At this time of year, predictions come thick and fast for the upcoming season. This time last year, most pundits and fans were expecting Warrington and Catalans to be challenging for the top four, instead, both suffered the ignominy of the Middle 8s Qualifiers in order to secure their Super League status.
Many were tipping Castleford Tigers to step up a gear from their fifth-placed finish in 2016, and, they did not disappoint in what turned out to be a record-breaking season for the club. Leeds Rhinos were predicted to leave the 2016 horror show behind and challenge once more again for honours whilst Hull FC were once more expected to be hunting for silverware.
Both experienced a stellar 2017 as Grand Final winners and Challenge Cup winners respectively.
Meanwhile, Widnes and Leigh were consigned to the bottom two by fans before the season had even begun. And, although they played their part in another competitive Super League season, the Centurions eventually succumbed to relegation at the hands of Catalans. Here's what could possibly lay in store for the 12 competitors in this year's Super League:
1. St Helens
On the back of a brilliant end to the 2017 season, Saints are hot favourites to be challenging for honours at the end of 2018. Head coach Justin Holbrook was an inspired choice midway through 2017 and the difference was instantly obvious. With the outstanding Ben Barba at full-back, youngsters Morgan Knowles, Luke Thompson and Danny Richardson all making their mark, and controlled around the field by the dynamic James Roby and the astute half-back pairing of Matty Smith and Theo Fages, the Lancashire side are likely to be pushing for top spot come the business end of the season.
2. Leeds Rhinos
Another season completed, another Grand Final victory for the Leeds Rhinos in 2017. Although the Rhinos said goodbye to two legends of the club - Rob Burrow (retiring) and Danny McGuire (Hull KR) - Leeds are still likely to do what Leeds do best - finish near the top of the table and challenge for silverware.
With Richie Myler desperate to regain the form that once made him one of the most exciting half-backs in the game and with a crop of talented and determined youngsters coming to the fore such as barnstorming prop Mikolaj Oledzki, winger Harry Newman and second-rower Josh Jordan-Roberts, 2018 could be yet another bright season for the West Yorkshire club.
3. Castleford Tigers
Although many are predicting the Tigers to flop after a brilliant 2017, they will still be there or thereabouts come the end of the season. Coach Daryl Powell is the best man-manager in the British game and has got his Castleford side fighting for each other, regardless of who takes to the field.
Though full-back Zak Hardaker will be absent in 2018, Powell believes that experienced Samoan, Ben Roberts, can plug the gap at full-back with new signing Jamie Ellis taking Roberts' place in the halves.
This reshuffle could either be inspired or catastrophic. But, if Roberts can stay fit and consistently produce the goods as he did in 2017, it could well be the former. Other new signings James Green and Mitch Clark impressed on Boxing Day whilst Garry Lo has the potential to be a crowd favourite and one of the league's most exciting wingers if he cements his place in a very competitive wing spot. The Tigers will still achieve a top four place, but, they are unlikely to sweep aside most rivals in the fashion that they did in 2017.
4. Hull FC
After back-to-back winning Challenge Cup victories, the Airlie Birds will be determined to make it three on the bounce. And, for the past two seasons, the Challenge Cup has seemingly distracted FC from the potential of a Grand Final - third-placed finishes in 2016 and 2017 shows consistency but the Black-and-Whites have fallen at the play-off semi-final hurdle in both seasons.
Both Gareth Ellis and Mahe Fonua have moved on and the loss of two key, inspirational figures could hit Hull hard though Micky Paea knows the Super League inside out and Bureta Faraimo - Fonua's replacement - looks an exciting prospect. FC will still be up there at the end of the year and should still be in contention for a Grand Final spot come the Super 8s, especially if the Challenge Cup does not distract them.
5. Warrington Wolves
Can they really be as bad as 2017? After being predicted to finish in the top four and be challenging for at least one piece of silverware, the Wolves finished a dismal ninth. An overhaul has since taken place with five signings and nine leaving the club as well as head coach Tony Smith departing after nine seasons at the club.
New head coach Steve Price has his work cut out to make the top four, but with new faces such as Tyrone Roberts and Ben Murdoch-Masila donning a Wire shirt in 2018, a top eight finish should surely be in reach. Warrington will improve, but, it may take a few years of rebuilding before they hit the heights that their fans expect of them.
6. Wigan Warriors
Wigan finished sixth last year and they have done little in the off-season to show that they can improve. Shaun Wane - a head coach that is coming under serious fire from the Warriors' fans for his lack of ideas and boring style of play - could be in trouble if Wigan do not look like reaching the top four.
Though the injuries Wigan suffered in 2017 are unlikely to be repeated in 2018, with only two new signings added to the squad in the shape of the relatively unknown forward Gabriel Hamlin and Dan Sarginson and with Wigan stalwarts Anthony Gelling and Michael McIlorum leaving the club, Wigan fans should not be expecting to challenge the top four come the Super 8s split. Their playmakers - Tommy Leuluai and Sam Tomkins - are past their best and George Williams simply cannot do it on his own.
7. Wakefield Trinity
If Wakefield had kept hold of Director of Rugby John Kear, their place in this list would have been higher. Kear's absence however, will be a huge miss for the West Yorkshire side. Whilst in 2017 head coach Chris Chester won most of the plaudits for Trinity's excellent fifth-placed finish, Kear's influence was pivotal too and Wakefield may well miss the Chester-Kear combination more than people think.
