Wigan and St Helens set to maintain status quo as London Broncos face bleak fate

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 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.

St Helens v Leeds Rhinos – Betfred Super League – Grand Final – Old Trafford
St Helens are desperate to reclaim the Super League title (Richard Sellers/PA)

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.

Salford Red Devils v Hull FC – Betfred Super League – AJ Bell Stadium
Former Man of Steel Brodie Croft is set to lead the Leeds Rhinos resurgence (Richard Sellers/PA)

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.

Hull Kingston Rovers v Leigh Leopards – Betfred Challenge Cup – Final – Wembley
Leigh Leopards are looking to build on a stunning first season back in the top flight (Nigel French/PA)

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.

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 Tigers v Warrington Wolves – Betfred Super League – The Mend-A-Hose Jungle
Castleford face a tough season ahead (Richard Sellers/PA)

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.

St Helens v Wigan Warriors – Betfred Super League – Totally Wicked Stadium
St Helens and Wigan will scrap it out for the Super League title again (Simon Marper/PA)

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.

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