In the week where Warrington Wolves confirmed the signing of former England rugby union international Luther Burrell from Northampton Saints, Toronto Wolfpack are being strongly linked with a move for former NRL star and current New Zealand All Black Sonny-Bill Williams with owner David Argyle confirming that the Canadian club have approached the 33-year-old cross-code superstar.
“We would love to have him join the Wolfpack family and we will pay whatever it takes to make that happen,” Argyle told Fox Sports earlier in the week. “The excitement he would bring to the sport of rugby league in this country would be incredible,” he added, referring to the impact his arrival would bring to the sport in the UK. Indeed, Toronto are viewed as huge favourites to be playing in Super League next season and the sight of Sonny-Bill rampaging through the competition certainly would be a sight to behold.
With an array of NRL stars including Blake Austin and Konrad Hurrell arriving ahead of the 2019 Betfred Super League season and Gareth Widdop’s 2020 arrival at Warrington Wolves confirmed, the moves for Burrell and Williams suggest that the lure of Super League is growing after many years where fans felt the competition was stagnating.
With new rule changes and high-profile moves being completed and rumoured, there is a genuine feel-good atmosphere around Super League once more whereby the most talented players in the world are seeming to look at the competition as one to venture to in their prime rather than for one final pay-day, a charge which had been often levelled at some NRL imports in the past.
The arrival of Burrell to the sport also indicates that the bleeding of talent from rugby league across codes to union may have, if not ended, dramatically slowed down. The Northampton man – who started his rugby career in Huddersfield as a league player – will join the Cheshire club at the end of the rugby union season this summer and his move to league comes at a time where he could easily have continued his career in union. Super League and rugby league, however, appear to be more appealing to these talented stars.
“I’m excited about the challenge ahead as it’s fresh for me,” 31-year-old Burrell told the media following the announcement earlier in the week. “I’ve had some great times in rugby union and I’ve had some adverse times so to have this opportunity to play rugby league and see how far I can get with a great team is exciting.”
After years where fans and former players bemoaned the lack of star players in the competition, the pendulum is now swinging in Super League’s favour. Robert Elstone has previously suggested that making stars out of our sport’s players is imperative for the future of the game – the likes of Burrell and Williams are two prime examples of possible candidates.
With three of their players named in the 2018 Super League Dream Team, it’s no surprise to any who the poster boys for Wakefield Trinity are right now. Matty Ashurst, Bill Tupou and Tom Johnstone – who, along with Reece Lyne, earned international honours post-season – were all superb last season and thoroughly earned their spots in the competition’s team of the year.
However, all three of those players play on the left-side of Trinity’s attack and they all play outside Australian half-back Jacob Miller who, despite being the competition’s leading provider of assists with 28, was overlooked for the Dream Team.
Now, that isn’t to say that St Helens’ pair Jonny Lomax and Danny Richardson weren’t worthy of their half-back nominations but Miller’s influence over Chris Chester’s Wakefield team was arguably more vital for Trinity than either of the Saints players was for the League Leader Shield winners. After all, Wakey are a team who, having recorded back-to-back fifth placed finishes, are certainly punching above their financial weight and the impact a talent like Miller has on that team is clear.
The main organiser in Trinity’s ranks in 2018, he provided countless opportunities for Ashurst, Tupou and Johnstone to shine outside him on the left flank. While Wakefield lined up with the likes of Liam Finn and Ryan Hampshire alongside him in the halves, Miller was nigh-on a permanent fixture in the team when fit and his standing as the team’s on-field leader was cemented in the off-season when he was named club captain ahead of the 2019 season.
It will be interesting to see how the arrival of former Trinity man Danny Brough joins Miller in the starting thirteen. Given Miller’s strong relationships with the three Dream Teamers on the left hand side, he will most probably continue in that role but the left edge is indeed where Brough has lined up during his time with Huddersfield and may well be picked to play there. It shouldn’t be ignored, either, that the pair of them will both be keen to be the tactical director on the field. That, again, is somewhere Miller shone in 2018 but Brough has the reputation of being one of the very best at organising a team in Super League – while also boasting a sterling kicking game.
Nevertheless, Jacob Miller was without a shadow of a doubt one of Trinity’s very best players last year and is the one who makes Chester’s team tick. His ability to provide for his teammates is second-to-none and, with the new structure ensuring that the fifth placed team reaches the end of season play-offs in 2019, a repeat of their 2017 and 2018 showings will see Miller and Wakefield take part in the post season drama come the autumn.
There are certain events in sport which unite all the fans and when Hull KR’s Shaun Lunt returns to the field in 2019, that will be one of those moments. After being rushed to hospital last September, Lunt was left wondering whether he would survive after being diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. Further issues with an abscess in his spinal cord and sepsis followed before the Cumbrian rake was able to return home. Thereafter, he still had regular visits from medical professionals and had to take antibiotics through an IV drip as well as more tablets than you could shake a stick at. Now, the 31-year-old former Super League winner is back with the KR squad preparing for their Super League campaign and, while it isn’t believed that Lunt will be ready for their season’s big kick off against Hull FC, he will no doubt be a beneficiary of the substantial well-wishes of the rugby league family when he returns to the pitch.
2018 was a season of disappointment and change for the Rhinos. After winning the 2017 Super League Grand Final, Leeds started the season reasonably well with early victories over Warrington and St Helens away from home as well as edging at tight clash with Hull FC at Headingley. That, however, wouldn’t last and a shocking run of form saw the club sack Brian McDermott mid-season. The decision wouldn’t arrest the club’s slide towards The Qualifiers, though, and the club only just managed to survive. The arrival of legend Kevin Sinfield as the club’s Director of Rugby saw changes made and, following the culmination of the Rhinos’ season, bigger changes have occurred. Backroom staff have been shuffled, new head coach Dave Furner has arrived from the NRL and he has brought with him top quality recruits.
