Winning is everything in sport.
The reason athletes train, work and push themselves so hard is to be the best, to fulfil their potential and to reap the rewards that success brings.
Another big component of sport however is defeat and the contrast in emotions between the Hull FC and Warrington players at full-time at Wembley Stadium on Saturday told the whole story.
For Hull it was the club’s first ever Challenge Cup win at Wembley and banished the memories of painful defeats in 2008 and 2013. It was also a just reward for the outstanding improvement the side has made this season and possibly the first part of a lucrative treble.
For Warrington however the players collapsed on the pitch dejected, despondent and forlorn. This was no ordinary defeat and the Wolves were, and still are, hurting.
In the most nail-biting Challenge Cup final for more than a decade, Warrington will feel they did more than enough to win the trophy. They kept Hull scoreless for an hour with some gruelling defending and were leading 10-6 with seven minutes left on the clock. Even in the dying minutes had it not been for a last-ditch, heroic tackle from Danny Houghton on Ben Currie the colours on the ribbons of the trophy would be primrose and blue.
Warrington’s biggest challenge now is bouncing back. But amidst the disappointment and cup final heartache, how do the Wolves pick themselves up?
At the start of this year new England and Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett said it took him a month to get over the Broncos’ agonising 17-16 NRL Grand Final defeat to North Queensland last season.
But Warrington don’t have a month. They don’t have a pre-season or a whole new campaign to readjust and start afresh.
Sitting second in the table and just one point behind leaders Hull, they are still well placed to compete for the League Leaders’ Shield and Old Trafford glory next month.
Their four remaining Super 8s fixtures are daunting however with a difficult trip to Catalans this Saturday followed by a local derby against Widnes before top-of-the-table clashes against Wigan and Hull.
The Wolves’ top-four spot is assured but they will be eager not to drop-off during the business end of the season and to push for an all important home tie in the play-offs by finishing first or second.
A key positive for Warrington is that head coach Tony Smith has been in this situation before. In 2005 he saw his Leeds side suffer a demoralising 25-24 Challenge Cup final defeat to -you guessed it – Hull at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
That defeat did not deter the Rhinos that season however who finished second in the league, beat St Helens to book their Grand Final place before losing 15-6 to rivals Bradford at Old Trafford.
Winning the Grand Final after suffering Challenge Cup final misery is not unheard of however with Leeds bouncing back to lift the Super League crown in both 2011 and 2012.
Moreover, Castleford would have claimed the League Leaders’ Shield in 2014 after Wembley defeat had they not lost to Catalans in the final game of the regular season.
Last season, Hull KR responded to their 50-0 Wembley drubbing to Leeds by winning their four remaining Middle 8s games to assure their Super League spot – albeit against weaker opposition.
With key creative players Chris Sandow and Kurt Gidley now on the sidelines and Ben Westwood ruled out for the rest of the campaign, Warrington have even more hurdles to overcome if they are to finish the season on a high.
The Wolves now have to quickly put their Wembley pain behind them and channel the experience into a hunger that will drive them to their first ever Super League title.
After all, overcoming adversity is the true sign of champions.
While the whole of Europe will have their eyes focused on France and the start of Euro 2016 on Friday night, Super League has its own headline act at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
Warrington versus Hull FC may have represented a dead rubber fixture in recent seasons with little to write home about but now, after 17 rounds in 2016, it’s a mouth-watering top of the table clash with Hull able to go four points ahead of the Wolves at the summit with a win.
Since the advent of Super League in 1996 only four teams have lifted the trophy in the Grand Final at Old Trafford – Bradford, Leeds, St Helens and Wigan.
Bradford have been relegated. Leeds have fallen. St Helens have faltered. And although Wigan sit fourth with the same number of points as Warrington they are yet to reach the heights from previous campaigns and have scored the second fewest points in the league.
There is a very real chance that the trend is about to be broken this year and there is a possibility that Friday’s game could be a Grand Final rehearsal.
Both sides have been there before. The Airlie Birds made their solitary Old Trafford appearance back in 2006 but were beaten 26-4 by St Helens.
Warrington have made the trip twice but came off second best on both occasions – most notably surrendering a 16-6 half-time lead against Wigan in 2013 to lose 30-16.
For Super League’s two biggest underachievers, is this the year one of them finally takes the title?
‘It’s always your year’ is the chant opposition fans have for years mocked Warrington supporters with but could 2016 actually be the year the Wolves taste success?
After a poor 2015 saw Tony Smith’s side finish 6th, change was needed and a host of new additions have bolstered the side.
The experienced Kurt Gidley has been a revelation and his half-back partnership with Chris Sandow has helped the Wolves become the league’s highest points scorers.
Warrington lost four out of six league games in Sandow’s recent absence with a hamstring injury but have put together two comprehensive wins over Leeds and St Helens since his return.
The Wolves’ other defeat this season came at the hands of Hull on Easter Monday who edged a thrilling contest 26-24 at the KC Stadium.
