Alex Walmsley admits St Helens are still hurting from semi-final defeats in both the play-offs and the Challenge Cup last season.
Saints were denied a place at both Old Trafford and Wembley in 2015 by treble-winners Leeds who beat them 20-13 in the play-offs and 24-14 in their Challenge Cup semi-final.
The six-time Super League champions get their 2016 campaign underway at home to Huddersfield on Friday night and Walmsley says his side will be more motivated for success after last season.
“To lose in both semi-finals was very disappointing and heartbreaking because I firmly believe we were in those games and on another day might have won,” Walmsley told NothingButLeague.
“It has made us more motivated to do well this season. We’re hurting and we’ve trained even harder because of that.
“One tackle, one set, one try could be the difference between us going to Old Trafford so it’s those little things like giving away soft errors and tackle four penalties which add up and are ultimately the difference between coming first and finishing second.
“As a team we have always been there or thereabouts. Hopefully we will be a different animal this year and those semi-finals will go our way.”
Walmsley received strong praise for his performances last season and was one of three contenders for the Man of Steel award.
The former Batley player believes head coach Keiron Cunningham has played a big role in his development since arriving at Saints in 2013 and says he was pleased to see his coach sign a new deal until 2018 last week.
“He’s a great coach and a great person,” explained the prop, who won the Grand Final in 2014 with St Helens.
“What he’s done for the club as a player and now as a coach is amazing.
“He’s been great with me since I made the step up from Batley and has made me a better player. To have him as the coach for the next few years is going to be great for me and the team as a whole.”
With each team having strengthened ahead of the new campaign, Walmsley predicts the gap between the top and bottom sides will lessen this year and as a result says it could be the closest campaign in the competition’s history.
“It’s going to be a tough season- there are no easy games. Every team has strengthened and are looking sharp.
“As soon as the fixtures get announced you’re looking out for the two Wigan games and obviously the Good Friday match against them.
“Leeds and Warrington are the other games I look forward to the most. They’re always tough battles but the way that Super League is expanding each team each week is going to be a tough ask and I’m sure it’s going to be the closest Super League in history.”
Jason Baitieri says Catalans Dragons will need to improve their poor away record if they are to be considered play-off contenders this season.
The Dragons won just two games on the road in 2015- a 40-4 drubbing away at Wakefield and a 28-24 dead rubber match against Hull FC in the Super 8s.
Laurent Frayssinous’ side get their season underway on Friday night when they face Wigan at the DW Stadium and Baitieri says the team are determined to turn their away fortunes around this campaign.
“We’ve addressed it a few times and it’s a combination of preparation and a mental battle,” Baitieri told NothingButLeague.
“Mentally we have to be strong enough to find a way when we’re struggling on the field to push through.
“The club puts us in the most professional preparation they can with arranging flights and hotels but at the end of the day it’s up to the players to really turn it on and to be able to shake the monkey off our back and to get wins away from home.
“We’ve got the team to do it and have to show from round one that we have the team to do this.”
On the other hand Catalans’ home record is exemplary and the Dragons have turned the Stade Gilbert Brutus into a fortress which teams don’t enjoy visiting.
Only Leeds and Huddersfield left the south of France with the two points last season and is a record which Baitieri believes the players gain a lot of confidence from.
“Our home record speaks for itself. A lot of teams dread coming over and playing us and we get a lot of confidence from that,” said the France international.
“We need to find out now a way now of going into away games with that confidence also.”
Catalans have recruited well ahead of the new campaign with the likes of Pat Richards, Glenn Stewart, Richie Myler, Justin Horo and Paul Aiton coming in to bolster the squad.
However, the Dragons have lost some of their stand-out players from 2015 but Baitieri insists the quality of the players coming in ensures the team won’t suffer.
“It’s tough losing guys like Zeb Taia, Elliott Whitehead and Scott Dureau. They’ve been a part of the club for the past three, four, five years,” explained the loose-forward.
