The new Super League season kicks off the major rugby leagues for 2022 on February 10 (Friday morning in Australia), ensuring there’s enough time to complete a massive schedule to maintain pie and pint revenues before crashing straight into the World Cup. For the first time, I have player data for Super League – or at least what passes for the SL dataset – so here’s the season preview treatment that the NRL would normally get.
Coronavirus is the short answer, which played havoc all through 2021. The other short answer is St Helens, who won a third straight title. They were stiffly challenged by Catalans, who won the League Leader’s Shield at a trot and lost the grand final by only two points. The rest of the league were content to trip over themselves with Warrington, Wigan and Leeds only finishing a win behind Saints but seemingly never in contention, as the ease with which they were dispatched in the post-season demonstrated.
Leigh, one of the worst Super League sides of all time, finished last and were relegated on a 2-20 record and should never have been promoted in the first place.
I had more post-season takes in the The Year in Rugby League Football, 2021.
How it all works
These posts rely on a lot of jargon that I’ve made up which suits my analytics tools but is often dense and hard to parse. If that’s you, please visit this guide on what each stat means. Also, there’s 1500 words of context around what statistics do and don’t mean at the end.
Teams that outperform their Pythagorean expectation in 2021 (more actual wins than 1st order wins) should expect underperformance in 2022 and vice versa. Wins in 2021 are calculated on the number of regular season games played by each club, while wins in 2022 are estimated based on a 27 game regular season. 2nd order wins are used as a “projected wins” for 2022 as it has some predictive power but is based on 2021’s metres and breaks made and does not account for roster changes. Historical statistics are based on Super League (division 1) from 1996 to 2021, the Championship and League 1 (divisions 2 and 3 respectively) from 2003 to 2021 and Challenge Cup results from round 3 on for teams included in the above league seasons. Rismans are not everything and the Engine is selected to reflect the players creating the majority of the production units with a minimum of five games in the dataset (note: not all games had stats recorded). There’s no player data for Toulouse. Transfers in/out are as per Wikipedia on 5 February.
The main mechanism of assessment, in conjunction with the numbers, is to look at each club’s strengths, weaknesses and their opportunities for improvement and see what changes have been made in the off-season that might signal a move up or down the ladder, barring unforeseen disasters, like injuries, bankruptcy or global pandemics.
The Tigers have been on the downard swing since their stunning 2017 season. After finishing runners-up and winning the League Leader’s Shield, Castleford followed up with a third, then fifth, then ninth and bouncing back slightly to seventh last year. This was somewhat offset by a deep run in the Challenge Cup to the final, before meeting the red, immovable object.
Their 11-12 record in 2021 was a bit optismitic as a reflection of actual performance and they’re on track for similar again this year. On the other hand, it’s hard to see any of the clubs behind them making any real gains, as Toulouse, Salford and Wakefield are likely to remain welded to the bottom. Tigers will probably miss the finals again, just, but should be safe from relegation. If new coach Lee Radford can improve on that, he’s playing with house money.
Jake Mamo is a great pick up, one of only three players to exceed 50 Rismans per game in 2021. The other notable gains are Bureta Faraimo and Mahe Fonua, both formerly of Hull’s engine. The losses aren’t too devastating, although will necessarily mean a loss of experience and cohesion. Overall, it’s probably an improvement but the Tigers will need to pounce on any mistakes made by their immediate rivals to find themselves in the top half of the table.
Assessment: premiership outsiders
I’ve seen too much of the Dragons promising things and not delivering, and too much of the rigidity of English rugby league, to really believe that anyone other than the big three can win the whole damn thing. I basically won’t believe they can win the grand final until after the final whistle has gone with the Dragons in front. I refuse to get my hopes up otherwise.
Having said that, Catalans were the real deal last year but their 19 win season had a points difference that looked more like a 17 win season. While that doesn’t sound dramatic, St Helens’ .840 Pythagorean win expectation massively exceeded Catalans’ .739. It seems both good luck for the Dragons and bad luck for Saints (and cowardice from Penrith) was the only thing keeping the big red vee from winning every single trophy in 2021.
Having said that, the side sees the departure of James Maloney to continue semi-retirement at Lezignan, and few other major changes. Indeed, Maloney had a fairly minimal role in the Dragon’s success. He will be replaced by Dylan Napa, Mitchell Pearce and Tyrone May. At least two of those probably could’ve de-based themselves for a cheap NRL contract but when the money is good in the south of France, not many say no. The challenge, as ever, will be getting these guys to actually try hard to make up the regression that the Pythagorean expectation is indicating is on the cards. If Steve McNamara can do that, then Catalans will be in the mix again.
