The 2016 Super League season was not a classic. Conservatism ruled as clubs climbed over each other to see who could devise the most boring game-plan. It culminated in the most wretched of all conclusions, a Wigan Warriors Grand Final victory. Yet here we are, a month out from the start of the 2017 campaign and we’re all just as excited as ever we were, as if there is any hope that in the intervening months the coaches have all got together over a Christmas sherry and decided to do away with one-out, knees and elbows, third man in dross. Well, it could have happened….
If the excitement level does not change, neither does the structure of my season preview which is below for your delectation. It’s alphabetical so as not to inspire too many angry tweets about why Wigan are last (because Wigan are last….). So sit back with your brew and read on, all the while picturing yourself strolling up to the Totally Wicked Stadium on what is sure to be an icy, wet, horrific night when Saints entertain Leeds in the season opener on February 9. There’s nothing better, is there?
Widnes Vikings started the 2016 season like the proverbial flaming place of residence, all but ensuring a top eight finish in the opening weeks of the season before flattering to deceive for much of the rest of the campaign.
Six wins from their first seven Super League outings included a 56-12 walloping of a Leeds Rhinos side that still had the full respect of everyone and a fearful 46-6 shellacking of Hull FC which eventually had rather more of a positive effect on the black and whites season than it did on that of Denis Betts’ side. Throw in a first win at Wigan since George Formby’s hey-day and by the middle of March the Vikings were on course for tilt at the top four.
Then it all started to go wrong. Nine defeats in their next 10 games saw Widnes slip quietly out of contention for a playoff berth and would have left them clinging on to a Super 8s place had Salford Red Devils not suffered a six-point deduction for being arithmetically challenged. Of those who made the eight only Wakefield scored fewer points than the Select Security Stadium side over the 30 games across the regular season and the Super 8s, while only Castleford Tigers, Catalans Dragons and the club formerly known as the Wildcats shipped in more points over that 30-game spell. It all leaves Betts with much to work on as he embarks on a seventh season in charge.
That work will not be helped by the loss of Kevin Brown. With Chris Sandow having left Warrington to go scrapping on the streets of Queensland the Wolves came knocking on the door of the England stand-off. At 32, he decided a final shot at a club already primed to challenge for silverware was too good an offer to turn down and so made the move across Cheshire. It’s a fairly savage blow to Widnes’ hopes of repeating last season’s Super 8 appearance as at the time of writing an adequate replacement has not arrived. Nor does one look likely to, with few available on the current market and a rather depressing lack of quality in that position throughout the land. Turn to Australia and you are likely to find yourself with an expensive recruit who is either an ageing short-term fix or will bring with him enough trouble to keep you in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. That is if he stays around long enough to stir up any trouble.
So in the absence of a star name to fill Brown’s boots a lot of responsibility will be on Tom Gilmore to step up and form a partnership with the excellent Joe Mellor. Pay attention Saints fans as Gilmore has routinely been linked with a move to Saints over the last couple of seasons. With Brown gone it seems unlikely that Betts will entertain that idea at the moment but should he develop as many expect him to then other clubs will no doubt come calling. For now though his role alongside Mellor is going to be crucial to Widnes’ ability to break opponents down and supply good ball to a three-quarter line that includes last season’s 27-try revelation Corey Thompson as well as Stefan Marsh, Charly Runciman and new signing and ex-Saints Tom Armstrong snapped up from Leigh Centurions in the off-season. Behind them at fullback Rhys Hanbury remains one of the Vikings star performers, a genuine threat with ball in hand who managed 12 tries last season and would probably find his way into most other Super League sides.
Armstrong aside there is very little change to the Widnes squad for 2017. Setaiamata Sa is back in Queensland with that well known super-power Mackay Cutters, while Tom Olbison has arrived from the wreckage of the Bradford Bulls. Paddy Flynn has been released by the club after a loan spell with Castleford Tigers as has Phil Joseph after spending last season with Salford. None of which recruitment manoeuvring does anything to inspire or persuade Widnes fans that they will be able to improve on last season’s showing. It could be a difficult campaign unless reinforcements arrive along the way.
As well as the obvious Brown-shaped hole in the side it might have been prudent for Betts to add to a pack which looks decidedly pedestrian. Manese Manuokafoa is a solid performer but could be in trouble after raising the ire of Saints coach Keiron Cunningham for the so-called ‘ninja tackle’ which put Matty Smith out of action for the foreseeable future. Alex Gerrard will make a welcome return to the fold after making only five appearances in 2016 through injury but a look elsewhere sees a forward line packed with Wigan rejects like Greg Burke, Gil Dudson and Eamon O’Carroll. Macgraff Leuleuai and veterans Hep Cahill and Chris Houston will have a lot of responsibility to provide the go-forward for a team which made fewer metres in 2016 than all but Hull KR, Catalans, Huddersfield, Salford and Wakefield. Aaron Heremaia will also be a key at dummy half. He led the Vikings with 135 runs from dummy half last term and his impact at nine along with that of Lloyd White will be crucial.
A good start will again be important and a home opener against Huddersfield Giants looks gentle enough, but then trips to Wigan and Catalans could leave Widnes in a rather more precarious position than they found themselves at a similar stage of 2016. Home games with Castleford and Salford in March are also likely to be key to keeping Widnes in with a shot at the Super 8s but with so few additions to what looked a pretty average squad and with one gargantuan hole to fill at stand-off a season of struggle looks likely.