“They brought a lot to the team but the players we’ve recruited I think are fitting in really well. They’ve got a wealth of experience. Some have played Super League and some have played at the highest level in the NRL.”
After finishing the regular season in 8th, four wins from seven in the Super 8s saw Catalans finish above Hull FC in 7th at the end of the last campaign.
Baitieri says the Dragons will be pushing for a play-off spot in 2016 but acknowledges that finishing in the top-four will be more difficult than ever before.
“The top-four has been our objective for the last couple of years.
“It’s realistic but at the same time all the other teams in Super League have the same objective and have also recruited really well for this year so the competition is going to go up a notch.”
‘Adam, I need a favour’ were the words which greeted me upon my arrival into class last Wednesday.
My friend Josh, an avid Huddersfield Town fan, had arranged for him and six other Terriers supporters to appear on Soccer AM as the fans of the week.
Unfortunately there had been a late withdrawal and there was a seat vacant in the Luther Blissett stand which apparently only I could fill.
I reluctantly obliged despite the fact I’m a Manchester United fan and my only prior knowledge of Huddersfield is that it is in Yorkshire somewhere.
I’d grown up watching Soccer AM, and the show still to this day is a part of my Saturday morning routine.
I had always wondered how I would make my debut on the programme. Would it be as a footballer dubbed the next Lionel Messi? Perhaps a rock star promoting my band’s latest tour? Or an actor playing down my Oscar nomination.
However, I never would have predicted it would involve a two hour facade of pretending to support Huddersfield Town.
I frantically began to search Wikipedia to fill the gaps in my Terriers knowledge just to be assured I wouldn’t be rumbled on the day.
Did you know that the last and only time Huddersfield won the FA Cup was 1922? Well I do, and now it’s so ingrained and implanted in my memory that I will never be able to forget.
In fact the whole thing was a bit like the Stanford prison experiment in which I slowly began to believe the pretence.
As it turned out none of my newly acquired knowledge was required and I was able to sit in the Luther Blissett stand looking gormless for the show without anyone in the studio ousting me.
The whole experience was brilliant from start to finish.
For those who can’t stand Fenners’ cheesy puns and don’t watch the show, the fans of the week mainly feature in three parts of the programme.
The first comes at the start when Frankie Fryer, ‘massive cockney’, introduces each of the fans with a fact about them in his distinctive, idiosyncratic east London tone.
The joke for me was that I’m from Lancashire and not Yorkshire which was followed by a dramatic ‘dun-dun-duuuuun’ sound effect.
Technically I’m from Cheshire but we’ll just add it to the plethora of lies I had already told to blab my way onto the show.
Next came the ‘This is England 90’ game in which Josh had to name as many 90s footballers shown to him in 60 seconds.
It was a very difficult quiz for someone born in 1994 and he was only able to name six- although this was largely down to the help of Fenners and guest Stephen Graham.
After deciding to gamble for the chance to double our winnings, Josh, assisted by Stephen Graham, correctly guessed the player on the card was West Ham legend Ian Bishop which led to jubilant celebrations and a pile on.
Having instigated it by rugby tackling Josh to the ground I’m just glad the others followed suit otherwise it would have looked very strange.
As far as pile ons go it was up there with the best. When I got back on my feet I discovered blood on my shirt and I’ve had to book a trip to the chiropractors next week.
Finally, there was the game in the car park at the end of the show where we had 60 seconds to score five penalties past a giant, swinging, wooden Manuel Neuer.
I had taken three in rehearsals and missed them all. To make matters worse I slipped and fell onto my backside during two of them.
The whole thing is a bit of a blur but thankfully I not only managed to stay on my feet but slotted the ball past the helpless German number one.
We scored five penalties in 27 seconds which puts us third on the leaderboard for this season – the only time Huddersfield will be third in any league standings for a while.
