BARELY a week after the 2015 First Utility Super League Grand Final rounded off a fascinating season, everyone knows who is playing who in the next campaign.
There has certainly been no procrastinating from the Rugby Football League in getting the fixtures out into the public domain.
Treble-winners Leeds Rhinos will begin the defence of their title at home to Warrington Wolves on Thursday, February 4 in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
The following night, Hull FC take on Salford Red Devils and Huddersfield Giants open against St Helens, before 2015 Challenge Cup runners-up Hull KR tackle Castleford Tigers on Sunday, February 6.
Wakefield Trinity, reprieved after their dice with relegation in the ‘Million Pound Game’ versus Bradford Bulls, host Widnes Vikings later that evening.
Leeds, Wigan Warriors and Saints, of course, then start preparations for the World Club Series over February 19-21 when those clubs face Australian champions North Queensland Cowboys, Grand Finalists Brisbane Broncos and Sydney Roosters, respectively.
Magic Weekend returns to St James’ Park, Newcastle, for a second year on May 21-22 and the 2016 Grand Final will take place on October 8.
Canterbury Bulldogs prop James Graham, preparing for England’s autumn internationals that start against France at Leigh on Saturday, attended the recent Old Trafford showpiece that saw Leeds defeat Wigan 22-20 in an epic encounter.
The former St Helens star, who has played in the NRL for the last four seasons, believes that spectacle shows the sport here is in rude health.
“I thought it was a great game,” said the 30-year-old.
“For me personally, it was nice to actually watch a match, not be associated with a club and just enjoy a game of rugby league.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been to something like that and not had a team to support.
“I thought it was very entertaining and a great advert for the sport.
“If you’re a rugby league fan – whether you’re based here or Timbuktu – you would have enjoyed that game and that’s all that matters. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and speaking to neutrals it was the same.”
On the subject of the forthcoming Test series, when the cream of Super League get to express themselves once more, there is a tinge of sadness the Kiwis will arrive without Golden Boot holder Shaun Johnson, the brilliant stand-off rated the world’s best player in 2014, plus a raft of other regulars due to injuries.
Head coach Stephen Kearney has named six uncapped players for the Four Nations champions and No 1 ranked team in the world, leaving many critics thinking the tourists – who warm up against Leeds at Headingley on Friday – will be there for the taking.
Graham, who knows them all well due to his weekly involvement in the NRL, insisted: “A lot has been made about the players not coming, but these are the guys that are here, they’ve still got a wealth of experience in there and some of the best players in the game at the minute.
“They will be here to play, and I’m fully expecting them to be at the level of performance that they’ve been at over the last three or four years, or even longer.
“The people who are around that organisation have set standards, have reached those standards and fulfilled their potential – I can’t envisage them just giving them up and letting their standards drop. I’m expecting a very, very good New Zealand side.”
Graham is relishing the chance to add to his 22 caps and help atone for the disappointment of losing to the Kiwis in last year’s Four Nations and that cruel last-minute 2013 World Cup semi-final defeat at Wembley.
“There’s a good strong core group of players here, and as always some players come in and out,” he said, England coach Steve McNamara having named six uncapped members.
“But it’s a similar group to 2013 when we were pretty close to winning the semi-final and going on to a World Cup final, and then again last year when it was so close yet so far. Hopefully, we can build on that and get some positive results rather than just some positive play.”
Graham will not get chance to play alongside Alex Walmsley, the rampaging prop who was shortlisted for the ‘Man of Steel’ award and probably an England debut following his scintillating form for Saints this year, only to be sidelined by injury late on.
“Everyone knows the story of where he’s come from now and where he’s got to,” said Graham, about the 25-year-old, who was still playing with Leeds Metropolitan University while starting out at Batley Bulldogs in 2012.
“It’s frightening to think there might be other gems like him lost because they’re not given that opportunity of full-time training.He’s been Saints’ best for me, and he’s been great for two or three years now.”