Ellis makes Hull contenders
Ian Laybourn looks ahead to the new Super League season and reckons Hull can challenge for glory.
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Hull's signing of England international Gareth Ellis is set to breathe new life into the Super League title race in 2013.
The Black and Whites are one of just seven teams to have reached the Grand Final since its inception in 1998 but only five have ever won it.
The bookmakers are not seriously looking beyond the big four of Warrington, St Helens, Wigan and defending champions Leeds but ambitious Hull could muscle their way in after making the biggest impact in a largely subdued transfer market in the close season.
They signalled their intent by winning the battle for the prized signature of Ellis and followed that up with further shrewd acquisitions to more than offset the loss of Willie Manu.
Next Friday's mouth-watering opening between the Rhinos and Peter Gentle's men could provide an early indication of both teams' title hopes.
Leeds are guaranteed to be challenging once more and coach Brian McDermott will be hoping this time to launch their play-off campaign from a more comfortable position than fifth.
They are also stronger after eventually finding a replacement for Keith Senior in the gifted Joel Moon, who looked a class act at Salford last season and could provide a lethal combination with England winger Ryan Hall.
Warrington are the bookmakers' pick for the title despite opting not to make any new signings.
There is much to be said for continuity, as long as the Wolves' large contingent of thirty-somethings can last the pace, and it would be no surprise if they were to go one better after slipping up at the last in 2012.
Big things are expected of St Helens under Nathan Brown but question marks surround the ability of Wigan to retain the league leaders' shield.
Amazingly, it is five years since Saints last lifted a trophy but they look better equipped with Manu in their ranks and there is the Brown factor.
Wigan have lost too much experience to justify any real optimism. They will need new half-backs Matty Smith and Blake Green to hit the ground running if they are to remain competitive but they could be playing behind a beaten pack for much of the time.
The other realistic Grand Final contenders are Catalan Dragons, who will be in the reckoning as long as they manage to cover the early absence of inspirational half-back Scott Dureau.
Rookie boss Laurent Frayssinous, the first Frenchman to coach the Perpignan outfit, faces a tough act to follow in the footsteps of 2011 coach of the year Trent Robinson but he has the vastly-experienced David Waite to lean on.
As for the rest, expect London Broncos to be the big climbers after seriously under-achieving in 2012.
They showed signs of fulfilling their potential towards the end of last season when Tony Rea returned from Australia to take the reins and, with a virtually unchanged squad, they should be able to take that momentum into the new campaign.
Paul Anderson was unable to halt Huddersfield's slump after taking over from Brown towards the end of last season but he has completely re-shaped his pack and had an off-season to put his programmes in place.
The Giants ought to be top-eight contenders, along with Hull KR and Wakefield.
Rovers have lost some key personnel but they are a resilient lot and can be expected to once more claim some notable scalps at home, while Wakefield may have to settle for a season of consolidation after over-achieving in 2012.
New Bradford boss Francis Cummins must build gradually after the traumas of 2012 while Castleford coach Ian Millward will be desperately hoping to avoid major injuries to his trimmed-down squad.
The Tigers ended 2012 in worrying fashion with seven straight defeats and, if they fail to cope with a difficult start to the new season, panic could set in.
The capture of Gareth Hock, following that of his brother-in-law Kevin Brown, should give Widnes added conviction that they can avoid retaining the wooden spoon but much will depend on what happens at Salford.
The City Reds are sure to struggle early on after losing the spine of their team at the end of last season but, once Phil Veivers gets his hands on fresh funds from the takeover by Marwan Koukash, they should begin to climb the table.