Super Saints can topple Warriors
The Grand Final betting ahead of Super League XVIII has a familiar look to it writes Ben Linfoot.
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Warrington are the 9/4 favourites to go one better than last year and finally land the prize they crave above all others, with Wigan and St Helens battling it out for second-favouritism at around the 4/1 mark.
Then come perennial underdogs Leeds Rhinos, fourth favourites again despite landing an incredible fifth Grand Final win in six years at Old Trafford last October.
The problem I have as a rugby league punter is I find it difficult to disagree with any of those odds and nothing in the outright betting stands out.
I would rate St Helens a better bet than Wigan, but taking 4/1 about the Saints when Warrington are such solid favourites and Leeds are so dangerous come play-off time makes little appeal.
Instead, the 11/10 about St Helens finishing above Wigan in the regular season looks the way to go.
The case for predicting improvement in St Helens is a simple one. They weren't far off the best last campaign, finishing six points off leaders Wigan and five off Warrington and the changes they've made both to their backroom and playing staff point to a big 2013.
Big things are expected of new coach Nathan Brown, who worked wonders at Huddersfield, while centre Jordan Turner and second-rower Willie Manu add further class to an already impressive team unit.
Iosia Soliola, Lance Hohaia and Paul Wellens remain vital players for St Helens but it's hooker/loose forward James Roby who can be the driving force for his team once again.
Roby's stats in 2012 were phenomenal. He made the most carries in Super League (845), made the most metres (3,971) and made the most runs from dummy-half (756).
On top of this he made the second most tackles (966) behind Wakefield's Danny Washbrook and also broke into the top 10 for try assists.
A huge player for St Helens, if he repeats or even improves on those stats in a successful season for his team, the 7/1 about him for the Man Of Steel prize will look very big indeed.
While it's onwards and upwards for Saints, it's going to be tough for a Wigan side that has lost Brett Finch, Thomas Leuluai, Jeff Lima, George Carmont and Gareth Hock.
Blake Green and Matty Smith are the new half-back partnership for Wigan and the Warriors' chances of success will much depend on how they develop as a duo.
With plenty of exciting youngsters and the incredible talent that is Sam Tomkins also in the ranks, we're not predicting a disastrous season for the cherry and whites.
But a slight dip in consistency looks inevitable considering their standards over the last few seasons and a slight dip might be all it takes to see St Helens finish above their fierce rivals.
While a top-two berth looks on the cards for Saints, they could be pipped for top spot by Tony Smith's Warrington Wolves who are a beacon of continuity compared to their chopping and changing rivals.
The Wolves have brought in no new signings but have a very strong, if ageing, roster that seems to be on the cusp of achieving Grand Final glory.
They reached the Old Trafford showpiece for the first time last season, eventually losing 26-18 to Leeds in an epic battle, but that experience will stand them in good stead at the backend of the forthcoming campaign.
A prolific performance in the regular season looks a given taking into account their consistency over the last few campaigns and it would be no surprise to see them improve on last year's points tally of 41.
But it's their try-scoring power I'm interested in.
Wigan romped away with the 'top try-scoring team' honour last season with 183, the Wolves second on 160 and the best of the rest fighting it out in the 140s.
The Warriors are likely to be struggling for cohesion in attack in the early part of the campaign and considering we expect them to dip in overall performance, as discussed, their try output looks bound to suffer.
Warrington, on the other hand, have a finely-tuned attacking unit and at 15/8 they look a decent wager to score most tries this campaign.
Winger Chris Riley looks sure to contribute many of those after bouncing back to top form last season following an indifferent 2011.
He finished third in the top try-scorers list with 25 in 2010 before a drastic loss of form saw him loaned out to Harlequins where he rediscovered his scoring touch.
Back in the Wolves squad for the full duration of the 2012 campaign, he finished joint-fourth in the try-scorers list with 23.
Talented centres Ryan Atkins and Chris Bridge will provide him with plenty of ammunition once again and while the former scored just as many tries as Riley last season it's the winger we want onside at 12/1.
2010 showed he's got the raw talent and finishing touch to go well in the race for top try-scorer and an each-way wager on him at 12s appeals more than the likes of Josh Charnley (11/2) and Ryan Hall (6/1).
Charnley and Hall have impressive strike-rates for their clubs and the former finished top of the try-scorer pile last season with 31, but both look short enough given their clubs look unlikely to penetrate the top two in the standings this campaign.
Warrington look to have the best firepower in the competition, and we'll take Riley to outscore his team-mates and finish top of the pile.
Finally, a word on Leeds and Hull.
The Rhinos look set for another top campaign but they don't appeal in the regular season betting given their tendency to improve towards the play-offs.
11/2 is fair about them in the Grand Final betting given their incredible pedigree but you can't help but feel they will trade at bigger odds than that at some stage during the season.
If they start as slowly in the first half of the season as they have the last few years they could trade at double-figure odds for Old Trafford and that could be the time to strike.
Hull, meanwhile, have made some top signings, headed by Gareth Ellis, and they could be the most improved outfit in Super League this term.
The 13/8 about them 'without the big four' is tempting as Catalan, under new coach Laurent Frayssinous, look to be their only serious rivals in the market.
They've made some good signings themselves including Brent Webb and the Dragons can pick up plenty of points at home, but their capitulation last term is a huge concern.
Peter Gentle's team look well equipped to mount a real challenge this campaign and are considered by many experts to be a threat to the top four.
With expectations pretty high that may just be beyond them this season, but 'without the big four' they look a decent wager at 13/8.
Widnes a handicap snip
Widnes come into the 2013 season with no expectations on their shoulders writes Jordan Fiddes.
The Vikings finished Super League XVII bottom of the league with the poorest attack and the weakest defence to finish on a points difference of minus 550.
Therefore, the bookies aren't giving them much hope this year as the Vikings are 350/1 to win the Grand Final. However, on the season handicap betting they are a massive +26 with Stan James, the biggest handicap of any Super League club.
With Warrington at scratch with most bookmakers, I can see the Vikings topping the 2013 handicap table.
It's not just the 26-point start that is attracting me to the Vikings in this market; Denis Betts has recruited some big game players for the new season too.
The latest and certainly the biggest name to sign for Widnes this year is Wigan second-row Gareth Hock on a season-long loan.
The 6ft 3in, 15-stone forward has fallen out of favour with the Warriors coach Shaun Wane but what is one man's loss is another man's gain and Betts knows exactly what he is getting himself in for.
While Betts was in temporary charge of Wigan, Hock was on the fringes of the first team and the two worked together for over a year.
In that same 2004 Wigan squad was a fresh-faced stand-off Kevin Brown. Betts saw something he liked and has brought him into the Widnes squad for 2013.
Brown, signed from Huddersfield in the off-season, has been instrumental in the Giants' rise up the Super League ranks over the past few years and will be the pivot for the Vikings in 2013.
His link-up with Rhys Hanbury will be crucial for Widnes this year as they look to build on 2012. Hanbury was the stand-out player for the Vikings last year, gaining nearly 2,000 metres with ball in hand and creating 18 tries.
With Brown organising the play, it will give Hanbury more of a free role in the backs, creating more chances and more points for the Vikings, which they lacked in 2012.
With a mixture of youth and experience in the Widnes squad this year, they have added some flair and size to a team that has now got the stability of being together for two seasons.
The last time Widnes played successive seasons in Super League without promotion and relegation, they finished ninth and fewer than 20 points behind champions Bradford Bulls.
If the same handicap was applied then, they would have topped the 2003 season handicap league.
They look well worth chancing this time around.