Super League: The stories to follow in the 2017 season

Media playback is not supported on this device

Five Super League players to watch in 2017
Betfred Super League
First game: St Helens v Leeds (Thu 9 Feb, 20:00 GMT) Season: February-October Coverage: Super League Show every Monday night, radio commentaries on BBC local radio and BBC Radio 5 live plus reports, features and video on the BBC Sport website

It has been something of a winter of discontent for rugby league.

With England's Four Nations disappointment, the liquidation of an iconic club in Bradford and a high-profile courtroom-bound defection to rugby union, the return of competitive action might just be the perfect tonic for fed-up fans.

After all, there is still much to be excited about the domestic game, particularly in the Super League.

Champions Wigan also get the chance to mix it with the southern hemisphere's best again when they take on Cronulla in the World Club Challenge, just one of a few intriguing stories that will unfold over the next eight months.

BBC Sport has selected some of the potential major talking points for 2017.

Last year's top three...

Media playback is not supported on this device

Sean O'Loughlin: Wigan Warriors relish champions tag in 2017

Wigan Warriors head coach Shaun Wane described last season's Grand Final win as the best of his career, including his own playing successes.

Against a backdrop of injuries, and a formidable Warrington side, Wigan ran out 12-6 winners, and Wane believes that success makes the Warriors the team to beat in 2017.

"If Warrington had won it they'd be the team to catch, but we like it, it's a mantle we want," the 52-year-old said.

"It makes every game tough for us and we need to make sure we don't underestimate anyone. We're in good shape, and we'll never have a season like last year."

Kurt Gidley
Kurt Gidley's first season at Warrington in 2016 ended with two runners-up medals

Warrington came closer than anyone to glory, picking up the League Leaders' Shield but losing in both the Grand Final and Challenge Cup final.

One man desperate to end the Wire's wait for a championship that goes back to 1955 is former Australia outside back Kurt Gidley, who arrived from Newcastle at the beginning of 2016 and played a major role in their efforts last term.

"It's always what I strive for," Gidley said. "My main goal is to win a competition, the Challenge Cup would be a good goal as well."

Meanwhile, Hull FC broke their trophy duck with the Challenge Cup - their first honour since 2005 - raising expectations in the west of the city.

"That's the challenge, to make sure we don't drop off and keep up that top end and compete on all fronts," vice-captain Danny Houghton said.

"People want to knock us off our perch and it's about having that consistency, keeping our house in order and not worrying about anything else."

Points to prove?

Joe Burgess
Joe Burgess scored five tries for South Sydney Rabbitohs at the end of the 2016 NRL season

Whether it is so-called "bad boys" like Zak Hardaker or Todd Carney hoping to show their maturity at Castleford and Salford respectively, former State of Origin star Greg Bird proving his value to Catalans or Kevin Brown moving from Widnes to fierce rivals Warrington, there are plenty of players with a point to prove.

Despite a broken leg ruling him out of the start of the campaign, returning St Helens half-back Matty Smith will be targeting an impact on his move from Wigan.

Wigan's Joe Burgess too, has returned from a spell in Australia with Sydney Roosters and most recently South Sydney Rabbitohs - who were keen to retain him.

Although his NRL stint came to a premature end, Burgess is keen to state it is no backward step to come back to Super League.

"I enjoyed the whole experience," the 22-year-old told BBC Radio Manchester.

"Souths wanted to keep me, but I couldn't turn down my home team. I don't regret it at all, it's good to be back and hopefully we'll win something."

Leeds and Huddersfield seeking improvement

Media playback is not supported on this device

Rick Stone: Huddersfield Giants 'fitter and sharper' for 2017

Although Wigan, Hull FC and Leigh rightfully attracted focus for their 2016 success, there was almost as much attention paid to Leeds and Huddersfield, who went from the play-offs to fighting for their top flight futures inside 12 months.

Leeds in particular had the biggest tumble from grace, having swapped a treble of trophies in 2015 for the Qualifiers after an injury-hit, form-affected 2016.