And with that the show was over as I switched on my phone to discover I had three missed calls from Louis van Gaal.
Before heading back up north there was just time to see my newly adopted team get thrashed 4-2 by Brentford at Griffin Park.
It was a tough defeat to take but we’ll bounce back and one day hopefully be crowned English champions for a fourth time and the first since 1926.
Come on the Terriers! Up the Town!
Wigan Warriors and England captain Sean O’Loughlin is desperate to put his Grand Final misery behind him by leading England to international success over New Zealand this autumn.
O’Loughlin was part of the Wigan side who suffered a narrow 22-20 loss to Leeds Rhinos at Old Trafford three weeks ago as the Warriors slumped to consecutive Grand Final defeats.
The 32-year-old will lead England in a three-match test series against New Zealand starting at the KC Stadium in Hull on Sunday and the loose-forward is keen to taste international success.
“I think the disappointing way I ended the season getting beat at the Grand Final has made me look forward to this series,” said the Wigan skipper.
“I think during Steve’s [McNamara, England head coach] reign we’ve been making big steps forward and I think we’ve continued doing that year on year. We haven’t quite got over the line in terms of silverware yet but we’re hoping to do that this year.”
O’Loughlin is joined in the line-up for Sunday’s clash against the Kiwis by fellow Wigan stars John Bateman, George Williams, Liam Farrell and Joe Burgess and is pleased to see his teammates making a name for themselves on the international stage.
“It’s good to see a lot of Wigan players in the side and to see the players coming through and being involved in the squad.
“It’s always nice to see some of the boys you play with week in week out getting the nod and the chance to put the jersey on as well.
“The young players in the side are going to be around for a few years to come so I think the squad is in a good shape.
“If those boys can keep up their good form, keep playing well and build on their game then in a few years’ time hopefully they’ll still be involved in the England set up which will benefit us.”
The final test will be played at the DW Stadium on Saturday October 14 and O’Loughlin is excited about the prospect of potentially winning the series in front of his home crowd.
“It’s always good when you’ve got the England shirt on to play in front your home fans.
“There’ll be a lot of Wiganers there and it would be a great way to cap the season off if we could be there lifting a trophy.”
Despite a promising start to the campaign, Warrington Wolves have been consistently inconsistent this year and face their worst finish in the league since 2009.
The 28-0 thrashing at home to Wigan on Friday was another low in what has been a miserable campaign for supporters.
Ever since John Kear labelled the side “the real deal” back in February, the Wolves have been anything but.
Here are ten reasons Tony Smith’s side have fallen behind the rest of the pack this season.
1) No leadership
Since the departures of Lee Briers and Adrian Morley to the Wolves squad, there has been a distinct lack of organisation amongst the players. Warrington have missed a player like Briers pulling the strings in the middle and someone of Morley’s calibre leading from the front.
The decision to make Joel Monaghan captain this season bemused most Wire supporters. Not only is the Australian stuck out on the wing, his relaxed demeanour prevents the winger from being the vocal leader the Wolves crave.
When the BBC placed a player-mic on Ashton Sims during Warrington’s Challenge Cup win over Leigh there were calls for the Fiji prop to be handed the captaincy in 2016 after showcasing his leadership qualities. Sims won’t be on the field for the full 80 minutes however.
The incoming Kurt Gidley from Newcastle Knights may provide some much needed experience and leadership.
2) Players not fulfilling potential
The decline of several players in the Warrington squad this year has been unsettling to watch, as certain names who were supposed to add quality to the side continually make simple errors.
Roy Asotasi is leaving at the end of the season after never adapting to the Super League. Ryan Atkins has gone from on the fringe of an England call-up to being one of the most inconsistent performers in the competition. Since his return to the side this month, Gary Wheeler has not looked like a player fighting for a new contract.
The list goes on.
3) Wrong mentality about defeat
There is an argument that Warrington have become victims of their own success and their numerous trips to Wembley and Old Trafford in recent years have allowed a complacent mindset to creep into the squad.
