Wigan and St Helens set to continue dominance as Super League prepares for seismic change

The wind of change swept through Super League last season as St Helens saw their four-year status as domestic top dogs brought to an end by Matt Peet’s resurgent Wigan Warriors and “reimagination” became the buzzword on everybody’s lips.

If Saints’ memorable World Club Challenge win over Penrith that kicked off the 2023 campaign did not exactly explode the sport’s established order, it certainly helped tilt its axis slightly more in the direction of the northern hemisphere.

The beginning of the sport’s long-term ‘strategic partnership’ with IMG, along with recent announcements of ground-breaking new broadcast deals with Sky and the BBC, has also fostered a real mood of optimism ahead of the 2024 campaign, which kicks off with the Hull derby at the MKM Stadium on Thursday night.

Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. Saints and Wigan, the two giants from the west end of the so-called M62 corridor, appear more likely than ever to be wrestling for the top spot at the end of the season, underscoring their dominance of the domestic game.

At the other end of the table, London Broncos face the farcical situation of knowing their fate – relegation – before the first ball has been booted, an unfortunate consequence of the very IMG grading system that has been set up to support aspiring clubs from beyond the traditional heartlands.

They are timely reminders that it will take more than a magic wand to re-think the scope of a sport that even the biggest cynics of its partnership with IMG acknowledge requires radical change if it is to continue to thrive into future generations.

The upcoming season begins with plenty of tantalising talking points on the pitch, led by the strength of Saints’ response to being knocked off their perch as they prepare to start life without the talismanic James Roby.

St Helens start life after James Roby, who has retired

(Getty Images)

Peet’s Wigan were clearly the best team in 2023 and they are arguably in even better shape for the defence of their trophy, having landed ex-Leeds Rhinos pair Kruise Leeming and Sam Walters as well as centre Adam Keighran from Catalans Dragons.

Their duel threatens to leave the others trailing, with last year’s Grand Final runners-up Catalans – shorn of their own talisman in Sam Tomkins following retirement – looking a little short of mustering a repeat performance in the south of France.

Leeds Rhinos are certainly heading the right direction, writing the biggest headline in the off-season with the signing of Salford’s former Man of Steel Brodie Croft, and while another play-off failure is unthinkable, Rohan Smith’s men require more time before they can truly be classed as contenders again.

Sam Burgess brings a mountain of unknowns into his first head coach role at Warrington, while plenty of questions can also be asked about the ability of Hull KR to build on their promising 2023 season in light of the unexpected exits of Jordan Abdull and assistant coach Danny McGuire.

Dual code international Sam Burgess has signed a two-year deal as Warrington head coach

(PA Archive)

Adrian Lam’s Leigh, more or less intact from their stunning first season back in the top flight, stand as good a chance as anyone else of muscling in on an end of season play-off berth, while Hull, Huddersfield and the post-Croft Salford can only realistically eye improvement.

Castleford hope the appointment of Craig Lingard, after so many seasons beating the odds at Championship Batley, can help them exceed pretty low-key expectations that have them simply holding off hapless London for 11th spot.

The Broncos, unfortunately, find themselves reduced to being collateral damage in the quest for change – dumped in a vicious circle that leaves them understandably reluctant to invest to give themselves a shot when they know that shot has already effectively been fired.

At the end of this coming campaign, irrespective of where they finish, and barring only an unlikely announcement of wholesale restructuring for 2025, London will be relegated, and replaced by the second-tier club that ticks the most boxes on the IMG scoresheet.

It is a bitter blow for a club that fought so brilliantly to win back-to-back play-off games against Featherstone and Toulouse, and one from which it begs the question whether rugby league in the capital will ever recover.

The Broncos plight serves as a timely reminder that for all the justifiable optimism and shared excitement in an IMG-driven future, there is an awful long way to go before rugby league can truly be said to have snared an expansive new audience.

Forget the M62 corridor, for all the talk of “reimagination” and expansion, the 2025 Super League season looks set to be played out within a contracted area of its traditional heartland: between the two giants straddling either end of the eight-mile long A571.

PA