Super League Big Changes Tour – Part four

Jon Wells

Rugby League Expert

Reigning champions St Helens, and expected title contenders Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves come under the spotlight as Sky Sports pundit Jon Wells concludes his look at the 12 Betfred Super League teams ahead of the 2022 season

Last Updated: 25/11/21 6:02am

Kristian Woolf and St Helens are aiming for a fourth-straight Super League title in 2022

Sky Sports rugby league expert Jon Wells concludes his Big Changes Tour with a look at three of the teams expected to challenge for the Super League title in 2022…

We ended yesterday’s leg of the Big Changes Tour at the AJ Bell Stadium as we ran the rule over the comings and goings at the Salford Red Devils ahead of the 2022 season.

We’ve seen some major shake-ups across Super League, so we’ll make a point of travelling first to the home of the champions to give context once again as to why I think there has been so much movement this off-season.

To McManus Drive then, and the home of the history-makers. St Helens appeared in their 13th Grand Final in October, a record for any Super League club, winning it for the eighth time and for the third consecutive year.

The ‘three-peat’ has only been done once before, and ironically at Saints’ expense, by the Leeds Rhinos in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The dominance of the Rhinos back in the late 2000s led to a step change from both St Helens and the Wigan Warriors at the time; the Grand Final trophy has been held by just these three clubs in the subsequent 12 years.

But, with the emergence of the Catalans Dragons as a genuine and perennial threat to that monopolisation and with St Helens taking a recent stranglehold on that trophy, the rest of the league has been shocked into action.

But before we visit two teams who have genuine title claims, let’s take a peek around the dressing room here at the Totally Wicked Stadium and see what’s going on. Mike Rush is a canny CEO, and he understands the sporting maxim that if you try to stay the same you tend to go backwards.

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Highlights from this year’s Super League Grand Final between Catalans Dragons and St Helens.

Highlights from this year’s Super League Grand Final between Catalans Dragons and St Helens.

They have addressed a number of significant departures with no more than a shrug of the shoulders; the Lachlan Coote and Theo Fages-shaped holes are plugged by wonderkids Jack Welsby and Lewis Dodd respectively, while Harry Sunderland Trophy winner Kevin Naiqama’s retirement is off-set by the arrival of Will Hopoate, with Konrad Hurrell chucked in there, you know, because they can.

James Bell and Curtis Sironen replace Joel Thompson and James Bentley, and then with a final flourish of the chequebook from Eamon McManus, Joey Lussick joins from Parramatta Eels to provide back-up to Super League’s Peter Pan, James Roby.

Like I said back at the start of the week, St Helens are busy building a dynasty here and they’re asking a serious question of the rest of the league in the process: Who is going to challenge us?

We don’t have to travel far for our first raised hand, although we’ll travel east rather than over Billinge Hill for now. Yes, our penultimate stop is the Cheshire town of Warrington, where a club and a coach begin a love affair that has got a lot of people excited.

Daryl Powell is now in charge at Warrington

Long-time Castleford Tigers boss Daryl Powell and Warrington Wolves have seemingly found their perfect matches in one another; a coach and a club with complimentary levels of ambition and resource.

The Wolves feel they have got the man who will elevate the Wolves from nearly-men – speaking in a Super League context – to Grand Final winners, while Powell now has a large cheque book and an enviable roster to mould to his playing style.

That, one would think, is made easier given that two key signings come from the club he has just left, and who know exactly how Powell works, in Oliver Holmes and Peter Mata’utia.

The Wolves need to add a level of consistency to the quality of performance that they are clearly capable of delivering. They have arguably the two best halves in the Super League in George Williams and Gareth Widdop, who will have a full pre-season exposed to the meticulous attention to detail that Powell demands – that’s a scary prospect for any opposition. Be in no doubt, the big change here is Daryl Powell, all else is window dressing.

Gareth Widdop and George Williams form an exciting half-back pairing for Warrington

The only potential fly in the ointment for the Wolves is the timing and seriousness of the injuries subsequently sustained by two other recruits in Greg Minikin and James Harrison (both ACL). That won’t help the Wolves in what is undoubtedly a squad sport these days.

Will this be Warrington’s year? We can weigh up their chances as we put our seatbelts on and punch “Loire Drive” into our sat-nav, because our final destination on the Big Changes Tour is perhaps the most interesting of them all.

Wigan Warriors had a torrid 2021 season. That may seem harsh, given that they finished fourth and made the semi-final. But it was the way the 2021 version of the Warriors played that disappointed everyone, not least themselves – and anyway, when was finishing fourth and making the semi-final ever good enough for Wigan?

They scored fewer points than any other team in Super League bar relegated Leigh Centurions despite playing more games than any other team in Super League in a Covid-impacted 2021.

Wigan endured a disappointing end to the 2021 season

They were nilled on three separate occasions, twice at home, and failed to score a try at home on another occasion when defeated 26-2 by their arch rivals St Helens. That is really damaging for a brand such as the Warriors, where standards and expectations are so high.

So, it is no surprise at all that the Cherry and Whites have taken action. They were always going to lose Jackson Hastings at the end of the season, but the squad balance and planning – certainly from the outside looking in and going right back to the arrival of Jai Field at the beginning of last season – didn’t seem to have any real targeted element to it other than “we can sign X good player, so let’s sign X good player”.

How else do you end up with Jai Field, Jackson Hastings, Bevan French, Zak Hardaker, Thomas Leuluai and Harry Smith all vying for three positions? Adrian Lam was left with the prospect of putting square pegs in round holes in my opinion; for example, Zak Hardaker played in the centres not because his best position was at centre but because he couldn’t be accommodated at full-back due to Bevan French’s ability in that position.

The sum total is this; Jackson Hastings is gone, and Cade Cust joins from the Manly Sea Eagles. While I’m not sure that’s an upgrade, Wigan fans will be happy if that ends up being a like-for-like.

Matty Peet has been promoted to head coach at Wigan

Patrick Mago replaces Joe Bullock, Kade Ellis is in as Tony Clubb retires, Iain Thornley returns to Wigan as Oliver Gildart goes down under and there are a couple of really interesting bits going on with the Warriors renewing their interest in the London Broncos first team – Abbas Miski – and their academy, as Ramon Silva follows the path north most recently trodden by Kai Pearce-Paul. If Silva turns out to have the same scope for development as KPP, that will look like a masterstroke.

Big changes. But none of these signings register in the same way that the news of Shaun Wane’s return to the club as leadership and management director and the highly-regarded Matty Peet being installed as new head coach.

Huge changes – and while change brings opportunity, it also can harbour uncertainty. Wigan, like everyone scrambling to get on terms with St Helens, will hope to maximise the former and mitigate the latter.

And so, our Big Changes Tour comes to an end. All of that change certainly paints a pretty intriguing picture of what is in store for us all in 2022 and the Sky Sports cameras will be there throughout to see who, if anyone, can wrest that crown from St Helens.

Have a safe onward journey and we’ll see you on opening night for Round 1.

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