"We're a great team, we didn't become a bad team overnight, certain things happened and we didn't play well as well," head coach Brian McDermott told BBC Sport.

His side has kept much of the same personnel, although James Segeyaro opted to remain in Australia and in his place the Rhinos have signed Manly hooker Matt Parcell.

"We've got things we need to prove to ourselves," added McDermott. "We're not going to circle the wagons, that is an easy option going into the season.

"There was no need for a major overhaul, just because of what went on."

The Giants had established themselves as play-off regulars under former coach Paul Anderson but his mid-season exit after a miserable start led to ex-Newcastle coach Rick Stone arriving at the John Smith's Stadium.

He succeeded in his initial task to keep Huddersfield in the top tier, but with a full pre-season with the players and a winter of recruitment, now hopes to put his own stamp on the squad.

"Defensively last year we were a bit brittle, conceding 25 points a game," Stone said.

"The willingness to get stuck in and do some work has been the difference. They've worked hard on the tough mucky areas, bedded down at our base on Leeds Road and got on with it.

"Pre-season is an important foundation for what we're going to do this season. Those who have a good pre-season tend to excel."

Solomona loss no factor for 'Fords

Media playback is not supported on this device

Daryl Powell: Castleford Tigers boss sets sights on top four finish

Not even the acrimonious departure of Denny Solomona to rugby union's Sale Sharks, a tussle now destined for the courtroom, has blighted the optimism around Wheldon Road and Castleford.

Cas lost Solomona's predecessor Justin Carney in different but equally acrimonious circumstances 12 months before, but bounced back thanks to the recruitment of players by head coach Daryl Powell.

Injuries affected the Tigers last season, but they are boosted by the return of skipper Michael Shenton after he missed last season through injury and Andy Lynch and Ben Roberts also pushing for recalls.

England full-back Hardaker brought in from Leeds will work with his old mentor Powell after Luke Dorn's retirement, and with a crop of talented young players hoping to make their impact, there are hopes of cracking the top four as they did in 2014.

"We're in a great place," Powell told BBC Radio Leeds.

"The team is pretty solid, it has matured over the past few years and people are talking about us, we've got to deliver now."

Life after the miracle of Craven Park

Media playback is not supported on this device

O'Brien's incredible drop-goal saves Salford

Few coaches had their heart rates tested as brutally as Salford's Ian Watson in 2016.

He went from utter despair to joy and relief in the space of a few minutes as the Red Devils - in their Million Pound Game shoot-out with Hull KR to stay in the top flight - overhauled a four-point deficit to tie with the last play of the game and then won it with a long-range drop-goal from the boot of Gareth O'Brien.

"As soon as it was done we pushed it to the side, and moved on," said Watson, rather more calmly, four months on.

"I know what kind of people we've got in our environment, we've got a good group and leaders.

"We felt we were in a position that didn't give a true impression, this year we've got a clean slate, to move on from that game, to prove what we're about."

Signings have been made, from powerful forwards such as Lee Mossop and Lama Tasi to controversial yet talented half-back Carney, in a bid to avoid a similar fate this year.

"We're massively behind the eight-ball, a minimum 10 weeks behind," Watson added. "They guys we've been able to bring in have been perfect for us, identifying what we were short of last year."

'New' kids on the block

Leigh Centurions
Leigh Centurions beat top tier Huddersfield, Hull KR and Salford in the 2016 Qualifiers

Leigh's promotion broke the 'glass ceiling' around the new Super 8s format, climbing out of the Championship to join the Super League for the first time since 2005.

The Leythers have strengthened on arriving in the 'promised land', bringing in Catalans back-rower Glenn Stewart and hooker Eloi Pelissier and Wigan utility back Ryan Hampshire.

"We've learned a lot from the Super 8s, we played Warrington and Leeds in the Challenge Cup, and we got a couple of scalps in the cup," head coach Neil Jukes said.

"We know what we're getting into, the key is doing it week in, week out. We won't fear any team in a semi-final, it's do or die.

"However it's about doing it round three, round four and round five that's important."

Get rugby league news notifications on your phone with the BBC Sport app

Top Stories