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Nic Ladds 23rd Jan 2009 - 18:10

Super League XIV Betting Preview

It’s probably fair to say that the reputation of the Super League competition was in no way enhanced when its biggest English stars failed to shine (or for that matter, even flicker) in the World Cup, but international incidents will be placed firmly at the back of most minds when a new domestic season kicks-off at Headingley on the first Friday in February.

Super League may still lag behind the NRL in terms of overall quality, but few would dispute the contention that the European competition – as it can now justifiably be labelled – provides more sheer excitement than its Southern Hemisphere equivalent. And with no reason to expect a change in style for 2009, supporters can look forward to another season of thrills and spills, and the occasional bellyache.

With the competition expanded to fourteen teams, the fixture list appears almost fair for the first time in several years (the ‘magic weekend’ matches being the only addition to an otherwise conventional home and away season), and the RFL should be applauded for their innovation in framing the new expanded play-off format. But however the season is structured, two of the fourteen sides – Leeds and St Helens – are likely to continue to set the benchmark.

For some coaches, the objective will be to challenge the dominance of the top two. Others will have their sites set a little lower –improving on 2008, a top eight finish, or simply avoiding the wooden spoon. Before a ball is kicked however, every coach, every player, and every supporter can look forward to the season with genuine optimism.

Times are tough, but so is rugby league, and speaking personally and on behalf of William Hill, it’s good to be associated with an outstanding sport whose professional clubs are generally accessible to the local communities which they represent, and whose top players are able to retain their discipline and dignity in the heat of battle.

Bring on Super League XIV.

Bradford Bulls Castleford Tigers Catalans Dragons Celtic Crusaders
Huddersfield Giants Harlequins RL Hull FC Hull KR
Leeds Rhinos Salford City Reds St Helens Wakefield Trinity Wildcats
Warrington Wolves
Wigan Warriors
Top Try Scorer
Man of Steel

Click here to listen to my two part audio preview in which Barrie McDermott and Terry O'Connor offer their expert opinions on the season ahead.

Leeds Rhinos start the season as joint-favourites with St Helens, but there are reasons to believe the West Yorkshire outfit should be ranked ahead of their trans-Pennine rivals.

‘Bluey’ McClennan dispelled the doubters last season in expertly preparing his side to peak in February for the World Club Challenge (once more a key objective) and, despite a mid-season dip in form, again in October for the Grand Final. And having added one of the NRL’s all-time greats in Danny Buderus, alongside a World Cup winner in the powerful and talented back-rower Greg Eastwood (a direct replacement for Gareth Ellis), it’s inconceivable that Leeds won’t be on the premises once more when the whips are cracking.

Odds of 13/8 to top the regular season ladder might not appeal to every punter, but for those prepared to lay down the funds, the Rhinos look highly likely to prove a solid, recession proof investment.

Betting: Regular season 13/8 joint-favourites; Grand Final 7/4 favourites; Wooden spoon 250/1 Prediction: First place and strong prospects of landing a Grand Final hat-trick.

 

St Helens have made a habit of finishing in top spot in recent years – last season’s League Leaders Shield was their fourth straight – but only in 2006, when they overcame Hull, have the Saints been able to get the job done in the Grand Final.

In terms of playing personnel, not much has changed at the newly christened GPW Recruitment Stadium over the off-season, although sole signing Tony Puletua, noted for his athleticism and ball handling ability, is sure to make a big impact. But Saints do have a new man at the helm in 2008 coach of the year Mick Potter, whose task is to find a way to improve a successful but ageing side. And improve the Saints must, given the youth and vibrancy that is characterising the development of the current Leeds side.

St Helens have too much quality not to be prominent, but top spot looks a bridge too far this time around.

Betting: Regular season 13/8 joint-favourite; Grand Final 15/8 second favourites; Wooden spoon 250/1 Prediction: Third place and may fall short of another Grand Final

 

Bradford Bulls proved a major disappointment last season having assembled what looked a highly competitive squad, falling well short of the standard set by their fierce local rivals Leeds, who beat them convincingly four times.

But on the back of the controversial signing of the hugely talented Greg Bird (assuming he can secure a visa), Bulls fans can be confident of making real progress towards bridging the gap. If Burgess and Lynch can get through the year injury free to provide the fire in the engine room, Bradford will be a very tough proposition and could throw down the sternest challenge to the reigning champions.

Betting: Regular Season 10/1; Grand Final 9/1; Wooden spoon 100/1 Prediction: Second place and a possible return to Old Trafford on the cards.

