11 March 2021

2021 Super League Team-by-Team Preview


The 2021 Super League season is only two weeks away and I'm excited. So I've taken a look at how all the sides are shaping up for the new season.

This isn't a predictions piece, you'll need to wait another week for our first proper podcast episode of the year for that. Although you might get a sense of who I think will go well and who might struggle. (our predictions form is open until 9pm on Tuesday 16 MArch, so get on it now if you haven't already! Click HERE)

This is my overview of the ins and outs, the key men for their sides, the young players I'll be keeping an eye out for, and any strengths and weaknesses I see in each squad. You might agree with some of it. You will disagree with plenty of it. Don't let it knock your own optimism for your team's season though, this is prime optimism time after all! Enjoy.

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Gains:

Niall Evalds, Lewis Bienek, Suaia Matagi, Jordan Turner

Losses:

Jordan Rankin, Matt Cook, Mike McMeeken, Junior Moors, Callum Turner, Bailey Hodgson

Last Season:

8th in Super League

6th Round of the Challenge Cup

My take:

Castleford have done some good business. Niall Evalds could be one of the signings of the season, he's a proven talent and could be the piece that Castleford have been missing since that fateful drugs test in 2017. But I think they're maybe missing a little more now than just that piece. And this aging squad needs a good start as well as some injury luck, which with Sosaia Feki already out for most if not all of the year, they've started over par one the first hole. It would be easy to say Paul McShane is their key man - but he was great enough to be Man of Steel in 2020 and Cas only finished 8th and fell out of the cup at the first opportunity. Watts and Millington are their key men for me, they need to be injury free and capable of the sort of minutes they were in 2019 and before. Also, Cas don't really have adequate cover for Jake Trueman, a genuine all around threat, it is to be hoped for the Tigers and for the fans of Super League that his niggling injuries of 2020 are behind him. As I've said, they're an aging squad - only Leigh and Salford come in to the season with a higher average age. That doesn't mean there isn't a young star in the making to talk about. Barrie McDermott recently compared Jacques O'Neill to Terry Newton, and I think that's a fair comparison of his potential. If prime Newton is the ceiling for this boy's talent then we've got a feisty future international on our hands. I think O'Neill's passing game needs to develop before it's Newton-like, but his attitude and effort are right there. Of the other young Tigers - I've resisted the urge to call them Tiger cubs - only Lewis Peachey has seen much first team action so far, but in Brad Martin and Lewis Bienek they do have some forwards with size and potential, who may need to make their mark in the second half of the season, when the games come thick and fast and they older established guys will need some managing.

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Gains:

Gil Dudson, Mike McMeeken, Dean Whare

Losses:

Antoni Maria, Sam Moa, Mickael Simon, David Mead, Remi Casty, Lucas Albert, Lewis Tierney, Isreal Folau

Last Season:

4th in Super League

Quarter final of Challenge Cup

My take:

The first choice 13 is high calibre. even with the likely departure of Isreal Folau. Dean Whare is a very good replacement for him. Gil Dudson is a proven player as a replacement for Remi Casty. And Mike McMeeken will go well in this side I'm fairly confident. The rest of the line-up is the side that went well last year, when there were able to get their games on. Key to how they will go must be star man Sam Tomkins. He was back close to his very best at times in 2020. And Tom Davies really was one of the best wingers in the league, he might not be as elusive as some or as spectacular as others, but his try-rate last year was the best in the league. It does feel like les Dracs lack depth though this year, other than the back row where they are loaded. I don't really see any three-quarters depth in the squad - noting it's gutting for Artur Romano that he's out for the year already. A significant part of their depth is from unrealised talent - I like the looks of Paul Seguier, Mickael Goudemand and Lambert Belmas, but none of them have consistently nailed down a match day squad spot yet. They need to start producing consistently, I hope they can as it makes France a better World Cup prospect. There is also quite a bit of untested youth filling out the squad list. Coretin Le Cam is the tallest man in Super League, hopefully his play can elevate to the top level along with the other first team squad newcomers, as sides will need to use their full squads again this year with multiple two-game-weeks. It will be interesting if the Dragons go looking for midseason reinforcements and where these can come from. I think they'll need to find a gem of a winger from somewhere, and maybe a half back too, should the injuries hit.

