New Faces, Returning Heroes and a Legend: Assessing the Biggest Player Moves Ahead of Super League 2021
That’s the number of career appearances that departed Super League at the end of the 2020 season with the retirements of Wigan’s Sean O’Louhghlin (457), St Helen’s James Graham (474), Hull FC’s Gareth Ellis (477), Danny Brough’s (496) departure to Bradford Bulls and Remi Casty (349) ending his 14-year association with Catalan Dragons. That’s the equivalent of six entire Super League seasons of experience evaporating. It’s going to leave a significant void across dressing rooms as the new season gets underway on 26th March 2021.
With COVID-19 having such a significant financial impact on the game as a whole, clubs are also going to need to be stricter with squad sizes and their use of the salary cap in 2021. The effect is already clear to see when looking at off-season player movement. Clubs have brought in just four-and-a-half players on average compared to releasing just shy of eight players. This includes Hull FC, Hull KR and Wigan Warriors who have shipped out 12 players each.
With teams only replacing half of those players they’ve lost with new signings; Super League clubs will be focusing on their academies to provide players to fill out their 19-man squads.
Super League teams gave a total of 1,612 minutes – an average of just over five games – to Under-21 players in the 2020 season. It will be no surprise to see that number grow in 2021. Players such as Jack Welsby and Morgan Smithies were more than squad fillers for St. Helens and Wigan Warriors last season, making significant impacts for the two Grand Finalists. And there is a growing list of local young talent looking to have the same effect on their sides this season.
Most Minutes Given To U21 Players — Super League XXV:
|Jack Welsby||19||Outside Back||St. Helens||1,200|
|Morgan Smithies||20||Back Row||Wigan Warriors||878|
|Jake Trueman||21||Half-Back||Castleford Tigers||863|
|Harry Newman||20||Outside Back||Leeds Rhinos||818|
|Will Dagger||21||Outside Back||Hull KR||800|
In most years, the off-season talk is of the players Super League has lost to the NRL, with a consistent exodus of the brightest young British players wanting to test their skills on the fast tracks of Australia and New Zealand. However, in recent seasons the conversation has shifted back to Super League being the site for rejuvenating some of the NRL’s most mercurial talents.
Over the past three seasons, Super League has seen the introduction of four dynamic playmakers who have all immediately become Man of Steel contenders with Ben Barba (St. Helens – 2018) and Jackson Hastings (Salford – 2019) picking up the award and Blake Austin (Warrington) and Bevan French (Wigan) pushing them close in their first years.
Since 2018 these players have brought significant attacking flair to the league. The below graphic shows that the quartet are all in the top 20 try scorers for players in those core creative positions (hooker, half-back and full-back). Also, look at the % of their touches that result in either tries or assists. It’s the combination of those two assets that sets them apart.
Man of Steel Candidates:
|Player||% of Attacking Touches resulting in Tries||Position Rank||Tries||Rank|
At the time of writing, 17 players have been imported from the NRL going into the 2021 season with Castleford and Leigh the only teams who haven’t picked from that talent pool. Super League 2021 sides appear to have found prospects with a real mix of skill sets and experience to add to their clubs.
Let’s go through some of the most notable arrivals.
Only Hull KR finished last season with fewer tries than Huddersfield and Wakefield in 2020 and both those teams are looking to youth for a creative spark in the half-back spots in 2021.
Wakefield have brought in Mason Lino from Newcastle Knights to add to their primary pairing of Jacob Miller and Ryan Hampshire who combined for 10 try assists last season. Jack Cogger, who ranked third in try assists (12) and tries (7) by half-backs last season, will join up with fellow NRL export Aiden Sezer at Huddersfield. As those two sides look to climb up the attacking rankings, Wigan have also added more firepower to their second-ranked try-producing back line. It’s a back line that already includes nine-try-man Jackson Hastings, but the arrival of Jai Field from the Parramatta Eels will add firepower there, as well as Field being the potential successor to Thomas Leulai.
