The shake up caused by the licensing system means 2009 will be one of the most intriguing seasons since Super League began.
With the play-offs being extended to eight teams, everyone believes they have a chance of making the end of season party. Even new boys Salford will harbour hopes of a top eight finish, although it is probably far too early for Celtic to start thinking about that. Their first few seasons will no doubt be all about bringing players through and increasing their profile in South Wales.
But even at the top, the gap is getting closer between St Helens and Leeds, the two sides that have dominated the competition in recent years, and the rest. Wigan and Warrington will go in to the season with optimism, hoping that they can disrupt the monopoly at the top. Hull will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing league campaign in 2008 to sustain a similar challenge to the one that saw them reach the Grand Final in 2006.
Those five, plus Bradford, are probably the favourites to reach the play-offs, but the other two spots are well and truly up for grabs. There’s not much to choose between Castleford, Wakefield and Huddersfield on paper, but Hull KR will be the ones who fancy their chances of making the step up for a finals berth. Justin Morgan has established Rovers as a steady Super League team, and they will be looking to kick on and make a challenge this season.
The progress of Catalans as an expansion side will perhaps take a back seat owing to the inclusion of Celtic Crusaders, as well as the presence of Toulouse in the Championship, and Kevin Walters has a job on his hands to replicate the success on the pitch enjoyed by Mick Potter. Catalans have a lot to live up to, and they will surely be happy with a top eight spot this season.
That leaves Harlequins, who have recruited from the lower leagues, putting a lot of pressure on Brian McDermott to come up with a system that will suit his players and pick up points. Quins are perhaps an example of a typical franchise team – based in an expansion area, increasing youth participation, and bringing through plenty of young English lads, and giving them a chance in the top flight. There are a number of players, such as Mick Nanyn, who have impressed in the lower leagues in recent years that have finally got their chance in Super League, and they will want to take it with both hands.
With no fear of relegation, every club will enter the season with the priority of reaching the play-offs. The competitiveness of the league will reach new heights this season, and the chase for the top eight could prove the most entertaining battle of the Super League era.
Who needs promotion and relegation?
[i]You can read this column in this Sunday’s matchday programme for the Leigh Centurions versus Wigan Warriors game. Last Tackle columns will feature in all Leigh programmes for the second consecutive season.[/i]