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Gains:

Jack Ashworth, James Cunningham, Joe Greenwood, Ricky Leutele, Jack Cogger, Josh Jones, Luke Yates, Olly Ashall-Bott

Losses:

Paul Clough, Dom Young, Adam Walne, Reiss Butterworth, Jordan Turner, Suaia Matagi, Akuila Uate, Tom Holmes

Last Season:

7th in Super League

5th Round of Challenge Cup

My take:

There's been a big change at the Giants over the offseason. But it’s the sort of change that is bringing hope rather than fear. Let's start with the biggest change, Ian Watson. We know already he's a top coach. He seems to have a clarity of message that gets anyone under his charge playing the right way, seeing the right things, making the right choices. Greg Brown coming in with Watson could be huge too, he just seems to have a way of getting players injury free and on the pitch more than not. There's been quite a bit of change in playing personnel too - 8 out, 8 in. But, looking across the changes, they've got stronger not weaker, and have good depth in most positions. Ricky Leutele was a shining light through the dark clouds that followed Toronto's ill-fated Super League spell. He's an upgrade. They've gone form having a good back row, to a stellar back row. Adam O'Brien has real like-for-like cover with James Cunningham coming in. They also have a little more depth in the front row than first appears, depending on what sort of role a couple of the younger players can play. One thing that shouldn't change too much is the spine, depending on how they choose to use Jack Cogger. Aidan Sezer is the clear driving force for this team, if he embraces Watson's game plan like the other overseas halves then he'll be a Man of Steel contender again. The squad has some youth too, most of it with a bit of top level experience already. Jake Wardle and Darnell McIntosh need to take that next step now from being highly skilled talents to consistent performers at both ends of the pitch. They have the ability, next is to show that consistently through games and from game to game.

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Gains:

Josh Reynolds

Losses:

Ratu Naulogo, Albert Kelly, Liam Harris, Gareth Ellis, Lewis Bienek, Josh Jones 

Last Season:

6th in Super League

Quarter final in Challenge Cup

My take:

Can Brett Hodgson have the same sort of impact in his first year coaching uin Super League as his first year playing in Super League, where he led his side to a cup final appearance and won Man of Steel? Hull will be hoping that he can do it largely with a side that was brought in for the previous head coach, as there's not been much transfer activity in west Hull. Josh Reynolds has come in to replace Albert Kelly. I'm not sure if Josh Reynolds is the man to push a team over that last false summit to reach the peak. But, he's combative and crafty, and may bring a fight to the side that sometimes they've seemed to lack. Half back is a key area where the side lacks depth. If anything happens to the starters, with Jamie Shaul out and Jake Connor featuring at full back, young Ben McNamara is the only back-up they have. You have to think he'll get more chance to show his talents this year. Connor is the key man though, and full back is the right spot for him, as I've said before. He can be the real strike weapon for Hull now that he will have freedom to find the most threatening positions in attack. If he can keep his concentration and discipline defensively he could be a dark horse for Man of Steel, and he has a great example of an all around full back to learn from. Jack Brown is a young player who has been elevated within the squad this year. He made a big impact on debut back in 2019 but under half the games in 2020. He'll be looking to have more game time in 2021 and could he be the player to fill gap left by the re-retired Gareth Ellis. 

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Gains:

Albert Vete, Ryan Hall, Korbin Sims, Brad Takairangi, Luis Johnson, Muizz Mustapha

Losses:

Mitch Garbutt, Jamie Ellis, Ryan Brierley, Matty Gee, Nathaniel Peteru, Dan Murray, Will Oakes, Harvey Livett, Robbie Mulhern, Weller Hauraki, Nick Rawsthorne

Last Season:

11th in Super League

Quarter finals of Challenge Cup

My take:

The Robins have a lot of loose forwards and a lot of centres in this side. Just like last year, I'm not sure they have any Super League half backs. Fitting a coherent 13 together seems like a task for Tony Smith, although we've seen him set up his Hull KR teams to do things differently to the better resourced teams in the past couple of years, so maybe he has something up his sleeve. There's no doubt that they have some quality and try scoring potential, if Ben Crooks can pick up where he started 2020 and Ryan Hall can pick up where he left off in 2015. The key player is Adam Quinlan, he offers a real threat when fit - or if fit, going off recent track record. If Matt Parcell can find his old form and new signings Albert Vete and Korbin Sims can offer what Rob Mulhern and Mitch Garbutt did back in 2019 then Hull KR might not be nailed on for the bottom four. But it feels like a lot of ifs with this side, a side that has big strides to make if they want to be competing for playoffs and silverware. This is a more youthful Hull KR than before Smith arrived. The likes of Mikey Lewis, Matty Storton, Rowan Milnes, Will Tate and Will Dagger have all had chances to impress already under Smith. Will Tate looks a talent to me. Muizz Mustapha's cannonball go forward has made him stand out whenever I saw him play for Leeds Academy, it will be interesting to see how much of a part he plays in Smith's plans as a loanee, is he just cover or will he get the chance to make an impact. The squad size should cope with the rigours of a long season, it will need to be seen if Smith can get a consistent quality from them.

