Six Super League questions after the end of the 2018 season
By Tom Mordey
Last Updated: 17/10/18 3:20pm
So the Super League season is over and Wigan are the Champions of 2018. They saw off Warrington 12-4 in the Grand Final - the perfect goodbye for Shaun Wane.
While international rugby league now takes centre stage, the Super League coaches will start planning for 2019.
So what are the big six burning issues 2018 has thrown up?
Where next for Wigan?
Five Super League titles now for the men in Cherry and White - that puts them level with St Helens after an emotional victory over the Wolves. And what a send-off it was for the man who orchestrated three of those successes, Wane.
The question is what happens without him? As Wane heads off to prove his skills in rugby union with Scotland, in comes Adrian Lam for 2019. He'll be followed in 2020 by Shaun Edwards. Both know the club, especially Edwards who spent 14 memorable and trophy-laden years with Wigan. And the new order of the day is attack.
If any criticism could be levelled at Wane and his Wigan charges, it's that their brand of rugby isn't entertaining enough. When Wigan fell short in 2017, it was a debate that reared its head loudly. The noise isn't quite so deafening with the Super League trophy in the bag, but Lam has made his intentions quite clear.
He spoke when unveiled of introducing a different style of play. That's all well and good, as long as it delivers the same results as the Wane way. Factor in the departures of Sam Tomkins - a key pivot of this 2018 side - John Bateman - arguably Wigan's best player - plus the powerful Ryan Sutton, and you've got a big rebuilding job on.
Zak Hardaker is the man expected to replace Tomkins, but his recent court case has thrown a spanner in the works. Joe Bullock has joined from Barrow and is rated as one of the best players outside of Super League. And the academy production line continues to produce. If Lam can take the defence Wane has built at the DW Stadium and add a little more fairy dust in attack, the Warriors will be difficult to stop in 2019.
How do Warrington win a Grand Final?
You have to feel for Warrington. Wigan and their departing heroes received all the plaudits, while the Wolves now have the unenviable record of four Grand Final defeats. It's a double blow in 2018 given their Wembley reverse to Catalans in the Challenge Cup Final. But there's no doubt Steve Price and his squad should be proud of their achievements this season.
Warrington had to battle through the Qualifiers in 2017 to secure Super League status and then lost four of their opening six games under Price. They just required a little more attacking sparkle at Old Trafford, and that's where Blake Austin comes in. It hasn't quite worked out for this season's marquee player Tyrone Roberts and he heads back to the Gold Coast Titans for 2019. Big things are again expected from his replacement.
Austin arrives from Canberra Raiders on a three-year deal and is expected to dazzle as the club's new playmaker. Lama Tasi joins from Salford, adding more aggression to the pack and Jason Clark signs from the South Sydney Rabbitohs, a highly respected backrower with a decade of NRL experience under his belt.
Price's squad contains serious quality. He's got the best out of Stefan Ratchford by playing him regularly at full-back, Daryl Clark is back in the England squad thanks to his upturn in form and don't forget Ben Currie will hope to return fit and firing next season. Will they break the Grand Final curse in 2019?
Will Catalans kick on?
What a story Catalans have been in 2018. Last year saw the French club narrowly avoid relegation, winning away at Leigh in the Million Pound Game. And the early months of this season hardly suggested what lay ahead as they lost their opening four games and were still bottom of the table in late April. But the arrival of Josh Drinkwater seemed to spark them into life.
They lost just one of 10 league games in a remarkable upsurge in form, thumping Salford 44-10 to secure a place in the Super 8s. And then came the moment rugby league will never forget. After stunning St Helens in the Challenge Cup semi-final, the Dragons roared into Wembley confident of beating Warrington. Tries from Lewis Tierney, Benjamin Garcia and Brayden Wiliame saw the cup leave British soil for the first time in its 121 year history. So how does Steve McNamara build on that stunning triumph?
The turnover of players, as ever in the south of France, is high. But there are some eye-catching new signings. That of course includes Sam Tomkins, fresh from his Grand Final triumph - how will he fit in? Former teammate Matty Smith joins him, replacing the outgoing Drinkwater. They complement a squad with plenty of talent in already. Will they now kick on and challenge for an Old Trafford appearance?
