Toulouse, TV deal and a World Cup to follow: Super League 2022 is here | Aaron Bower
Whisper it quietly, but for the first time in a good few years there is genuine optimism in rugby league ahead of what could be a seminal year for Super League. Few sports suffered quite like league did throughout the early stages of the pandemic, a point underlined by the publication of club accounts over the winter that showed monumental losses running into the millions for some of the biggest clubs.
But, cautiously, that period appears to be behind us and Super League 2022 provides a chance to lay a positive platform for this year’s rescheduled World Cup. There are no shortage of stories to pick through too, with numerous clubs embarking on a new era, the opportunity for the competition to be shown on free-to-air television for the first time and the arrival of a second French club.
Make no mistake, Toulouse Olympique face an uphill challenge to extend their stay in Super League beyond one season. They have been engulfed by Covid-related issues over the winter, culminating in the departure of their captain and talisman, Johnathon Ford. However, Sylvain Houles’ team will add colour and more continental vibrancy to the competition alongside fellow French side Catalans, and the prospect of a first all-French derby this summer is one to savour.
Before that though, there is another line-in-the-sand moment for Super League. Sky Sports have been loyal and lucrative partners for the competition since its inception in 1996, but there is little doubting that the platform Channel 4’s new broadcast deal provides has the opportunity to open previously unthinkable doors. Their arrangement to cover 10 games a season begins this weekend, when Leeds host Warrington in a fascinating clash between title contenders.
It can only be good for rugby league that multiple broadcasters want to show domestic action, be it the BBC’s long-standing coverage of the Challenge Cup or Channel 4 muscling in on Super League. With the comedian Adam Hills leading the coverage on the commercial broadcaster, there is also an opportunity for huge crossover and for new supporters to be exposed to what Super League can offer in terms of entertainment. That, in turn, increases the pressure on the stars of the competition to deliver.
Warrington’s trip to Headingley on Saturday is the first match of a new era for the club after turning to Daryl Powell to try and end the Wolves’ 66-year wait for a league title. Powell, previously the coach of Castleford for nine seasons, will bring his attractive brand of rugby to a club desperate for success – but they are one of several sides who face a battle to clamber past last season’s leading lights.
It is somewhat ominous for the likes of Leeds, Warrington and Wigan – who also have a new coach in Matty Peet, a former junior player who has worked his way through the coaching ranks – that both reigning champions St Helens and last season’s beaten finalists Catalans appear to have become even stronger. The Dragons have brought in State of Origin superstar Mitchell Pearce and retained the majority of the squad that took them to a maiden Grand Final last year.
St Helens have undergone an overhaul of the squad that delivered three consecutive titles, with the likes of Lachlan Coote, Theo Fages and James Bentley all departing. It is to their credit they have replaced two of those with homegrown talents, including Jack Welsby, who will make a compelling case for inclusion in England’s World Cup squad as he succeeds Coote at full-back following his departure to Hull Kingston Rovers.
The strength of the top two makes the rest of the chasing pack’s job difficult – and the challenge for those who stuttered throughout 2021 even more arduous. That does not mean there is a shortage of subplots, however. For instance, how will the two Hull clubs fare after contrasting seasons last year? FC badly underperformed and limped their way to the finish, while Rovers defied expectations to finish in the play-off places and look to have strengthened again.
At the bottom, Toulouse start as favourites to go down, but if they can make their Stade Ernest Wallon home a fortress, they stand a chance of survival. Expect the likes of Wakefield Trinity and Salford Red Devils to be their realistic relegation rivals.
And all of that is before you bring the intrigue of the World Cup into play. If England can fulfil expectations in October and November, and Super League’s move to terrestrial television is a hit, we could be looking at a very different sport this time next year. Sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s bound to be thrilling.