New season countdown: Squad depth key in what promises to be a hectic 2021 Super League campaign
After experiencing almost 10 months of uncertainty and upheaval in 2020, Super League clubs are strapping themselves in for another rollercoaster ride.
It is to be hoped the players made the most of the longest pre-season of the summer era because 2021 promises to be another epic journey into the unknown.
A delayed start caused by the lockdown, allied to the need to wrap up the domestic season in time for the World Cup, makes for a hectic schedule.
With clubs reluctant to lose more than one home game, it has been decided to cram 25 rounds of the regular season into 22 weeks which creates the obvious need for regular midweek fixtures, a prospect Castleford coach Daryl Powell called “hellish” for players.
So stamina as much as star quality could be the determining factor behind the destination of the title and it is no surprise that clubs have significantly bulked up their squads.
That could play into the hands of St Helens, Wigan and Leeds, who can reap the rewards for establishing production lines of talent. All three provided a glimpse into the future in 2020 and will dip more confidently into their depth of reserves this year.
Injuries have already started to bite deep, with Leeds set to start the season without four first-choice players and Wigan set to kick off without a specialist winger.
Nevertheless, the Warriors are sure to be in the mix come October, even without the talismanic Sean O’Loughlin, and it is hard to look beyond Saints battling it out with their bitter rivals for the big prize once more.
After posting back-to-back Grand Final victories, St Helens are now aiming to become only the second Super League club to complete a hat-trick.
Leeds hold the record for most consecutive victories, from 2007-09, and they have ambitions of returning to those halycon days.
The capture of dual-code international Kyle Eastmond has given the Rhinos an X-factor but their best signing could be that of another rugby union returnee, Sean Long, their new assistant coach who promises to add a cutting edge to the team’s attack.
Warrington fans will be hoping the arrival of Greg Inglis, the most high-profile addition to Super League XXVI, can help them break their Grand Final duck while Hull and Huddersfield are banking on the appointment of new head coaches to turn them into a major force.
Brett Hodgson, who has succeeded local lad Andy Last at Hull FC, is sampling his first role as a head coach but he has served an impressive apprenticeship while, after working wonders on a shoestring budget at Salford, Ian Watson will revel in the opportunity to help big-spending Huddersfield achieve their lofty ambitions.
Catalans Dragons coach Steve McNamara has a slimmed-down squad to wrestle with, as well as the well-documented travel difficulties, so it is difficult to see them making the breakthrough in 2021.
The decision to go with a top six play-off should be enough to keep both Catalans and Castleford interested but for the rest it could be a case of making sure they finish above Leigh, the hot favourites for relegation.