As Shaun Wane and Brian McDermott lead their respective sides out at Old Trafford back in October of last year, it signalled the end of an enthralling season of Super League. But it wasn’t over just yet.
With Jamie Peacock, Kylie Leuluai and Matty Bowen playing their last game of Rugby League before a well deserved retirement, Kevin Sinfield departing for Rugby Union, and Joe Burgess off to the NRL, this Grand Final had all the ingredients for a classic and it did not disappoint. True legends of the game were bidding farewell to the Super League and they all wanted to finish on a high.
The game had already come to light when Matty Bowen received the ball in the 49th minute. With a step right, and a step left, Bowen danced his way over the line, through the Leeds Rhinos defence, and drew Wigan level at 16 a-piece. The conversion saw the Warriors take the lead for the second time. It was a memorable show of skill and one deserving of a Winners medal, but, as is so often the way with the Rhinos, this would only signal the start of another formidable fightback. Josh Walters crossed the line in his first Grand Final for the Yorkshire side with 17 minutes remaining, and it was left to former Mr. Rugby League, Kevin Sinfield, to kick Leeds ahead by two points. They had 15 minutes to survive and survive they did to claim the Treble. The League Leader’s Shield, Challenge Cup and the Super League Trophy were all returning to Yorkshire.
On the surface, this was a monumental effort over 36 matches (not including friendlies), however it was so much more that that. It was the culmination of 11 months’ hard work and effort, with pre-season for many starting back in early November of the previous year.
The season is shaped by pre-season.
Before friendlies are planned and played, a gruelling pre-season schedule takes place. At most professional clubs this is based around strength and conditioning in order to prepare the squad for a long season ahead. Think seemingly endless hill sprints, wrestling, weights, more sprints, stability and stretching, shuttles (ie. sprints), classroom prep, structure and agility sessions, and more sprints, with regular testing throughout. The squad have to be in peak physical and mental condition from the moment the season starts and, in a sport like Rugby League where small margins can be the difference between victory and defeat, every exercise, every player, and every second matters. This is where the season starts.
All squad members are of course fighting for a place in the starting line-up, but, for many, pre-season is an opportunity to test themselves against their teammates and, for the older heads, find out if they are still in love with the game. As careers come to a close it is more important than ever that players are fully committed to training as a result. If their heart isn’t in it then injuries are only just around the corner.
On November 23rd Wigan Warriors started pre-season where they have for the last six years, the University of Central Lancashire. It was testing day for the squad.
“The testing is a baseline to see where they’re at and it gives a target for Christmas and we’ll reissue targets after that as well as retest everyone in January. We’ve got six years of really accurate data that we can use to compare so we know exactly where they’re at every step of the way.” Director of Performance, Mark Bitcon told wiganwarriors.com.
For those not hitting the target results, “They’ll be in an early group for the next few weeks and they’ll have a target, if they don’t make that target then they’re in an extras group at 7am every morning for a few weeks”. It is modern day sport at its best; wires, sport scientists, and players lying all over the place. It is not enough to just turn up for pre-season anymore, you need to be physically and mentally prepared.
When the clubs are finally ready to do battle they will find that this season starts exactly as it did a year ago, with Hull KR, Widnes, Salford, and Wakefield Wildcats all working their way through the qualifying 8s to retain their Super League status for this season.
However new recruits mean that the Super League is ever-evolving. A few selected players to watch out for are Keith Galloway (Leeds Rhinos), Daniel Vidot and Robert Lui (Salford), Anthony Tupou and Sean Morris (Wakefield), Kurt Gidley (Wire), and of course the return of Sam Tomkins to Wigan Warriors. Nevertheless there are players in every team capable of shining on their day and, more than ever, this Super League season is shaping up to be a fascinating and unpredictable competition. There is no single team that stands out as favourites.
This is what we, as fans of Rugby League, should be proud of and getting excited about. Unlike English football’s Premier League or Rugby Union’s Premiership, the Super League sees anyone capable of springing a surprise and winning the league. Since 1996, six teams have finished top of the league, whilst Wigan, St Helens, and Leeds have won the last three separate Super League trophies, but this season will see every team having a chance of winning the title. Whilst 26 teams have lifted the Challenge Cup since its conception. There really is a possibility that your side will challenge for silverware and win something this season.
But to focus on the Super League neglects the spirit of Rugby League as a whole with the season so near. Preseason is in full swing across the divisions and with it comes new faces, new fans, and a new stadium – Oxford RL will be spreading the Rugby League gospel to Tilsley Park in Abingdon come March.
In the Championship, Leigh Centurions are again the side to watch. Yet, with the recent departure of Head Coach Paul Rowley, the club have had to move quickly to install former centurion, Neil Jukes. With experience at Ince Rose Bridge and Lancashire, and having been at Leigh since 2009 coaching the Reserves, Jukes is well placed to continue the fine work by Rowley. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what happens to Ryan Brierley over the coming weeks.
Bradford Bulls will again be looking to battle at the top and have recruited well with former England international, Richie Mathers. He joins up with old teammates Chev Walker and Matt Diskin in a side that includes a former England Sevens and Biarritz Rugby Union star, Dan Caprice.
Sheffield Eagles, Halifax, and Featherstone Rovers will also be looking to improve on last season and make it to Super League.
In Championship One, recently relegated Hunslet Hawks and Doncaster Rovers will be looking to bounce straight back up. But focus will be on the exploits of new boys Toulouse Olympique.
Founded in 1937, Toulouse have a lot of history across the channel. Having played in the French Leagues for most of their history, the club applied for Super League status in 2009. However they were denied by the RFL and instead offered refuge in what was called at the time, the Co-Operative Championship. After failing subsequent bids to join the Super League on and off the field, Toulouse returned to the french structure for 2012. The club has previously reached the Challenge Cup Semi-final following victory over Widnes in 2005, but a 56-18 defeat to Leeds extinguished all hopes of a final in Cardiff. They nevertheless return to the British structure as a largely unknown quantity. But it is obvious that the Super League is the end-goal and they will fight dent et ongle (tooth and nail) to make it happen.
Returning attention to the opening weekend of Super League 2016, it will kick off this Thursday with Leeds Rhinos against Warrington Wolves in front of the Sky Sports cameras. Hull FC play Salford, St Helens versus Huddersfield Giants, and Wigan play Catalans on the Friday night. Whilst Hull KR face Castleford on Sunday along with Wakefield Wildcats against Widnes Vikings.
So with Super League 2016 only days away it is time to get excited.
Whoever you support, whoever you follow, wear your colours with pride, sing for the badge, and cheer for the players. For these men give their all not only during the 23-plus games of the season, but throughout pre-season and beyond. They live and breathe Rugby League like us fans and more. They are Rugby League and we thank them for it.
It is good to be back.