Assessment: moving up
The Giants look good for a 13-14 or 14-13 season, depending on how the cards fall. Last season was something of a disappointment, winning only 37.5% of their games when they should have been closer to 50% by SCWP. Injuries to star half, Aidan Sezer, didn’t help as a league-average defence was undermined by an attack that was two points per game off the pace of the average team.
The biggest change on the recruitment front will be losing the same star half to Leeds. The gains of Theo Fages and Tui Lolohea from St Helens and Salford, respectively, should cover this gap quite nicely. I’m reasonably optimistic that once they settle into their new roles and, presuming they stay in form and on the field, that should bridge the attacking gap and get the Giants into the mix with the Tigers on the periphery of finals places. I do worry that both McGillvary and Leutele are on the wrong side of 30 and whether they can sustain their output.
The last seven seasons have seen Hull finish third twice, sixth twice and eighth three times. 2021 was an example of the latter and, thanks to a noticeably shorter season than their colleagues, 8.5 wins was enough for eighth place. I think it would be fair to describe it as a disappointment nonetheless. Mentally, I have Hull pegged in the group that should be consistently chasing the big three and capitalising when they fail. They not only failed to capitalise, they fell further off the pace. Maybe that’s on me.
Kane Evans is a so-so import, having accumulated only 3.3 wins above reserve grade form 2014 to 2021, and may be the kind to have a decent showing but I’ll be surprised if he blows the doors off the competition. There’s not a huge amount to write home about, barring the two aforementioned transfers to Cas. Based on their Pythagorean expectation and second order wins, we should probably expect the black-and-whites to still be there or thereabouts but they don’t look as sharp as the other fringe candidates for a finals place.
Hull KR were the surprise packets of the 2021 season. In 2020, they were only spared relegation due to the Wolfpack falling apart and finished in last (eleventh) place with an abysmal 3-14. That turned into a respectable 10-10 campaign last season. Even better, they showed more resilience than Leeds, Wigan and Warrington combined in the post-season and were an outside chance of a fairy tale grand final appearance. It was a good year.
Can they do it again? I think so. There’s some good pieces already in the lineup and they’ll be joined by four-time premiership winner and 31 year old, Lachlan Coote. He seems like a good acquisition, although tempering that by acknowledging that if St Helens were willing to let him go, then we might be seeing him eke out the last few joules his body has to offer. He’ll replace the retired Adam Quinlan, which should see a net upgrade in Risman output. Whatever luck turned Rovers’ way last year, they earned and they should maintain it with the roster they have.
Assessment: premiership outsider
Leeds did enough to make the finals in 2021, knocked off Wigan and then were promptly eliminated from contention by St Helens. It was hardly up to the lofty standards of the Rhinos franchise. They underperformed their Pythagorean expectation, so we should expect more of them this year and look slightly better on this season’s second order wins projection.
I really like the acquisitions of Sezer, Austin and Fusuitu’a. At least two of them should still be in the NRL – god knows why the Dolphins haven’t at least given them a call – so that is a huge boost at the Super League level. This is offset by a long list of losses, including Robert Lui (astonishingly, heading back to the NRL) and Konrad Hurrell, but the net flux in Rismans suggests its mostly upside for the Rhinos. Given the improved squad and the forecast of a marginally better performance, that could be enough to lift Leeds into the conversation, even if outright contention is a bit too far.
Assessment: relegation outsider
Last season was not great. Salford were third and runners-up just three years ago. Two years ago, they were able to paper over a poor regular season with a loss in the Challenge Cup final. Neither of these highlights eventuated in 2021. The loss of 2019 Man of Steel, Jackson Hastings, is still being felt.
Concerningly, 2021’s record of 7-15 was roughly reflective of both the Red Devils’ Pythagorean expectation and 2nd order wins, so there can be little hope of statistical aberrations explaining the performance. It’s real. At least on the roster front, the losses are manageable. Lolohea’s move to Huddersfield means finding a new half. However, when you consider the gains, you really have to wonder if that’s going to be a net benefit –
Have fun with that, Salford fans. New coach Paul Rowley will have his work cut out for him trying to get Croft to actually go to the line.
Assessment: premiership favourites
Why would you bet against St Helens? We’re surely on the verge of Kristian Woolf getting a NRL gig for 2023 (there could be as many as half a dozen openings), following and hopefully exceeding Justin Holbrook. Until then, it’s the same team with the same coaching with the same infrastructure with the same fans. There’s no need to change a winning formula.