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Gains:

Zane Tetevano, King Vuniyayawa, Kyle Eastmond

Losses:

Adam Cuthbertson, Rhys Evans, Muizz Mustapha, Ava Seumanafagai, Stevie Ward

Last Season:

5th in Super League

Challenge Cup Winner

My take:

Leeds have named a big squad with a lot of youth on the back end, that they will likely need during this campaign. Injuries are a problem to start the year for Leeds. Robert Lui starts on the treatment table, Ash Handley is still on the recovery trail from his horror leg break and Jack Walker is out long-term. And, Luke Gale is starting the season under a bit of an injury doubt, and that is something Leeds could really do without, as they will go as far as he can take them. He feels like as important a player as any player for any side when you watched him play for Leeds in 2020, giving them all their direction. I can't see 2021 being too different. The signing of Kyle Eastmond provides a real wildcard excitement to this side that they hope will complement Gale's direction. We'll see exactly how Eastmond will get used by Leeds, where and how he'll play and what of his League instincts have been dulled by a decade in the other code. But it's a story that will be interesting to follow. New signing Zane Tetevano will be another interesting signing to follow, he's expected to make a big impact on the field and whilst we can never condone what he did to get himself in trouble off the field back in 2014, all appearances are he is a rehabilitated figure following the crimes of his past. I see him as the replacement for Cuthbertson in this squad, we'll see if he can have the same impact. I'm not sure if we can still talk about Mikolaj Oledzki as a young player as he's coming up to 100 senior career appearances, but at 22 he's going to need to become a leader of this pack, in a front row that does lack some depth, with even younger Tom Holroyd looking like an important part of the prop depth for 2021. Corey Hall and Liam Tindall are exciting young outside backs that got a chance in 2020 and I think will be ones to watch if they get more of a go this year, they're players I'm excited to see develop behind some top first choice outside backs in the squad.

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Gains:

Blake Wallace, Jamie Ellis, Matty Gee, Ryan Brierley, Nathaniel Peteru, Adam Sidlow, Joe Mellor, Matty Russell, Ben Flower, Craig Mullen, Lewis Tierney, James Bell, Tyrone McCarthy, Brendan Elliot

Losses:

Ben Reynolds, Sam Brooks, Martyn Ridyard, Liam Forsyth, Callum Field, Ryan Ince, Danny Addy, Gregg McNally

Last Season:

Championship

5th Round of Challenge Cup

My take:

Leigh have the oldest and smallest squad heading to the season start line. And they've had the most turnover compared to 2020. A 2020 where they barely played a game. I can't help but feel rookie Super League head coach John Duffy has his work cut out for him. If the size of the squad wasn't worry enough, the make-up of it is largely a mix of the Toronto side that were bottom last year before lockdown and the Hull KR side that were bottom last year after lockdown. In fairness, they have clearly upgraded their Championship squad to be one with seasoned Super League players. Ryan Brierley's latest return to Leigh could see him be the key man. Brendan Elliot's arrival from Manly, a real boost to the squad ahead of the season, should free Brierley up to play in his preferred half back spot rather than at the back. Brierley, Joe Mellor and Blake Wallace at least have a shared history of being at the Wolfpack together in the past. And Duffy has created a bit of a Scotland connection too with his signings, bringing in four Scotland World Cup hopefuls to add to the two Scots retained from last year. Duffy himself is a former Scotland international player and coach who'll be keen I'm sure to help the Bravehearts in this World Cup year. One area of the squad they aren't thin, which is unlike a few of the sides, is prop forward, where they have some experience and depth. They don't have much depth elsewhere though unfortunately, and strike on the wings is an area of concern - 3 tries from 10 Super League games in 2020 for their two first choice wingers, who happen to be their only genuine wingers in the squad. I have to think that Derek Beaumont will have to dig into his pockets and find some singings during the season to bolster the outside backs if this side are going to consistently put up enough points to pick up the amount of wins that can keep them safe in Super League.