NRL Career Statistics:
|Player||NRL Team||Games||Try Assists||Line Break Assists|
|Jack Cogger||Canterbury Bulldogs||42||12||9|
|Mason Lino||Newcastle Knights||34||9||7|
|Jai Field||Parramatta Eels||17||0||1|
The Veteran Impact
At the other end of the spectrum, a more experienced group of NRL performers has landed at Super League training grounds this year looking to either imbue their vast experience to their new clubs or, in some cases, revitalise their Rugby League careers.
Hull FC have the tough task of replacing Albert Kelly who scored 161 points over three seasons for the Black & White’s after crossing the East/West divide from Hull KR in 2017. Kelly was Hull’s second-most creative player in 2020 with seven try assists behind Jake Connor’s 16. New signing Josh Reynolds brings in attacking prowess: he’s scored 44 tries in 160 NRL games. But it’s his abrasive defence that will be immediately obvious to fans at the KCOM. Since 2013 in the NRL, Reynolds has made the third-most tackles by a five-eighth with 1,932, at an average of 18 per game.
While one Yorkshire side added experience at half-back, two of the others in Leeds and Hull KR are hoping to leverage the impact that two players had as interchanges in the NRL. Zane Tetevano and Korbin Sims carved out a clear impact role for their sides as ball-carrying, offensive weapons up the middle.
Since 2013, only one player had more carries off the bench than Tetevano and as part of the 2020 Grand Finalist Panthers team he had the third-most carry metres by an interchange player. Hull KR are hoping they get a similar impact from attack-minded Sims who over those seven seasons had 13 line breaks (second-most) and 12 tries (third-most) by an interchange player in the NRL.
The dynamic talent joining Super League in 2021 looks set to be an interesting group to watch as they fulfil various roles with their new sides.
However, there are three players who really catch the eye for different reasons.
The New Face — Sione Mata’utia
Zeb Taia etched his name into Saints folklore with his 2019 Grand Final try. Since 2017, he has led a dynamic and powerful back row that has ranked first in tackles made and third for carries in Super League during that time. At the age of 35, Taia was still having a significant impact for the 2020 Grand Final-winning side, ranking second in carries and metres among back rowers, contributing three tries along the way. His departure back to Australia leaves a sizeable hole for Saints to fill.
So, in steps Sione Mata’utia. Nearly 12 years Taia’s junior, Mata’utia already has a distinguished CV. He became the youngest Kangaroo — aged 18 — in 2014, and at 20 a Newcastle Knights captain.
Mata’utia joins not only his brother Peter (Castleford Tigers) in Super League but his former coach Kristian Woolf at the Saints. Woolf described him as a dynamic player that would not only provide go forward up the middle but some “punch” on the edge.
In recent years at the Knights, Mata’utia has been likened to try-scoring dynamo Dane Gagai. To be talked about in the same breath as Gagai takes some going, and Mata’utia’s number back up this comparison. Over his seven seasons with the Knights, he ranked in the top two across four key metrics and his 31 tries is impressive on a team that has contains both Gagai and fellow Queensland Origin star Kalyn Ponga. Mata’utia clearly has the all-round game to be a dynamic force up the middle, taking on some of the load left by both Taia and James Graham, but the possibility of him appearing on an edge and even lining up as a centre has to be enticing for both Woolf and Saints fans.
With Mark Percival coming back from missing all but four games in 2020, Kevin Naiqama had three centre partners all under 22-years-old (Welsby, Simm and Costello). Despite their title-winning season, this may be one of the only areas for improvement come the new season. Saints’ centre group ranked seventh in carries and metres and had only five try assists between them so it would be an interesting option to put Mata’utia in more space. The Samoan has obvious try-scoring ability as demonstrated by 15 try assists and 14 line break assists for the Knights since 2013.
The Returning Hero — John Bateman
Bateman was already a Super League star when he headed to Australia for the 2017 World Cup, but it was there that he confirmed his status in the game and piqued the interest of NRL clubs. He finished the tournament third in total carries as England narrowly lost to the Kangaroos in the final and returned as a key man in Wigan’s run to the 2018 Grand Final. There, he crowned the last of his 134 Warriors appearances with victory in a typical performance, making 34 tackles and 164 carry metres, his second-highest totals of the season.