The natural churn of rugby league transfers will have its say though. St Helens loses both its talismanic fullback in Lachlan Coote, as well as its long-time French five-eighth (or “stand off”) in Theo Fages. My gut feel is Saints know they’ve gotten the best out of these two and the salaries don’t justify keeping them on. Kevin Naiqama has also had a relatively surprising call-up to the NRL, which is perhaps a larger loss.
Never mind though, because Saints have recruited Joey Lussick, Konrad Hurrell and Curtis Sironen. While they’re not the biggest names in NRL circles, they’ll do the job. Lussick, in particular, has a great opportunity to learn from one of the best in the game, presumably as Roby transitions to retirement, after assembling some minutes at Parramatta. Hurrell will fill the gap left by Naiqama, perhaps not as ably but well enough. They’ll be fine.
Assessment: relegation favourite
Toulouse Olympique have been promoted in Leigh’s place and already struggling due to France’s mandatory vaccination requirements leading to up to four dipshit Australian veterans, who have worked to get the club from the French system to the major leagues, leaving rather than get the jab like the rest of the world has.
Olympique have made some signings, including three players from the deceased 0-6 Wolfpack, which do not inspire any confidence in them retaining their place in Super League in 2023. Despite a total domination of the Championship in 2021 and finishing thirteenth best rugby league club in the world, it’s going to take either a miracle or a total restructure of the sport in favour of a foreign team, which is a tautology.
We can still look forward to a couple of French derbies while we have them.
Asessment: relegation outsider
Wakefield have been a relegation candidate for each of the last few seasons and still manage to scrape by. Even when London managed ten wins in 2019, Trinity pipped them at the post and consigned the Broncos to the dustbin of history. Wakefield were never in real danger of dropping down in 2021, even though it took until round 7 to secure their first win, the two that followed immediately were enough to avoid the drop.
The good news is that Toulouse are odds-on favourites to go back down. The other good news is that they underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by enough that we should expect a little overperformance this year. The bad news is if Olympqiue get their act together, it will be the tricolours and maybe the Devils in the likely firing line. It’s a delicate dance every season and Wakefield need only be really unlucky once to bite the bullet.
With Tom Johnstone sticking around, probably everything else will take care of itself. But certainly there hasn’t been the kind of turnover in players to justify any sort of optimism. Only Willie Poching, replacing Chris Chester as coach, can do that. Poching has a decent track record but it’s his first head gig. Only time will tell.
Assessment: moving up
Does Peter Mata’uita cover the loss of Jake Mamo at centre? The Rismans don’t seem to think so and Mata’uita is several years Mamo’s senior. It might not matter with Billy Magoulias, winner of both a NSW Cup and NRL State Championship in consecutive weeks off the back of his own chip and chase, coming in to the side to add some flair. Blake Austin is another big name loss, but I don’t think there’s room for him in a squad that already features Williams and Widdop.
Indeed, the key for the Wolves in 2022 is getting the most out of their key playmakers. Their Pythagorean expectation indicated that their 15-5-1 record was a reasonable reflection of their actual ability but their second order wins (projecting 16+ wins for 2022) and their league topping production as measured by Rismans, suggests there was a lot of points left on the table. New coach Daryl Powell will have his work cut out for him. Still, there’s nothing to really hate and I’d peg them between Leeds and Wigan.
The end of Adrian Lam’s tenure, the only Warriors coach to not win a premiership in the 2010s, should bring much needed renewal. The 15 win season flattered to deceive and the summary 8-0 execution from Leeds, who were in turn executed 36-8 by St Helens the following week, is a more accurate reflection of a season filled with uncharacteristic malaise. Whether Matt Peet – who does not have a Wikipedia article – can be the wellspring of a newfound enthusiasm for a squad littered with Super League’s top names remains to be seen.
In come a string of foreign reinforcements, including Kaide Ellis, Patrick Mago and Cade Cust. The latter is an excellent signing for a player who racked up the Taylors in his time in the NRL, however, after a bright start in 2019 and 2020, his star waned with a far less captivating effort in 2021 and has had to find employment overseas. If Wigan can find that spark again, they’ll have picked up a bargain. I’m less convinced by Mago and Ellis.
Oliver Gildart and Jackson Hastings are big losses. Although I don’t particularly rate the ability of the latter, the scene of devastation at Salford since his departure doesn’t necessarily speak volumes, but is at least suggestive of the existence of those volumes. Gildart is certified and we’ll see if he makes the successful transition to the NRL as an English back.
I’m only really picking the Warriors to stay stationary because of institutional inertia and there seem to be so few teams coming up behind them but I think they have a less compelling argument, especially under a new coach, for success than those around them. Both Hull KR and Huddersfield should be eyeing off Wigan’s playoff place.