Warrington Wolves have never won the Grand Final in rugby league but are favourites to win that elusive title after losing in the final for the last two years. Salford City Reds finished bottom last season but after significant investment can now be backed at just 12/1 to win Super League X1X. Wigan embark on a new season without Sam Tomkins so how they fare in defending the trophies they won last season will provide one of the subplots for the 2014 season.
The first raft of fixtures take place this weekend. Due to their commitment to play in the World Club Challenge Wigan began their campaign last Friday night. However, the opening fixture of the season could not have gone worse for Wigan as they lost at home to Huddersfield Giants. The new season culminates with the Grand Final at Old Trafford in October.
The sport in Great Britain received a boost from the World Cup. Group matches were spread around the country and reasonable ticket prices meant most matches were well attended. Supporters of all the Super League clubs were able to see live a World Cup match and that can only be good for the sport. Australia were the best team and worthy winners.
The final at Old Trafford established a record for the biggest crowd for an international rugby league match. More than 95% of the crowd were neutral and disappointed that England were not playing. They lost agonisingly to New Zealand in the semi-final. The match in Manchester would have been a greater occasion with England playing but after 20 minutes the atmosphere would have dropped as Australia looked unbeatable on the day.
There are 14 teams in the Super League. Each team plays 27 games between February and September, 13 home and 13 away and a Magic Weekend game at a neutral venue. At the end of the season eight teams qualify for the play-offs which culminate in the Grand Final, usually at Old Trafford, the home on Manchester United Football Club. The Super League champions play the winners of the Australasian National Rugby League in the World Club Challenge.
St Helens won the first Super League in 1996. In that year and the following one there were no play-offs and Grand Final so the team at the top of the table at the end of the regular season were the champions. St Helens have since won four Grand Finals but lost five of these matches, four times against Leeds Rhinos. That side have won five of the last seven finals while Bradford Bulls and Wigan Warriors have each won three in total.
The structure and regulations of the Super League will change in 2015. The 2013 Annual General Meeting passed a reduction in the number of teams to 12 and the return of promotion and relegation. Teams will play each other on a home and away basis with the top eight qualifying for the post-season. The other four sides will feature in play-offs with the top four sides from the Championship and they will determine which sides are promoted and relegated.
Salford will be looking to stay in the Super League and have even higher ambitions. The club is now owned by racehorse owner, Marwan Koukash, who is determined to make Salford the biggest ruby league club in the world. He has invested in the stadium and players and appointed Brian Noble, one of the best coaches in the sport. Koukash is ambitious and will be driven to make this project a success.
Adrian Morley is an experienced player who has been successful in the NRL and Super League. His ability and know-how will be vital if Salford are to qualify for the play-offs. The financial investment warrants a top eight finish and the players know finishing in the bottom four will be seen as a poor season. Salford are located near the centre of Manchester and have a huge conurbation from which to attract a decent number of supporters.
Warrington have made the last two Grand Finals despite not being league leaders in the regular season. Long term captain Lee Briers has retired and several players on the periphery of the squad have also moved on. However, they have also invested in some proven talent as they strive to win that elusive first Grand Final. Their Australian coach, Tony Smith, stays in charge it can only be a positive when a coach in great demand decides not to move on.
Wigan won the lot last season but have lost their best player in Tomkins. The highest paid player in Super League history has moved to the New Zealand Warriors in the NRL who have doubled his salary to entice him away from Wigan. Tomkins will be missed but Wigan have enough strength to win the Grand Final again in October.