 

Wigan Warriors may have lost the talismanic Trent Barrett but still look to have a squad with some depth.

Tim Smith, another Aussie import with a somewhat chequered past but plenty of on-field flair, now seems likely to take on more responsibility, whilst Mark Riddell will give the Cherry and Whites real dynamism and durability in the crucial dummy half position.

The recent signing of Amos Roberts as a replacement for Mark Calderwood is a headline grabber, but Wigan have plenty of homegrown talent with the likes of Goulding, McIlorum, Prescott and Joel Tomkins all developing into high class Super League performers.

A tilt at honours is long overdue for the club that dominated for almost two decades, and 2009 could conceivably see Wigan mount a serious assault.

Betting: Regular Season 10/1; Grand Final 9/1; Wooden spoon 100/1 Prediction: Fourth place and a run at some silverware – perhaps a trip to Wembley?

 

Warrington Wolves folded badly towards the end of 2008 after yet another season that promised so much but ultimately delivered very little.

James Lowes now gets the opportunity to take on this star-studded squad from the gun and he’ll be hoping for better luck than his predecessor given the awful run with injuries that blighted Paul Cullen towards the end of his tenure. If Jimmy can keep his expensively assembled troops on the battlefield the Wolves fans have every right to demand a top four place.

But Warrington backers have had their fingers burned more than once in the past and the potential of this side is more than factored into the bookmaker’s prices.

Betting: Regular Season 10/1; Grand Final 9/1; Wooden spoon 100/1 Prediction: Fifth place. On paper serious contenders, but still got it to prove on the paddock.

 

Catalans Dragons confounded all expectations with their third place finish in 2008 and with the addition of high quality Aussie recruits Bell, Perry and Ryles, look even better equipped ahead of the new season.

But backing up a great year can be tough and the Dragons’ rapid progress to date has come under the tutorage of Mick Potter.

Taking this side to the next level – winning trophies – is a tough assignment for rookie coach Kevin Walters.

Betting: Regular Season 20/1; Grand Final 20/1; Wooden spoon 40/1 Prediction: Sixth place. Competitive for sure, but need to prove their credentials all over again under a new regime.

 

Hull FC endured a wretched league campaign in 2008, although a trip to Wembley salvaged the season in the eyes of Hull’s demanding supporters, who have seen their team slide from one off the top of the ladder to one off the bottom in the space of two years.

Injuries to key players undermined Hull’s prospects last year but noises coming out of the KC hint at the squad being in improved shape under the influence of new conditioner Ben Cooper. And in addition to Cooper, head coach Richard Agar has shrewdly added ex-Hull favourite Jon Sharpe to his backroom staff.

With Horne and Thorman set to form an exciting half-back partnership and decorated Kangaroo forward Michael Crocker teaming up with Hull’s other ‘marquee’ Aussie Shaun Berrigan in the pack, Hull have plenty of quality in the ranks.

But the suspicion is that a black and white challenge may be undermined by a lack of sheer size and punch up front, despite the recent acquisition of raw and rugged young Tongan Sam Moa.

Betting: Regular Season 20/1; Grand Final 16/1; Wooden spoon 50/1 Prediction: Seventh place and a season of stability after two years of turmoil.

 

Hull KR, named 2008 Super League Club of the year having firmly re-established themselves at the top table, appear to have suffered a difficult pre-season given the cancellation of a proposed training camp in Dubai and the resignation of former Chief Executive Paul Blanchard after only seven months in-situ.

Player turnover has been kept to a minimum, with Nick Fozzard – set to add some aggression up front – the highest profile of just three recruits, but if Cooke and Dobson can dovetail effectively they will be supplying a three-quarter line that already contains plenty of strike power.

Rovers don’t yet have the look of possible competition winners, but, notwithstanding the off-field issues, Morgan’s men should once again prove dangerous and durable opponents on the paddock.

Betting: Regular Season 50/1; Grand Final 40/1; Wooden spoon 25/1 Prediction: Eighth. Greater consistency required this season and a big breakthrough remains unlikely.

 

Huddersfield Giants were hit with a hammer blow with the pre-season news that Todd Carney, their key signing for 2009, had been refused a visa and wouldn’t be plying his trade at the Galpharm after all.

New coach Nathan Brown still has a competent squad at his disposal, but tenth place in 2008 was a disappointment and, despite the addition of dynamic full-back Brett Hodgson, the Giants will do well to improve significantly on that finish given the strength of the competition.