Super League’s sleeping giants have awoken in 2016 and rightfully sit top of the table having won 11 of their last 12 league games.
They are unbeaten in their last seven and head into Friday’s game full of confidence that they can stretch their lead at the top to four points.
After an 8th place finish in 2015 the side were determined to work on their faults in pre-season and are reaping the rewards.
The majority of the team are in the form of their careers with Marc Sneyd and Jamie Shaul stand out performers so far this campaign.
Lee Radford has also praised the medical staff for keeping his team relatively injury-free but even when they have missed the likes of Frank Pritchard and Leon Pryce their strength in depth has ensured their performances don’t drop.
Perhaps it’s too soon to get carried away but either way both sides will be looking to show they can play like champions and not just contenders on Friday night.
Kevin Brown believes the new signings Widnes have made are capable of helping the club clinch a play-off spot in 2016.
The Vikings have recruited Chris Houston and Corey Thompson from the NRL as well as bringing in Chris Bridge from Warrington, Setaimata Sa from Hull FC and Connor Farrell on loan from Wigan.
Despite performing well last season, Widnes failed to pick up enough wins to qualify for the Super 8s and Brown says improving their defence is key to securing more wins this campaign.
“We’ve done a lot of work defensively to improve,” said the Widnes skipper.
“We lost a lot of games last year in which we worked really hard and played well but fell just short and it was hard for me to hold my hands up and admit we weren’t quite good enough.
“That in some ways more demoralising than getting stuffed because at least if you get beaten badly you know you’ve got it in you to perform better.
“This year we’ve got genuine talent across the team- we haven’t just added squad players. The new guys have jumped straight into the first-team and are capable of winning us games on their own. With players like Chris Bridge and Setaimata Sa, you pass them the ball and they do things off their own back, make breaks and create opportunities for us to get over that line.
“A top-eight finish is a minimum for us this year. We don’t just want to finish in the top-eight and say “job done”. Our aim is to finish there and then hopefully shake the Super 8s up.”
After finishing the regular rounds in 9th place the Vikings dropped into the Middle 8s where five wins from seven games guaranteed their Super League spot for 2016.
Widnes conceded just 70 points across those seven matches and Brown says he was pleased with how the side performed in the Middle 8s.
“I think as a spectacle it worked really well,” said the former Wigan and Huddersfield player.
“You don’t want to be involved in the Million Pound Game but I’m sure a lot of people tuned in to watch it. The attendances and atmospheres were good in the Middle 8s and everyone got behind it.
“Once we got over the anxiety and the fear of “what happens if?” we just approached it the same as we would approach a Super League game.
“Nobody wanted to drop out of Super League again after all the club has done in recent years so full credit to our boys for coming through it and performing in a spectacular fashion.”
In an innovative move by the club for 2016, Brown will be involved in a ‘Captain’s Call’ decision each week in which the half-back will choose which kit the Vikings line-up in.
The skipper will choose from either an all-black or an all-white strip but insists it will have little bearing on how the side performs.
“I’m looking forward to getting the stick when I pick the wrong kit!
“The weather will come into it- if it’s going to be red hot I’ll pick the white kit. It’s a bit of fun but at the end of the day it’s not going to have a bearing on how we play.”
Danny Kirmond believes the nerve-wracking experience of playing in the Million Pound Game last season will motivate him and his Wakefield teammates to improve in 2016.
The Wildcats finished 4th in the Middle 8s and as a result faced 5th placed Bradford in the inaugural Million Pound Game for a place in Super League this season.
Kirmond led his team to a 24-16 victory but with the threat of the club having to go part-time and players losing their jobs if they had lost, the Wakefield captain admits it was a very tense time for the club.
“The million pound game isn’t where we want to be,” Kirmond told NothingButLeague.
“The excitement it created was great for the game and the spectators but as a player it was a nerve-wracking experience. If we’d have lost our contracts would have been voided and it was a very tense time.
“After the game it was a huge relief. I felt sorry for the Bradford guys but at the same time it was a huge relief for us to stay in Super League.”
Despite winning their opening two games in 2015, Wakefield went on to record just one further victory and finished the regular rounds bottom of the table.
Brian Smith took over from James Webster as head coach midway through last season and Kirmond says he is relishing the opportunity to work under the experienced Australian coach.
“He keeps you on your toes,” said the Wakefield skipper.
“He gets the best out of his players all the time and is challenging you to do better.
“As you get older and coming into your 30s sometimes you feel neglected and forgotten about and often the coaches overlook you and don’t expect you to improve too much but Brian is always challenging me and helping me improve my game.”
Wakefield get their 2016 campaign underway at home to Widnes on Sunday and Kirmond claims there is an excitement around the club which he hasn’t felt for a while.
“I’m excited for the start of the season like I haven’t felt for a number of years.
“We’ve added a great blend of youth and experience into the team and there’s a great sense of camaraderie in the squad this year.
“We believe we’ve got a great squad and are confident we can do really well. The top-eight is a realistic ambition but first of all it’s to improve on last year and not be involved in that million pound game.”
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.”
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.