Wakefield have added to their squad with quality with new signings Pauli Pauli and Justin Horo increasing both the size and power of the already formidable Trinity pack. If these two fire on all cylinders, if Tom Johnstone remains injury free, and if Chester can get over the loss of Kear, Trinity could finish higher than seventh, but, that remains a big if.
8. Salford Red Devils
After a phenomenal first 23 rounds in which the Red Devils finished fourth, the Lancashire club disappointed in the Super 8s, eventually ending the season in seventh. Head coach Ian Watson is a fantastic, young English coach and his influence on the side since taking over has been plain to see. However, with the high-profile departure of impressive forward Ben Murdoch-Masila and half-backs Michael Dobson and Todd Carney, Salford's squad is thin on the ground.
And, although new recruit and Fijian international Ben Nakubuwai looks a real gem, the Red Devils' overall recruitment has been underwhelming. Half-back Jack Littlejohn - whom is expected to replace Dobson - has just 21 NRL appearances under his belt despite spending four seasons Down Under. If Salford suffer injuries, they will struggle; stand-off Robert Lui could be the man to scrape the Red Devils into the top eight.
9. Huddersfield Giants
The Giants managed to reach the top eight in 2017, but only by the skin of their teeth - just a point separated themselves and Warrington in ninth. And, over half of their wins in 2017 came when the exciting full-back Jake Mamo was on the field. Though only playing nine times, Mamo scored 12 tries and proved vital to Huddersfield's mid-season charge into the top eight. Mamo - as brilliant as he is - is injury prone and if he should be sidelined once more in 2018, the Giants will struggle.
Huddersfield's recruitment has also been, on the whole, poor, with only Colton Roche (Bradford Bulls) and Adam Walne (Salford Red Devils) joining in the close season. And, although Jordan Rankin and Jordan Turner joined midway through 2017 and possess heaps of talent, it won't be enough to avoid the Middle 8s.
10. Hull KR
Hull KR go into 2018 as the newbies in the top flight following their emphatic promotion from the Championship in 2017. The Robins proved - in the Middle 8s - that they can mix it with Super League sides, finishing third to win automatic promotion. Though they have signed eight-time Grand Final winner Danny McGuire, the lack of genuine quality being added to their squad has caused anxiety amongst many fans. One man does not make a team and as influential as McGuire has been for Leeds over the past decade, he is coming towards the end of his illustrious career.
Mid-season signings Mose Masoe and Justin Carney have plenty of Super League experience, but many of the squad are young with very few top flight games between them. The Robins will not make the top eight, but, under veteran coach Tim Sheens, KR should have enough to once more negotiate the Middle 8s come the end of the regular season.
11. Catalans Dragons
The Dragons should be a top-four side when considering the brilliant structure, organisation, facilities and the levels of investment at the club, yet they were bitterly disappointing in 2017 and only just escaped relegation in the Million-Pound Game against Leigh Centurions. Four signings have made their way to the south of France ahead of the new season: Benjamin Jullien, Samisoni Langi, Antoni Maria and Lewis Tierney - all of whom have hardly broken any pots so far in their Super League careers. The Dragons have also lost Justin Horo, Krisnan Inu and Richie Myler to fellow top flight sides.
If Catalans' recruitment has done little to inspire hope, chairman Bernard Guasch's choice of coach after parting ways with Laurent Frayssinous destroys what little hope remains for Dragons' fans. Steve McNamara won just one of five Super League games whilst in charge of the Dragons towards the back of end of 2017 and won just four from seven in the Middle 8s, finishing in fifth place and having to endure the Million-Pound Game. Nothing in this time suggested that McNamara could change the rot that has set in in Perpignan and nothing has since. Catalans will be in serious danger of relegation this season if McNamara is still at the helm.
12. Widnes Vikings
Every man and his dog are probably predicting Widnes to finish bottom in 2018 as they did so in 2017. But, is there any real surprise? The Vikings have still not replaced Kevin Brown and, although Joe Mellor and Tom Gilmore are talented half-backs, their names on the teamsheet do not exactly fill the opposition with dread.
If 2017 rained injuries for Wigan, it was a torrential downpour for Widnes with the likes of lynchpin Joe Mellor, half-back partner Tom Gilmore, flashy full-back Rhys Hanbury and experienced hooker Aaron Heremaia all facing spells on the sideline.
However, this did yield a positive for Widnes; a number of young stars donned the Widnes shirt, playing with enthusiasm and dedication. For example, hooker Danny Walker and winger Ed Chamberlain certainly did their future prospects no harm whatsoever. And, new PNG recruits - fresh from the World Cup - Kato Ottio and Wellington Albert alongside new signing Krisnan Inu (Catalans Dragons) add considerable size and strength to the Vikings side. However, the Widnes squad is just not experienced enough; fifteen youngsters will have a shirt in 2018. Now, some of these played remarkably well in 2017, but if injuries occur, the Vikings will be relying on teenagers to fill the gaps.
Widnes won't get near the top eight, but once the Middle 8s come around again, they will prove their mettle as they did so in 2017 and secure their top flight status once more. #RugbyLeague #RL #SuperLeague