Betting: Regular Season 40/1; Grand Final 33/1; Wooden spoon 25/1 Prediction: Ninth. Competitive, but don’t threaten to challenge the big guns.

 

Castleford Tigers duly picked up the wooden spoon on their return to Super League last season, but came up with a creditable seven wins along the way, including the scalps of Leeds and Saints.

In an effort to make progress up the ladder Terry Matteson has overseen a major close-season overhaul of the Tigers’ squad, with no less than nine new recruits replacing some thirteen players who have moved on. Such radical change may in itself lead to some short term instability, but overall the roster looks much improved and Castleford can be expected to be competitive.

Betting: Regular Season 150/1; Grand Final 150/1; Wooden spoon 9/1 Prediction: Tenth and heading in the right direction.

 

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats have been through a traumatic pre-season and will look to honour the memory of Adam Watene through their efforts on the pitch when the action gets underway.

The Wildcats were arguably Super League’s most inventive side in 2008, but start the season minus creator-in-chief Danny Brough. In the absence of high profile signings, John Kear, who masterminded the great escape in 2007, might find it difficult to take Wakefield forward in 2009.

Betting: Regular Season 100/1; Grand Final 100/1; Wooden spoon 10/1 Prediction: Eleventh and heading in the wrong direction.

 

Harlequins RL surprised some pundits (and bookmakers) by finishing in a solid ninth spot last season, largely courtesy of a very strong start to the season.

This season’s squad – with leading lights McLinden and Hill having departed – doesn’t necessarily look improved on the 2008 vintage, despite the return of the prolific Luke Dorn. Brian McDermott will once again have to defy the doom-mongers who are already anticipating a difficult year for the London club.

Betting: Regular Season 100/1; Grand Final 100/1; Wooden spoon 14/1 Prediction: Twelfth. Insufficient quality and only the promoted sides are likely to keep them out of the basement.

 

Celtic Crusaders start life in the top flight with the toughest possible assignment when they travel to Leeds, a match that will provide the prelude for what is almost certain to be a testing season for the Bridgend outfit.

The squad assembled by wily coach John Dixon isn’t littered with big names despite nine new arrivals –five of whom possess plenty of NRL experience – and several players will have to come to terms with playing at a new level of speed and intensity.

With three years to bed in, six or seven Super League wins in 2009 would probably represent success.

Betting: Regular Season 350/1; Grand Final 250/1; Wooden spoon Evens favourites Prediction: Thirteenth. Their matches against Salford – keenly contested at National League level last season – are likely to hold the key to the destination of the wooden spoon.

 

Salford City Reds, like Celtic, face the mountainous task of adapting to the rigours of Super League, although Shaun McRae’s squad does feature a number of players who were part of the side relegated from the top flight in 2007.

Willie Talau joins a sprinkling of solid if unspectacular NRL signings, but overall the squad appears to lack the depth required to compete consistently. At 5/2 to finish on the bottom rung of the ladder, the Reds appeal as a value alternative to fellow newcomers Celtic Crusaders.

Betting: Regular Season 250/1; Grand Final 200/1; Wooden spoon 5/2 second favourites Prediction: Bottom place – a season of toil ahead for a thin looking squad.

 

Top Regular Season Tryscorer

Last year’s one-two on the Super League tryscoring list, Ade Garnder and Scott Donald, assume joint favouritism at 10/1 ahead of the 2009 season. Both men can be expected to pick up where they left off, but for a value alternative look a little further down the betting at 25/1 Damien Blanch, a player with a real eye for the tryline.

The Wakefield winger matched Gardner’s scoring rate in crossing for 13 Super League four-pointers in just 13 starts last season and went on to enhance his reputation further in scoring five tries for Ireland in the World Cup.

Man of Steel

An award now chosen by the players themselves, and no player commands more respect amongst his peers than the Leeds and England captain Jamie Peacock. Winner of the coveted title as a Bradford Bull in 2003, and shortlisted last season, Peacock will be a leading contender once more if, as expected, his Leeds side go close to retaining the Super League title.

12/1 (joint favourite with current Man of Steel, James Graham) represents a more than fair price as the winner is highly likely to represent a top side (each of the last four winners played for St Helens). For a lively outsider, 33/1 Gareth Hock, all aggression in the Wigan back-row, could well give cherry and white fans a good run for their money.

Listen to Terry O'Connor and Barrie McDermott's Super League XIV audio preview

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