeming state of disarray and uncertainty for the capital’s only Super League side. This off-field uncertainty has manifested itself in one of the most erratic teams in Super League.  It must be really frustrating to follow a side that can beat three playoff sides, yet also somehow ship 68 points to the side at the bottom of the table. It’s frustrating and also slightly alarming, because if any side could do with a period of stability it’s Quins.

There’s a lot to be worried about with Quins. Their owner has to end his involvement with the club. There doesn’t appear to be a proper CEO at the minute, and the person who had taken up the job temporarily has left. The crowds just won’t rise, and it’s not certain how much effort has been put into raising them anyway. Many fans still feel alienated by the decision to get in bed with perhaps the archetypal Rugby Union club. Added to that, they’re losing a lot of quality players from last season, either to retirement or bigger clubs.

It’s a shame that there’s all this off-field stuff to worry about, because on the field they’re definitely heading in the right direction. Whilst they’ve lost a lot of their bigger names for this season, and the incoming batch doesn’t necessarily look like being of a suitable quality, there’s still a core of players who exceeded expectations last season, including several local lads. Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook was challenging for a World Cup spot last season, and who knows how he would have gone if he didn’t get injured in mid-season? Considering I was watching Tony Clubb perform at a level no higher than ‘meh’ for the London Skolars last February, his rise over the last year has been extraordinary. If McDermott can get even a few of his rag-tag bunch performing way above expectation, it could be a good season in South-West London.

Trying to guess where Quins will finish has proven for the last few seasons to be a futile exercise. Most people tip them to finish bottom, only to see them rise up the table and challenge for a playoff berth. I think they’re in that group of teams who might be able to take benefit from the expanded playoff system and sneak their way into a first round match, from which they will probably be eliminated. Or they might just crash and burn and finish waaaaay down at the bottom. Or they might actually live up to Brian McDermott’s standards and win the whole thing. Well, they probably wont,  but you just never know with Quins; there’s many dangers associated with following Quins, but boredom ain’t one of them. Which might be part of the problem.

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