We are now a few weeks into the new Super League season and the table is already starting to take on a familiar look.
Heavyweights Warrington, Castleford and St Helens have stormed to the top of the standings after beginning the campaign in immaculate fashion.
Teams tipped to struggle are already bracing themselves for a long battle to avoid relegation, while there has been a bountiful supply of drama, intrigue and controversy. Here are the top five things we have learned so far:
Shaun Wane’s absence is already being felt
Wigan’s legendary head coach bowed out in style last year as his team put Warrington to the sword in the Grand Final. It marked the culmination of a 40-year career with the club for a local lad who started as a volunteer and then served as prop, scout, academy manager and head coach. He was always going to be a huge loss after he left for a high performance coaching role with Scottish Rugby, and Wigan’s early season form has suggested that the transition into a brave new era will not be plain sailing.
There is no shame in losing to Syndey Roosters or St Helens, but they have conceded soft tries and there is plenty of work for Adrian Lam to do. They have also been deducted two points due to a salary cap breach in 2017, but there is plenty of time for them to bounce back. Lam insists this is not a team in transition, and he is making the right noises about Wigan defending their crown, but it remains to be seen how these players will react to his demands for a more flamboyant style of rugby.
Warrington and St Helens looking strong
Warrington’s wait to be crowned champions now stretches back 64 years and fans will probably be glad to see the back of Wane, who vanquished them in the 2013 and 2016 Grand Finals too. Yet they have made a strong start to the new campaign and a look at the sports spread betting at Sporting Index shows you that they are the favourites to finally end their trophy drought this year.
Comprehensive victories over Leeds and Hull KR have seen them surge to the top of the table, and those long-suffering fans will be delighted by the impact that Man of Steel favourite Blake Austin has made. He inspired them to a thumping victory against the new look Rhinos, sparking fresh optimism that this might finally be Warrington’s year. Yet Saints are also looking extremely menacing, having swept aside the defending champions in contemptuous fashion in their opener and then getting the better of Wakefield. If Wigan cannot rediscover their best form, it could develop into a fascinating tussle between Warrington and St Helens to seize glory this season.
Expectations tempered at London Broncos
The Broncos are back in the Super League after a five-year absence and they marked their return with a thrilling 42-24 victory over Wakefield at the Trailfinders Sports Ground. Rhys Williams and Eddie Battye both scored two tries and generated a party atmosphere inside the stadium. Those proclaiming that the Broncos would finish bottom of the table were urged to reconsider, and fans dared to dream of a decent season. However, those aspirations have been somewhat dashed by the team’s subsequent form, as they lost 24-0 to Salford and 22-12 to Hull KR. They are still the clear favourites to finish bottom, but they look as though they will battle valiantly throughout the campaign.
New rules have changed the look of the games
All eyes have been on the new rules in the early weeks of the season after Super League chief executive promised they would make the competition faster, more intense and more dramatic. The shot clock is a welcome addition as it has improved the pace of games, and reducing the number of permitted interchanges from 10 to eight should result in more late drama as legs grow weary. We are yet to see the controversial golden point extra-time, but that should provide some exciting moments further down the line too, and the rule changes appear to be largely positive thus far.
Clubs might start looking at Barba
Ben Barba has started a new job driving trucks in Mackay after being sacked by North Queensland Cowboys before he even had the chance to make his debut. Footage has emerged of the former Dally M and Man of Steel winner allegedly assaulting his girlfriend and he has been handed a lifetime ban from the NRL.
Nobody condones such actions, but there is no real precedent in Super League for excluding players on those grounds. Former England international John Wilkin, who played with Barba last year, said he expects the RFL to allow him back into Super League, where he was the top try scorer last year.
Zak Hardaker, Scott Moore and Gareth Hock are still playing, despite their transgressions, and it might not be long before Barba is given another chance in England. There are many clubs that would love to have someone of his talent, provided they can stomach his alleged actions off the pitch.