With rugby league’s new era, ‘every minute matters’ and it never seemed to translate to the Wolves that their poor form across the season would significantly impact their chances in the Super 8s.
A side can no longer win the Grand Final after finishing fifth, and after four consecutive defeats over the Easter period alarm bells should have been ringing as opposed to believing “we’ll put it right in September”.
4) Tony Smith’s relaxed nature
Criticising one of the most successful coaches in Super League and Warrington’s history is a brave step, but after witnessing several crushing defeats this season it has been infuriating to hear the man who manages the squad being so relaxed about the situation.
The players may well see a different side to Smith than the media does, but if not Smith’s calm and unalarmed demeanour has most likely filtered through to his players.
Each coach has their own style and personality but Smith rarely shows his anger and frustration in defeat like Shaun Wane, Brian McDermott or Daryl Powell do.
5) Too inexperienced
While there is nothing wrong with giving youngsters their opportunity, there is an argument that it has been unfair to ask so many young players who are still developing to bring success to the team week in week out.
The under 19s players are the future of the club but perhaps Warrington have asked too much too soon from their youngsters this year.
6) Points have dried up
Warrington’s points tally of 578 is their lowest since 2002 and nearly half the amount of points the Wolves scored in 2011 when they were awarded the League Leaders’ Shield.
The prolific Joel Monaghan has crossed the whitewash on just 11 occasions this season compared to 37 in 2014.
A definite cause for concern.
7) No kicking game
Admittedly Chris Sandow has now come into the side but a player of his kicking ability should have been brought in to the side as soon as Lee Briers retired at the end of 2013.
The Wolves have given countless opportunities to Richie Myler, Gareth O’Brien, Chris Bridge, Declan Patton and Gary Wheeler in the halves this season with none of them being consistent with the boot.
With Myler heading off to Catalans in 2016, it will be interesting to see if Smith attempts to buy another half-back to partner Sandow next season.
8) Changes to backroom staff
Should the departures of first-team coaches Willie Poching and Richard Marshall at the end of 2014 be underestimated?
Richard Agar was brought in this season in a move which looked to see him be Tony Smith’s heir. However rumours of unrest amongst Agar and the players suggest anything but and as a result Lee Briers has been given more responsibility with the first-team preparation.
Does Tony Smith need to draft in some new coaches in 2016?
9) Never replaced outgoing players
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but there in an increasing belief that Warrington didn’t fix the roof while the sun was shining between 2009 and 2013.
The likes of Lee Briers, Adrian Morley, Brett Hodgson and Gareth Carvell were all massive losses to the side with the squad still feeling the effect of their absences.
10) Injuries and a lack of strength in depth
Unless you’re a Salford fan in 2015, pointing to injuries seems an easy excuse for not living up to expectation.
However, when a squad is rocked by the loss of several key players it can highlight a lack of strength in depth.
The Wolves pose less of a threat in the forward line when Chris Hill and Ashton Sims are given a breather in matches, and Ben Westwood was sorely missed for the Challenge Cup semi-final defeat.
At the start of the season it appeared the Wolves had one of the strongest squads in the competition but they have been found out this campaign.
Warrington are now playing for pride in their final Super 8s matches as they aim to avoid finishing eighth.
The Wolves will look to bounce back in 2016, but if the ten reasons above are not addressed it could be another dismal season at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
Rugby League enters the second stage of its exciting new era this weekend when the race for success in the Super 8s, the Qualifiers and the Championship Shield begins.
With the bottom four sides in Super League now joining the top four Championship sides in the battle for a place in the elite competition in 2016, the top eight Super League sides are now competing for a top-four finish and a chance at making the Grand Final in October.
With points from the first 23 rounds of the season being carried over; Leeds, St Helens and Wigan look to have already secured a top-four finish as it would take a calamitous final seven games to see either team miss out.