Will Furner revive Leeds?
You'd have been hard pushed to find anyone that would have predicted Leeds dropping into the Qualifiers for the second time in three years after winning their eighth title in 2017. But it was a terrible 2018 at Headingley. The Rhinos started well, winning at St Helens and Warrington, but a one-point loss to Wigan in April knocked the stuffing out them.
They won just twice more in Super League and were close to disastrous defeats against Widnes and Salford in the Qualifiers that would have shoved Leeds into the Million Pound Game. And don't forget Brian McDermott's mid-season sacking, the timing of which raised a few eyebrows. Kevin Sinfield returned to the club as Director of Rugby, with James Lowes assisting, but it's Australian David Furner who will take up the mantle for 2019.
Long linked with a Super League coaching job, he's taken up a three-year contract at Headingley. Furner was part of Leeds' first Grand Final success in 2004, but he's got work to do to restore such former glories. Furner does have pedigree in the NRL as head coach of Canberra between 2009-13, while more recently taking up the assistant coach job at North Queensland Cowboys and South Sydney Rabbitohs.
The golden generation is officially over at Headingley and having played a part in kicking it off, Furner must decide how to break it up. Tuimoala Lolohea looks a great signing from Wests Tigers, but more change is needed if Leeds and their new coach are to succeed next season.
Will London compete?
What a story. The London Broncos stunned the rugby league world, earning promotion back to Super League by beating Toronto Wolfpack in their own backyard with a 4-2 victory. It was seen as an achievement for the Broncos to even reach the Qualifiers, never mind Super League, finishing above other strong contenders such as Leigh and Featherstone in the Championship regular season. And the inspiration for such a campaign came from a surprising source.
Losing Andrew Henderson to Warrington was a big blow, but Danny Ward stepped up from his assistant position to take his first head coach role, and how he's delivered. Promotion was also secured with a strong core of 'London kids' as Ward called it. There's the star of the Million Pound Game - full back Alex Walker - backrowers Will Lovell and Daniel Hindmarsh, the Nigeria-born Sadiq Adebiyi, while academy product Kieran Dixon returned to the club from Hull KR in 2017.
There's other talent there too: Ward will now hope to hang on to England Knights playmaker James Cunningham, while Jarrod Sammut provides a wily old head in a young side. The club have been allowed by the RFL to stay at the Trailfinders Ground in Ealing despite having less than the required 2,000 seats to play Super League. But the aim is to increase that, avoiding another ground move that's seen them take in Craven Cottage, The Valley, Griffin Park and Twickenham Stoop amongst others.
London's return to Super League could prove a massive bonus to grassroots rugby league, providing up and coming players in the south with a potential pathway to the top level of the sport. The question is - will Danny Ward mastermind a way to keep the club in Super League?
How do Saints change big game mentality?
Sadly for St Helens, 2018 provided an all-too-familiar tale. Regular season domination, but an inability to get the job done when it comes to the crunch. Justin Holbrook's side looked a different animal in the early months of the campaign, sweeping all aside with Australian Ben Barba pulling the strings in a team that looked capable of blowing everybody away.
That came to a shattering halt in August as Catalans took them apart in the Challenge Cup semi-final. Steve McNamara's side were 27-0 up at one point and set the tone for how to play the Saints, bullying them off the pitch to earn a 35-16 win. Further defeats to Huddersfield and Wigan followed in the Super 8s, while Barba's form also wobbled as rumours of a move to the NRL continued to rumble.
In the end, they fell the wrong side of a gripping semi-final against Warrington, out-manoeuvred by Price's side who came to the Totally Wicked Stadium without the pressure of being favourites weighing heavily on their shoulders. For all St Helens' dominance this season, they've only ended up with the League Leaders' Shield, scant consolation for what they could have achieved. The stark truth is St Helens have won one Grand Final since 2006 and that success in 2014 came after Wigan played 78 minutes at Old Trafford with 12 men.
For context, they've won the League Leaders' Shield four times in that period. As for the Challenge Cup, a competition they won four years out of five from 2004 to 2008, they haven't even reached the final since beating Hull FC 28-16 in 2008. Holbrook will have to work out how to pick his players up for 2019 and start again. And then figure out how they start filling the trophy cabinet.