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Gains:

Morgan Escare, Joe Burgess, Sam Luckley, Matty Costello, Harvey Livett, Jack Wells, Danny Addy, Elijah Taylor, Darcy Lussick

Losses:

Mark Flanagan, Luis Roberts, Kris Welham, Joey Lussick, Connor Jones, Niall Evalds, Gil Dudson, Luke Yates, Tyrone McCarthy, Ed Chamberlain

Last Season:

9th in Super League

Runner-up in Challenge Cup

My take:

There has been a lot of change at Salford and I'm not confident that they've got better with that change. Major finalists in back to back years, but 9th in 2020 gives a more balanced reflection of their overall standing than the narrow cup final defeat. The obvious things to say is Richard Marshall has a tough act to follow as head coach. But I do think he's ready for this chance. He's done his time at the Championship level and he's had a successful stint as a Super League assistant under some strong coaches, so he's ready for a top job like this. Morgan Escare can be exhilarating on his day, but Niall Evalds is one of Salford's best players of the Super League era, so that's a slight downgrade, and I'd think about running with Dan Sarginson as my Salford full back. Joe Burgess would have been an upgrade for the squad, but injury will see him miss most or all of the year very sadly. Elijah Taylor and Darcy Lussick should be solid replacements for Mark Flanagan and Gil Dudson. But I'm not convinced they've replaced Luke Yates, who gave them so much effort and energy in defence last year, and I'm convinced that they haven't replaced Joey Lussick, who was arguably the most consistent Salford player over the last two seasons. In fact, their only depth at hooker behind Andy Ackers looks to be untested youngster Connor Aspey. Don't be surprised if utility signing Danny Addy spells Ackers quite a bit this year. My Salford key man is Lee Mossop. A real leader at Salford over the past few seasons and with quite a bit of change around him in the pack, his presence could be key to the team cohesion. Tui Lolohea and Kev Brown will create chances. Krisnan Inu, Kallum Watkins, Ken Sio and Rhys Williams should have enough strike to finish plenty of them. And if those outside backs aren't doing it, Matty Costello is a talented youngster I'm excited to see get a chance. I hope he can maintain the development path he was on when coming through at St Helens. I'm not sure Salford will have a successful campaign, but I'm fairly sure they will be one of the best sides to watch as a neutral this year.

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Gains:

Joel Thompson, Agnatius Paasi, Sione Mata'utia, Dan Norman

Losses:

Zeb Taia, James Graham, Callam Hazzard, Joseph Paulo, Dom Peyroux, Jack Ashworth, Matty Costello

Last Season:

Super League Winner (2nd in regular season)

Quarter final of Challenge Cup

My take:

Back to back Grand Final winners St Helens still have a stellar first team squad, with Zeb Taia and James Graham their only notable losses from that best match day 17, with their replacements being drawn in from the NRL with the vastly experienced Joel Thompson and the occasionally explosive Agnatius Paasi, so Saints will hope there's not much drop off. Matty Lees is a player who probably has to take the next step as well to help fill the legacy left by Graham, and obviously Luke Thompson who departed earlier in 2020. A full injury free season for him, with him growing in maturity, he will become a key figure in the side. Lachlan Coote is the key man though for St Helens. That showed with their stumbling start to 2020 when he was the only key piece really missing. Their spine is strong and has great continuity and cohesion, which means the players tend to take Man of Steel points off each other, but I'd have Coote as St Helens' leading contender for that award. Outside the first choice, St Helens' depth almost all comes from youth. Jack Welsby headlines that group after his Grand Final heroics and ability to cover in all the back positions as he's developing his game. Lewis Dodd, Josh Simm and Jake Wingfield also all impressed in limited first team showings in 2020. They will be needed in another crammed in Super League season, and the lack of experience in their squad depth is probably the only concern worth having over St Helens in 2021 as they go for a three-peat.

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Gains:

Mason Lino

Losses:

Danny Brough, Danny Kirmond, Ryan Atkins, Craig Kopczak, Tony Gigot, Romain Navarette, Ben Jones-Bishop, Titus Gwaze

Last Season:

10th in Super League

6th Round of Challenge Cup

My take:

Despite losing eight players and only bringing in one, Wakefield actually have one of the largest squads named at the 2021 starting line. Quite a bit of that is relatively unproven youth, but we've seen flashes from players like Jack Croft, Connor Bailey and Harry Bowes to make us think there is some talent in this Wakefield youth. James Batchelor is a player who it feels like has been around for ages and he's coming up to 50 Super League games now but he's still young at 22. With Danny Kirmond moved on, this should be a season for Batchelor to progress and cement himself as a regular performer at this level. Wakefield have some depth this year, I'm unsure how much real quality they have outside of the centres and of course Tom Johnstone. We know Jacob Miller and Ryan Hampshire are erratic talents, they can do great stuff but they don't make great sides around them. I really don't know enough about Mason Lino to say if he is the player to bring control and consistency to the half back partnership. In six seasons he's only played 34 times in the NRL, so it doesn't scream missing piece of the puzzle. Although, he's a Samoa international and I certainly won't be writing him off before we see him. 

