THE OPENING rounds of Betfred Super League rarely live up to the hype.
No matter how many pre-season games teams play, they inevitably go into the league under-cooked. Coaches use warm-up matches to experiment, try players in unfamiliar positions and often run with squads of 20 or more and it is very different when the real business starts.
Plus, of course, summer rugby begins in the depths of winter, when the elements – and ground conditions – are at their worst. Expecting players to pull off slick handling moves in the first few games is a tall order anyway, but more so when their hands are freezing and they are covered in mud.
The league season should start later, as it did when the competition began 22 years ago. The first Super League game, Paris against Sheffield Eagles, was played on March 29. That could be achieved by reducing the number of league fixtures – which club chiefs don’t want, because it means reduced income – and moving the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup forward to a pre-and-earlyseason competition.
That would raise the Cup’s profile and mean teams are in better shape when the league kicks off.
However, against the odds, the opening round of this year’s competition was better than in many previous seasons and the very early indications are this could be an intriguing season.
St Helens have been widely tipped as the team to beat and they got off to a flier with a sparkling 46-6 demolition of Castleford Tigers.
If that is how well they can play in round one, they will be formidable by the midway point. Ben Barba, Saints’ Australian full-back, is favourite to be named Man of Steel and his man-of-the-match performance showed exactly why. Barba is what Super League needs, an x-factor player who makes things happen.
Saints winning wasn’t a shock, but the manner of Tigers’ defeat was. They picked up from where they left off in last year’s Grand Final, but don’t write them off yet. Tigers remain a quality side with very good players and an outstanding coach. It’s all very well to roll over teams like they did last year, but the true test comes when things don’t go well.
The real measure of whether Tigers are here to stay as a Super League force will come over the next few weeks and months. Their eventual failure last year and poor start to the new campaign has delighted some sceptics, who were upset at the enthusiasm Cas’ style of play generated in the media, but when they are on, they are an outstanding team to watch and the competition needs more sides playing like that.
Barba wasn’t the only star of the opening weekend. Wakefield Trinity winger Tom Johnstone is a special talent and the competition was poorer when he was sidelined by an anterior cruciate ligament injury last year.
Once career-ending, it is now the sort of issue players return from with no ill-effects, but it usually takes a few matches to get back into the swing. In his first competitive game since a knee reconstruction Johnstone scored an outstanding hat-trick as Trinity won 28-6 at promoted Hull KR. Tougher tests will follow, but it was a terrific start for Wakefield.
They have pace in the backs, size in the forwards and quality at half-back and are dark horses for at least a semi-final place this year.
Neither Johnstone nor Ryan Hall are among Betfred’s six favourites to be 2018’s leading try scorer.
Hall – and Leeds Rhinos’ three-quarters in general – tend not to get enough ball, but he began with a brace and one of those, covering 80 metres, was as good as any try that will be scored this year.
Rhinos also made an impressive start, with the new half-back combination of Joel Moon and Richie Myler looking in good shape and teenager Jack Walker impressing at full-back, though Warrington Wolves clearly have lots of work to do.
Wigan made an easier-than-expected job of winning at Salford and Hull’s win over Huddersfield suggests they are in decent nick, but the real surprise was the manner of Widnes’ big home victory against Catalans Dragons.
That suggests Widnes aren’t the easy-beats many pundits were predicting – and Catalans have learned little from last year’s dismal campaign.