Put away those box-sets, cancel that gym subscription and forget about word games on social media because the search for something interesting to do with your weekends (and Thursdays) is over. Rugby league returns this week as Super League XXIII gets under way.
Saints, last-gasp losers in the semi-finals in 2017, get an early opportunity to get some measure of revenge for that defeat as they take on Castleford Tigers at home in Round one on Friday (February 2, 7.45 kick-off). Note the early kick-off time. Phil Bentham’s video booth dithering has finally led us down the path of an earlier start when of course the obvious solution would have been to just stop reviewing everything. But then we wouldn’t get to hear an over-excited Sky commentator shout ‘fingertip control!’ as a player’s hand gets within the same postcode of a grounded ball and where is the fun in that?
This being Round 1 injuries are at a minimum so Saints have a full strength squad to select from. Coach Justin Holbrook has not offered many surprises with his 19-man party but there will be no Saints debut for new signing James Bentley, while one-time first choice winger Adam Swift continues to be left out in favour of Regan Grace. Ben Barba took a slight knock in the last friendly, a 24-20 win over Leigh Centurions last weekend, but is fit to start at fullback, leaving Jonny Lomax to fight it out with Theo Fages, Danny Richardson and Matty Smith to be one of the two chosen for the halfback slots. The smart money is on Lomax starting at stand-off with Smith at scrum-half while one of Fages or Richardson waits his turn from the bench. That was the combination against Leigh although both Fages and Richardson featured as there were as many substitutes allowed in that game as there were in your average England football friendly under Sven Goran Erikson. Mark Percival and Ryan Morgan should occupy the centre spots with Grace and Tommy Makinson on the wings.
Alex Walmsley has complained this week about the lack of rest offered to players involved in the World Cup. The big prop claims to have had only two weeks off and while there is a lot of sense in what he is saying, he is still going to have to haul his big frame into gear to probably make an appearance from the bench as is Holbrook’s preferred method. That will leave Kyle Amor, Luke Douglas and Luke Thompson to make up the foursome at prop with new skipper James Roby completing the front row. Matty Lees can consider himself unfortunate to have missed out but will no doubt push for a spot if and when the others in that position begin to flounder. Jon Wilkin, freshly relieved of the captaincy and advised that he might spend rather more time sitting down this season, is nevertheless in contention to start in the second row alongside Zeb Taia although Dominique Peyroux, Morgan Knowles and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook will push for places also.
Castleford ran roughshod over all before them in the Super League last season, winning the League Leaders Shield by 10 points before choking horribly in a Grand Final defeat to Leeds Rhinos. The loss of Zak Hardaker in the week leading up to the Old Trafford showpiece would not have helped, and the former Rhinos and England fullback is still absent following his positive drugs test. It is not quite known yet what the extent of Hardaker’s punishment will be but since we don’t even know what the plan is for Super League in 2019 that is hardly surprising. What we do know is that Hardaker is out for the moment, with Ben Roberts likely to make the switch from the halves to the fullback role.
Gregs Eden and Minikin provide the width in this exciting Cas side. They managed 57 tries between them last term with Eden topping the list with 38. Inside of them Jake Webster and former Saint Michael Shenton were among the best centre pairings in the league last season while Jamie Ellis has been brought in from Huddersfield Giants to partner Luke Gale in the halves. We last saw Gale having a disappointing World Cup with England after his Man Of Steel winning performances in 2017 for the Tigers, and he will again be a major threat at Super League level. Especially if his forwards are allowed to block, NFL-style, when the mood takes him to take a shot at a drop-goal.
The Castleford pack is mobile and strong, with the likes of Junior Moors, Jesse Sene-Lefao and Grant Millington all good with ball in hand. Oliver Holmes is just 25 years old but has already made over 150 appearances for the Tigers and Paul McShane is a hugely consistent hooker who may, in another era, have made more of an impression on the international scene. Mike McMeeken is a genuine international class second rower while Joe Wardle’s arrival from Newcastle Knights adds even more to coach Daryl Powell’s armoury in that area. James Green has been snapped up from Leigh Centurions and may come into the prop rotation now that Andy Lynch has retired. Adam Milner, Nathan Massey, Matt Cook and Jake Trueman make up the remainder of Powell’s 19-man selection.
These sides met five times in all competitions in 2017 with Cas edging it by three wins to two. The Tigers dumped Saints out of the Challenge Cup with a thumping 53-10 win at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle (we don’t have the monopoly on silly stadium names, ask the Wakefield fans too), while also winning there in the regular season courtesy of a hugely generous offside non-call involving young half Tom Holmes, now at Featherstone Rovers. Then of course there was THAT semi-final game, Gale’s drop-goal and all. Saints wins came at home on Easter Monday and then at Castleford in the opening game of the Super 8s as they recovered from a stuttering start to the season and a coaching change to go within a Ryan Morgan body-check of the Grand Final.
It’s very difficult to know what will happen with Saints at the best of times but in the opening game of a new season predictions are even more of a fools errand. Right up my street then, as I go for Saints to just edge it by four with the home advantage. Saints 16 Castleford 12.
- Jonny Lomax, 2. Tommy Makinson, 3, Ryan Morgan, 4. Mark Percival, 6. Theo Fages, 7. Matty Smith, 8. Alex Walmsley, 9. James Roby (c), 10. Kyle Amor, 11. Zeb Taia, 12. Jon Wilkin, 13. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, 14. Luke Douglas, 15. Morgan Knowles, 16. Luke Thompson, 17. Dom Peyroux, 18. Danny Richardson, 19. Regan Grace, 23. Ben Barba.
- Ben Roberts, 2. Greg Minikin, 3. Jake Webster, 4. Michael Shenton, 5. Greg Eden, 6. Jamie Ellis, 7. Luke Gale, 8. Junior Moors, 9. Paul McShane, 10. Grant Millington, 11. Oliver Holmes, 12. Mike McMeeken, 13. Adam Milner, 14. Nathan Massey, 15. Jesse Sene-Lefao, 16. Joe Wardle, 18. Matt Cook, 21. Jake Trueman, 22. James Green.
Referee: James Child