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?
If the 2016 Super League season was a turgid one pretty much throughout, it saved it’s very worst for last, culminating in every Saints fan’s horrific worst nightmare, a Wigan Warriors Grand Final victory. Shaun Wane’s side put consecutive Grand Final defeats in 2014 and 2015 behind them to overcome Warrington at Old Trafford and secure a fourth Super League crown.
It was a victory based very much on defence. Only Warrington conceded fewer points than Wigan over the course of the regular season and the Super 8s while no side made more than Wigan’s 8091 tackles. At least four of these were achieved by less than three men. They needed to be good at keeping opponents away from their try-line given that six sides managed to score more tries than Wigan last season and only Hull KR and Huddersfield Giants made fewer clean breaks. Paradoxically only Warrington managed more than Wigan’s 30433 metres gained but five of the sides who made the Super 8s racked up more than Wigan’s modest points tally of 669. Over 30 games that is an average of only 22.3 points per game. That they won 21 of 30 games with such a return is both staggering and a true testament to the quality of their defence. Or an indictment on the rest of the league depending on how you look at it. While I’m quite happy to spend the next 800 words or so pointing out all of the faults which riddled the DW Stadium side last term, we should all remember that all other Super League sides including Saints, especially Saints, were worse than this shower.
So how likely is a repeat of last season’s success for Wane’s side? Will we have to go through it all again, or as some no doubt preferred should we make alternative arrangements for Grand Final night? Well the much trumpeted return of Sam Tomkins from New Zealand Warriors hasn’t really worked out so in have come Thomas Leuleuai and Joe Burgess, just to prove that bringing back former stars after stints in the NRL is not a policy they are about to abandon despite Tomkins’ injury-plagued homecoming. Yet it is unlikely to be these players that will be the difference between success and failure. Hooker Michael McIlorum will be like a new signing after missing almost all of last season through a broken ankle picked up in the glorified friendly with Brisbane Broncos, while men like Liam Farrell, John Bateman, Tony Clubb, ‘Gentle’ Ben Flower, Ryan Sutton and copy and paste’s Frank-Paul Nu’uausala will do the hard yards.
What inspiration there will be will likely be provided by the wonderfully entertaining, self-proclaimed Man Of The People Anthony Gelling and the excellent and almost certain future England international Dom Manfredi provided the latter has recovered well from the ACL injury which ended his season in August. George Williams looks set to partner Leuleuai in the halves with Matty Smith having been ever so kindly despatched to the Saints treatment table, though Jake Shorrocks will look to build on his encouraging introduction to Super League last year. Tomkins offers another option there but will likely feature at fullback if fit, though Morgan Escare has been drafted in from Catalans Dragons to offer some semblance of competition for that role. I know. We all miss Matty Bowen. Injuries will happen, so expect Lewis Tierney to again feature heavily in any number of positions across the backline after making 18 appearances in 2016.
Those joining Smith curled up on the pavement outside having been unceremoniously ejected from the club include would-be NRL star and future Wigan Warriors centre Dan Sarginson along with Sale Sharks touchline dweller and future Wigan Warriors winger Josh Charnley. Dom Crosby has made the switch to Warrington Wolves on a two-year deal while Lee Mossop has joined Salford Red Devils after two spells with Wigan either side of a stint in the NRL. No, I’m not doing that joke again. It’s just too easy. Nor can I confirm reports that Ellery Hanley is on his way back from Balmain for the 2018 season.
As underwhelming as they look on paper we are all just going to have to face the fact that Wigan will be up there again when the pots are being handed out at the end of the 2017 season. They’re too good defensively to rule out and with the likes of Gelling capable of berserk moments of inspiration they have enough in attack to see off most of the competition. And they’ll be consistent. Sure, there might be the odd blip like the still mirth-making 62-0 defeat they suffered at Wakefield last season, but by and large they will churn out performance after performance with enough regularity to be a shoe-in for a top four spot come the end of September.