It didn’t take long for the NRL public to take notice as Bateman joined fellow Englishmen Elliott Whitehead, Josh Hodgson and Ryan Sutton in Canberra. George Williams followed his Wigan teammate to the Australian capital in 2020. Bateman’s timing was perfect, joining the Raiders in 2019 just as they made their best start to an NRL campaign since their last successful period in the early 90s.
This ultimately led to a first Grand Final appearance in 25 years, where the Raiders lost narrowly to a Roosters side picking up back-to-back Premierships. Bateman was considered one of the signings of the season and over his 34 NRL games in two years he showcased an all-round game that has made him a fan favourite on both sides of the world. He appeared in the Raiders top-two in carry and tackle categories as well as contributing eight tries.
NRL — Canberra Raiders (2019 – 2020):
|Player||Games||Tackle Attempts||Tackle Success %|
With the retirement of Sean O’Loughlin, Warriors fans could surely only have dreamt of being able to bring back a player of Bateman’s quality to replace their talismanic leader. Even at age 38, the legendary back rower was averaging more than 40 tackles a game and 19 carries, so to add a player where volume in both categories has never been an issue (while making 92% of his tackles) has got to be comforting to Cherry & Whites fans. The Wigan and England Captain’s shoes are big ones to fill but you can guarantee Bateman will leave everything on the field.
The Legend — Greg Inglis
You know an athlete is something special when they are recognised by their first or nickname. Virat, Lebron, Neymar – just a single name instantly conjures up memories of great performances and strikes fear into opponents. You must be pretty special if you’re known simply by your initials – G.I.
When Greg Inglis called time on an incredible career that included 263 NRL games, 39 Test and 32 Origin caps there was an element of surprise, with the announcement coming mid-season in April 2019. Although the 32-year-old had been struggling with various injuries, it was expected that he would at least see out his remaining two-year contract with the Rabbitohs.
However, a player who scored 31 Test & 18 Origin tries and is ranked 14th on the NRL all-time try-scoring list has surely earnt the right to decide when it’s time.
So, when news broke that not only would GI be putting his boots back on but that he’d be heading to the Rugby League town of Warrington to give Super League a go, it sent shockwaves through the sport.
Super League’s most recent megastar signing, Sonny Bill Williams, didn’t quite go as planned with his side Toronto Wolfpack being axed from the competition due to off-field struggles. There will be sceptics about what even a player of Inglis’ stature can bring to Warrington after nearly two years out of the game.
He joins a possession-dominant Wire team that appeared in the top three of four ball-carrying metrics in 2020 and showed their focus on extending sets with 18 offloads a game, the most in Super League. However, for a side with so much ball possession and attacking threat they will have been disappointed to finish only seventh in the try-scoring charts.
The Wolves have assembled a plethora of creative talent in their back line in recent years with the darting Daryl Clark at hooker, the dynamic threats of Blake Austin and Gareth Widdop at 6 and 7, and the all-round footballer Stefan Ratchford moving between full-back and stand-off. That group wasn’t on the field together a whole lot in 2020 but when they’re all fit and firing, they showed that they are a significant running threat that will hope to rise up the rankings in try assists in 2021.
It would be fair to say that G.I’s days as the rampaging full-back that blew teams away in the wide channels and broken play are behind him. With all the talent the Wire have in those positions it looks likely he will continue where he left off at the Rabbitohs on the edges as a centre.
Since the departure of Ryan Atkins in 2019, the centre position has been a bit of a merry-go-round for the Wolves with 10 players lining up there over two seasons. Toby King has been the constant with 38 games and although Bryson Goodwin enjoyed a successful two-year period with two Challenge Cup Finals and one Grand Final appearance, he headed back to the NRL for 2020.
With Anthony Gelling also departing the club this winter after just one season it appears that Inglis is primed to stamp his authority on that number 3 shirt and will be looking to create the type of damage to Super League defences that their NRL counterparts are still recovering from.
Design by Matt Sisneros.