Super League: Greg Inglis and John Bateman among the stars bringing excitement in World Cup year

By Dave WoodsBBC rugby league correspondent
Betfred Super League
Coverage: Live commentaries on BBC Radio 5 Live sports extra and BBC local radio, highlights on the Super League Show; reports and selected live text commentaries on BBC Sport website

A brand new rugby league season is upon us - and arguably the most important the game has had for some time.

The professional game has come through the worst of Covid-19 and is still standing, albeit with a slight wobble after a year without crowds and a diminished income.

But the next few months offer a real opportunity. Fans will come back with a trickle at first, but then hopefully with a flood given how the game has evolved to become even faster and more spectacular because of recent rule tweaks - and because of just how much we've all missed the live action.

There is the prospect of watching some mouth-watering talent given some of Super League's signings from overseas and the emergence of a clutch of bright young British stars.

And, of course, at the end of all the domestic business there is the big one. A bold and brash World Cup awaits in October and November, with venues across the country, involving nations from around the globe - men's, women's and wheelchair athletes - all giving rugby league the biggest platform it has had in a generation.

But with the new Super League season about to get under way, it is high time we got properly excited right now.

New signings providing 'stardust' to Super League

Greg Inglis
Greg Inglis, who played 39 Tests for Australia, has come out of retirement to sign a one-year deal with Warrington

Every club has a fascinating story ahead of kick-off, they all have reason for optimism. And we all deserve to hope for a little stardust after the past 12 months of lockdown and empty stadiums.

The headline signing is, of course, Warrington's capture of Greg Inglis, a superman of the game in his 15 years at South Sydney Rabbitohs and Melbourne Storm. A Grand Final, State of Origin, World Cup and Golden Boot winner, he has established a reputation as one of the all-time greats.

He has asked for time to allow his rusty joints to get moving again, as he is just back from a two-year sabbatical out of the game. But if he hits anything like his previous best then wow, just wow. Wolves fans could be in for a treat.

But every club will tell you they have signed at least one key player who will make a difference this year.

For Hull it is Josh Reynolds. A troubled and injury-hit past couple of years in the NRL gives the nuggety pivot something to prove in the black and white. But if he starts firing, alongside Marc Sneyd, and with the highly-rated but rookie coach Brett Hodgson pulling the strings, this could be a big year for the Airlie Birds.

Wigan have their Bateman back. John Bateman returns from an eye-catching stint down under, and we know what he will deliver. They have also signed a jack-in-the-box in Jai Field. The 23-year-old has already impressed team-mates with his sizzling pace in pre-season and he could be a real X-factor this year.

New coaches look to make their mark at Huddersfield & Salford

Ian Watson
Ian Watson led Salford to the 2019 Grand Final and last season's Challenge Cup final

Huddersfield have made an early claim on being the outsiders with the best chance of surging to silverware. Their headline capture over the winter has been coach Ian Watson, who can now build on the incredible reputation he's established at Salford.

He has made some solid signings to add to an already very capable squad, but the combination of coach Watson and play-maker Aidan Sezer suggests good times ahead.

Leigh are the new boys and will automatically be most pundits' pick to go straight back down - but, boy, have they recruited some solid Super League experience. John Duffy, at 40 the youngest coach in the top flight, is already spoken of as technically terrific.

As a former half-back he will be hoping that new signings Joe Mellor and Blake Wallace will fire and steer his side to safety at the very least.

Salford are another club with a new head coach. Richard Marshall leads a Super League side for the very first time after leaving his role as assistant at St Helens.

He has plenty of talent at his disposal, not least in the three-quarter line - the 'Special Ks' of Ken Sio, Kallum Watkins, Krisnan Inu, together with Joe Burgess and Rhys Williams, are all vying for places.

Their headline signing is Elijah Taylor from Wests Tigers. But Salford's veteran stand-off Kevin Brown told the BBC Radio 5 Live Rugby League podcast that it is another new recruit, Danny Addy, who has been looking particularly good in pre-season.

Robins look to 'rise again' in 2021

Hull KR sank to bottom spot last year, but provided a style of play that won them many admirers. You can expect them to rise again this year.

New Zealand International Brad Takairangi has arrived from Parramatta, prop Albert Vete brings some of that Melbourne culture with him, Korbin Simms has plenty of pedigree and experience and, of course, Ryan Hall flies back into Super League after his two years at Sydney Roosters.

So they will have plenty of know-how and steel, along with a smattering of young, talented players as well.

For Catalans, it is out with some of the old, not the least of them prop and captain Remi Casty, who has headed off to Toulouse. And there will be no headline grabbing from Israel Folau anymore.

However, they have built a solid base to support the young French players that we are likely to see more of this year. Dean Whare in the backs and forwards Mike McMeeken and Gil Dudson could prove to be astute signings.

There has not been too much movement at Wakefield, so consistency in personnel is key for them. That can often be the foundation for growth.

But there is one key and interesting signing. Mason Lino is a scrum-half from Newcastle Knights, who was previously at the New Zealand Warriors.

He has not had much NRL game time in the past couple of years, but Trinity will be hoping he proves to be a real gem. If Super League suits the Samoa International, he could be difference between Wakefield looking up or looking down this year.

Champions Saints build on 'solid platform'

St Helens celebrate winning the 2020 Grand Final
St Helens beat Wigan in last season's Grand Final to claim back-to-back titles

Leeds had a bounce back to being taken seriously as silverware contenders last year. The Challenge Cup win will underpin a renewed confidence at the club.

Zane Tetevano could be playing for the Cook Islands in the World Cup at the end of the year, but before that the Rhinos will be hoping the former Roosters and Penrith forward can make it to a personal milestone of four Grand Finals in four years.

And it will be fascinating to see how late capture Kyle Eastmond goes on his return to his rugby league roots.

St Helens are building on the most solid of platforms after their breath-taking Grand Final win in November. Joel Thompson arrives from Manly, Sione Mata'utia, the youngest ever Australia international and ex-Newcastle star has also landed. Tonga international Agnatius Paasi is another newcomer.

But, even without those arrivals, it is a glittering array of talent at Saints, so it should be another exciting year.

And finally Castleford. Well, we now know that the man who has defined them in the past few years, coach Daryl Powell, will be leaving at the end of this campaign. But he could go out on a real high.

Full-back Niall Evalds could be one of the signings of the season given how Cas are likely to use him. Jake Trueman looks to have shaken off the back injury that dogged him last year, and in hooker Paul McShane they have the reigning Man of Steel.

So there is plenty to like about a Tigers squad who could be set to thrill us in 2021.

Last year was all about gritting our teeth and getting through. And somehow, the game did just that.

Now with the prospects of turnstiles turning again, and some real stars coming out to play, rugby league can start to feel buoyant once more. The year 2021, culminating in that World Cup in the autumn, might just turn out to be vintage.

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