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Gains:

Greg Inglis, Rob Butler, Rob Mulhern

Losses:

Ben Murdoch-Masila, Anthony Gelling, Luis Johnson, Dec Patton, Leilani Latu

Last Season:

3rd in Super League

Semi final of Challenge Cup

My take:

The Warrington squad has a very strong top 20 or so players. The rest is padded out by youth, talented youth, albeit not truly proven at this level. Barring a serious injury run in any one position though, they have quality cover if not serious depth. A couple of signings that really impress me are Rob Butler and Rob Mulhern, because what they bring is an element of succession planning for 33 year old Chris Hill and 32 year old Mike Cooper, but they also bring an ability to contribute now as well. Although they don't really have a traditional ball handling loose forward, they have a really strong group of middle forwards at Wire this year. They maybe don't have one key man, although I fancy Daryl Clark as a man of steel contender, but the real key for Wire to have trophy success this year is if Blake Austin and Gareth Widdop can get an understanding to their combination, because they struggled to do that all last year and it meant their attack wasn't as fearsome as their local rivals that finished above them. And the headline signing is of course Greg Inglis. It is fair and reasonable ot question if his body can take the rigours of a full Super League season. You suspect he will have games where he is rested, and his best for Wire won't match his best for Australia or Queensland from years gone by. In Rugby League terms though he is still a huge signing, albeit one that barely causes a flicker amongst the wider world of sports fans. He can surely bring something to this side with what he has seen and achieved through his career. Super League is the better for having him and it will surely be just a one season thing. I don't know that he can be the difference to make this Warrington's year, but it would be a remarkable swansong for him. The last thing to touch on with Wire is the strange certain uncertainty over the head coach position. Everyone knows that it will be Steve Price's last year. But will that bring added pressure, added uncertainty, added distraction - should there be a bad run of results, will the board think to act sooner, will the players fight for it the same way, whether or not the narrative is nonsense, it will be a constant one whenever Wire lose a couple of games back-to-back.

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Gains:

John Bateman, Jai Field

Losses:

Sean O'Loughlin, Ben Flower, Joe Burgess, Joe Greenwood, Jack Wells, Jake Shorrocks, Chris Hankinson, George Burgess

Last Season:

1st in Super League, Grand Final runner-up

Semi final of Challenge Cup

My take:

Wigan don't have the same sort of experienced champion depth in 2021, what with losing some real winning experience form their squad. The loss of 2020 Sean O'Loughlin may not be felt as acutely as if it had been Lockers of a few years earlier, but it's still a hole to fill, in leadership, experience and quality. John Batemen though is quite some replacement, even if not in the exact same playing role. Here's a player that genuinely is one of the best players in the world game. So it's huge for Wigan to have brought him back. He is the key man because he makes himself the key man in every game he plays, through his will, determination and competitiveness. Something thing Wigan have in abundance this year is options in the spine, with the retention of Bevan French and Jackson Hastings, the deferred retirement of Tommy Leuluai and the signing of Jai Field, who to be fair we don't know for sure how he'll go, plus the very talented young Harry Smith. Now, getting the mix right and creating consistent link ups whilst keeping everyone satisfied is a big challenge for Adrian Lam, so we will have to see if he gets it right. That said, he got it right in 2020 with the big call of putting French at fullback probably being a large part of the reason he earned coach of the year. Wigan have a group of relatively game hardened and very talented young forwards, with 2019 breakout Morgan Smithies and 2020 breakout Ethan Havard leading that group. Wigan probably would like another experienced prop in the mix, but I don't worry too much about their pack depth. This is despite Wigan being another top club that fills out their squad depth with youth - they have the youngest named squad for 2021. Looking at concerns, wing and centre jump out as the area Wigan lack proven depth, after years of trying to fit four top wingers into two wing spots. Yes Jake Bibby offers good cover, but he'll need to start things off with Liam Marshall still on the way back from serious injury. After that, there isn't really any cover, so Sam Halsall and Umyla Hanley will need to become Super League players rather than just Super League prospects this year.

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Thanks for reading. Do make sure you follow us on Twitter & Facebook and look out for our shows.

Mark

SLP

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