The team currently occupying fourth spot are Huddersfield and all the attention of the next seven rounds will be to see if Paul Anderson’s side are capable of holding on to the final semi-final spot or if they slip-up.
The Giants have accumulated 28 points from the opening 23 rounds and are ahead of Castleford with 26 points and Warrington who have 24.
While Hull FC only trail by six points that should be too much of a deficit to overturn in seven games.
The focus of the Super 8s will therefore be on those three sides with the outcome of the matches between the trio holding a huge significance.
Huddersfield’s fourth place finish after the regular season means they are rewarded with four home fixtures in the Super 8s, and home advantage could be crucial against Castleford and Warrington.
The Giants have interestingly won both home and away ties against the Tigers and Wolves so far this season.
Paul Anderson’s men have also avoided a difficult away trip to Catalans, and having won five of their last six games in the league are in pole position to take the fourth spot in the final table.
Remarkably, Huddersfield lost their opening three fixtures but have turned their season around.
The Giants have picked up two draws, at home to Leeds as well as a last-gasp Jermaine McGillvary try securing a point at the Magic Weekend against Catalans. How crucial those two points could be in the final standings remains to be seen.
The Giants begin their Super 8s campaign away to Wigan on Thursday night as they look to show their rivals that they are not giving up fourth spot without a fight.
With no return on his outgoings, would Super League relegation see Marwan Koukash walk away from Salford?
‘I have had enough’ was the infamous tweet posted by Salford Red Devils owner Marwan Koukash on social media back in February following his side’s 52-6 drubbing at home to St Helens.
While the message implied Koukash was ready to walk away from the club back in round two, he has since been the focal voice of the club off the field in what has turned out to be another frustrating season for the Red Devils.
It is fair to say that the ‘Devilution’ has not gone to plan.
Having taken over at the end of 2013 with the side finishing bottom that campaign, there was a renewed optimism around the club with the top clubs in Super League looking over their shoulder at how Salford’s new look side would fare.
There were 14 new players signed in 2014, most notably former Man of Steel Rangi Chase and New Zealand international Kevin Locke, who joined halfway through the campaign.
Some pundits tipped Salford last season to be making the short trip across the city to Old Trafford, but their season of transition saw them finish 10th and miss out on the play-offs.
Success does not come overnight, particularly in Super League which boasts as being one of the tightest club competitions in any sport worldwide.
This season finishing in the top-eight would have been the priority for Salford, with a settled side as well as a few additional new faces.
Another disappointing campaign has followed however, with last Friday’s 70-6 away defeat to Leeds sealing the Red Devils’ place in the middle-eights.
Injuries and suspensions have not helped the team’s cause this year, with the club even requesting for their game against Hull FC at the end of April to be postponed due to their mounting injury crisis.
Results have not gone their way however and now the club enters the second stage of the season fighting for Super League survival rather than Grand Final glory.
The middle-eights will pose a threat for Salford’s Super League status, with both Leigh and Bradford both looking capable of gaining a spot in the elite competition next season.
Should one or more Championship side be promoted it would see a Super League side go the other way and on current form, it is the Red Devils you fear for the most.
Wakefield may have only won one game under Brian Smith but since he took over they have looked a rejuvenated side and look set to put up a defiant fight in the middle-eights.
Hull KR have underperformed in some matches but in others have lit the competition up with some exciting rugby league, and while Widnes have lost more than they have won they have not been too far behind in those defeats.
Leeds head coach Brian McDermott was quick to criticise Koukash’s off the field handling of the club and has pointed the finger at the Salford owner for the team not making the top-eight.
Koukash has brought in Australia head coach Tim Sheens as director of rugby and has also done his best to boost attendances by cutting ticket prices as well as making the home game against Catalans this season free for spectators.
Time will tell how Salford fare in the middle-eights but should they end up in the Championship in 2016 you wonder whether Koukash really will have had enough.