The new rugby league season kicks off next month and excitement is building ahead of a huge year for the sport. The World Cup takes place in the autumn of 2022 as Shaun Wane’s England side bid to rule the roost on home soil. But first there are nine months of thrilling action in the Super League, Championship, League 1 and the Challenge Cup.
French resurgence could be undermined by Toulouse struggles
With Catalans Dragons on the rise and Toulouse Olympique preparing to embark on their first season in Super League, French rugby league is enjoying a remarkable renaissance right now.
France will host the 2025 Rugby League World Cup, 71 years after putting on the sport’s first showpiece tournament in 1954.
On Tuesday, French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced alongside minister for sport Roxana Maracineanu that the country would host the tournament from October to mid-November 2025.
The hosting arrangement for the 17th RL World Cup was confirmed by an agreement signed between Troy Grant, president of the International Rugby League (IRL) and Michel Wiener, managing director of France 2025.
In 1940, France’s pro-Nazi Vichy government outlawed the 13-a-side code, confiscated all its grounds, players and assets and handed them to rugby union.
The game in France has been recovering ever since but Catalans’ rise since they entered Super League in 2006 has reverberated throughout the Catalan region and beyond.
Now Toulouse are ready to make their mark as Super League features two French teams for the first time.
Sylvain Houles’ side reached the top flight after beating Featherstone Rovers in the Million Pound Game to clinch promotion.
Concerns are mounting, however, about Toulouse’s ability to defy the odds and survive an immediate relegation back to the Championship.
They have brought in James Cunningham from Huddersfield Giants, Gadwin Springer from Featherstone Rovers, Leigh Centurions utility back Matty Russell, Wigan Warriors centre Chris Hankinson and Lambert Belmas from French outfit Lezignan.
But will it be enough to keep them in Super League?
You would have your doubts. Big doubts.
Leigh Centurions came up last season and went straight back down, as did London Broncos in 2019.
Betfred, Super League’s title sponsors, make Houles’ side 4/5 favourites to be relegated in 2022.
Toulouse will hope to make home advantage pay and rack up enough wins on French soil to avoid the drop.
Wakefield Trinity, who have struggled badly in recent seasons, are 7/2 with Betfred to slip through the Super League trapdoor.
Salford Red Devils are out at 4/1 to go down with William Hill but they have some top talent in the likes of Kallum Watkins, Brodie Croft and Dan Sarginson.
It could be a two-way fight for survival between Toulouse and Wakefield – and right now the smart money is on the French club to get demoted.
England a decent outside bet at 15/2 with Unibet
Shaun Wane has a mountainous task on his hands to guide England to World Cup glory later this year.
The competition was supposed to have taken place in the autumn of 2021 but the two leading nations, Australia and New Zealand, pulled out after citing concerns over Covid-19.
That caused a major storm and there was talk of the tournament being scrapped altogether.
But with the UK Government having funded the Rugby League World Cup to the tune of around £25million, it was put back 12 months and will take place this autumn instead.
Could England defy the odds and become world champions?
The bookies make the Kangaroos favourites, but in the last World Cup final, England lost only 6-0 to the Aussies.
William Hill have Australia at 2/7 to rule the roost at Old Trafford later this year, with New Zealand second-favourites at 6/1 with Betfair.
If you fancy an outside bet, Tonga might be worth a punt at 12/1 to lift the trophy with Paddy Power.
Wane, meanwhile, has taken up a part-time leadership role at his former club Wigan Warriors but he insists it will not affect his commitments to England in a World Cup year.
Wane, who guided Wigan to three Grand Final wins during his time as Warriors head coach, said: “The England players will still get a lot of my time.
“The RFL and Wigan are both okay with it, and nobody will be neglected.”
Giants boss Watto outlines Covid fears ahead of new campaign
Huddersfield Giants boss Ian Watson fears the spread of Covid threatens a “massive disruption” to the new Super League season.
The Giants were forced to cut short a pre-season training camp at Snowdonia in North Wales shortly before Christmas after a number of players tested positive.
With the new campaign now just a month away, Watson is wary of the impact of the Omicron strain as cases continue to rise.
More than one in 15 people in the UK are thought to have tested positive for Covid in the last week of 2021, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Watson, whose side are 14/1 with William Hill to get relegated this season, said: “Christmas hit us hard and having a few lads missing means that you can’t do a 13 against 13 in training, so it affects everything you do.
“You’d love for us to go through the season without any disruptions, but with the way that Covid spreads, it’s very hard to stay away from it.
“It’s just there all the time and they say this latest variant is highly transmissible, so it’s harder to get away and isolate from in order to stay safe.
“A lot of our players who have had it had no symptoms, but then we’ve had some players who have had symptoms.
“At some stage, there is going to have to come a point where they decide if you’ve not got symptoms then you’re probably not testing and you move on.
“Otherwise, it could cause a massive disruption for the game.”
Bradford Bulls boss John Kear spoke last week about his intention to urge the club’s board of directors not to sign any unvaccinated players.
Watson added: “If the Government said ‘to play sport to a professional standard in this country, you have to be vaccinated’, then I suppose players who aren’t jabbed have to decide if they want to continue playing rugby or go and do something else.”