Trent Merrin (Penrith) and Konrad Hurrell (Gold Coast Titans) have both arrived and the pair have very recent experience of international rugby with Australia and Tonga respectively. Hurrell’s international teammate Tui Lolohea has also arrived in Super League and the club are now being touted as challengers for a top-five spot and qualification for the new play-off structure. 2019 is likely to be one of transition for Leeds as Sinfield, Furner and CEO Gary Hetherington aim to restore the club to former glories but, with the new South Stand already open and the revamped North Stand set to shortly follow, this season is one full of promise for the Rhinos.
New stadium for York
Those of you who may have followed the fortunes of York’s two professional sports clubs will be aware of the long drawn out saga over the city’s new stadium. The best part of two decades in the planning and various suggested start and open dates passed without a spade in the ground but, alas, this summer York City Knights are set to move into a new community stadium. While the team will only play two matches there this season – Bradford Bulls and Featherstone Rovers – the optimism and excitement is palpable. The club’s return to the second tier after a lengthy absence has only served to intensify that and there is a belief that, under the stewardship of highly rated head coach James Ford and chairman Jon Flatman, the Knights are a club certainly on the up. Already boasting top quality training facilities in the city, the new stadium promises to be a huge boost for rugby league in the Minster city.
For the first time since 2014, Super League rugby will be heading to the capital club after London Broncos stunned Toronto with a 4-2 victory in last season’s Million Pound Game. While many are tipping Danny Ward’s men to finish bottom and suffer an immediate return to the second tier, the Broncos upset the odds last year and will be striving to do the same this. With a young squad at their disposal – many of the players either being from London or having learned their trade in the city – the talent on show through The Qualifiers suggests that the Broncos will be able to mix it with the lesser lights in Super League. While the loss of talisman Jarrod Sammut will have been a disappointment, the arrivals of Jordan Abdull and Morgan Smith from Hull FC and Warrington respectively show that the Broncos are an attractive proposition for youngsters. The pair were highly rated at their former clubs and, in the shape of Abdull, Ward has a player with a level of Super League experience many of his squad don’t. Even if the Broncos do end up struggling and go down, the return to Super League of London can only be a good thing for the sport as a whole and there is plenty of talent in the squad who will be keen to showcase their ability at the elite level.
Trueman stepping up to the plate once more
Luke Gale’s season-ending achilles injury has probably cemented Jake Trueman’s already-strong chances of being one of Castleford’s first choice halves this season. Handed the number six jersey after being named Super League’s Young Player of the Season in 2018, the teenager will be expected to further develop and truly establish himself as the Super League star he is more than capable of being. Without Gale in the squad, much of the Tigers’ playmaking will come through the 19-year-old and his ability both to organise and play with ball in hand makes him a threatening opponent to come up against. Twenty-eight appearances last year saw the youngster score eight tries for Daryl Powell’s Tigers and, while some are suggesting that the team’s lack of recruitment against their other top Super League rivals could see them drop out of the play-off picture, Trueman’s performances will go a long way to determining Castleford’s season.
It is a popular view that 2019 could be the year where we really see Catalans truly challenge for the Super League title. After an excellent second half of the season in 2018, culminating in their maiden Challenge Cup triumph, they have added impressively to an already strong playing squad and, if Steve McNamara can get his team carrying on from where they left off, they may well push very hard.
As with any club, recruitment and retention is vital in the off-season and, while the Dragons have lost the impressive Josh Drinkwater after his short-term deal expired, the departures of Iain Thornley and Paul Aiton won’t be huge misses as they were hardly first team regulars. Coming into the fold will be Sam Tomkins, Matty Smith and Matt Whitley from Wigan, St Helens and Widnes respectively. In the shape of Tomkins, McNamara has brought a serial winner into his squad and, fresh from a Grand Final winning final season with Wigan, he has already put on record how keen he is to have a successful stint with the Dragons. He will likely slot in at full-back with Lance Todd trophy winner Tony Gigot moving into either the centres or the halves and that just demonstrates the depth McNamara now has in the ranks. Smith is another experienced, successful player to join the club. Despite being out of favour at St Helens in 2018, Smith’s ability is certainly there and he will have the drive to prove a point that he can still deliver at the top of Super League in the Dragons shirt. Finally, England Knights’ man Whitley is one of the highest-rated English youngsters playing the sport. Despite being part of the relegated Widnes team, the 22-year-old was one of few Vikings to enhance his growing reputation in 2018. Now part of a team who are much more likely to dominate matches, expect to see Whitley shine and blossom in coming years with senior international honours certainly on the horizon.
Adding to their back division is a wise move, especially given the already existing strength in the Dragons’ forwards. Viewed as having one of the most powerful packs in the competition, it will be interesting to see how the big men adapt to the drop in interchanges allowed but, if they manage it correctly, they will provide a platform for the likes of Tomkins and Smith to dictate the game. Smith will no doubt thrive on performing behind a pack who set the platform for him to control the game.
While St Helens will likely be strong once more, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Wigan take a little bit of time to adapt to the new Adrian Lam (soon to be Shaun Edwards) regime after so long under the stewardship of Shaun Wane. Leeds are another team in transition and, given the turnover of players and staff in the off-season, they are another team who may take a bit of time to grow accustomed to a new era for the club. Warrington will be hoping to push Saints all the way in Steve Price’s second year and the Wolves, along with Saints, may set the Super League pace in 2019. The Dragons, however, will be very confident of pushing them all the way – and they may just shock the rugby league world once more.