Slick Saints have Grand Final glory in their sights
Cup kings Hull appear most likely to end big four's stranglehold
Solving the Super League puzzle often seems a complex conundrum but over the years the solution has been simple.
Whether the competition has featured 12 or 14 teams, whatever the playoff structure, however the salary cap has worked, after ten months of struggle either Leeds, Wigan, St Helens or Bradford have been crowned kings at Old Trafford.
With the demise of the Bulls the big four have become the big three but the dominance of the established superpowers has continued and it was underlined by the Rhinos' rout of Castleford in last year's Grand Final.
Cas were the latest team to come close to cracking the cartel but, after finishing a record-breaking ten points clear of the field, Daryl Powell's swashbuckling side flopped in Manchester after going off favourites.
Most bookmakers have Castleford at the head of a highly-congested market but, unfortunately for punters, the cat – or in this case the Tiger – is out of the bag.
The fancy prices about Cas from 12 months ago have gone, along with their element of surprise and, crucially, ace full-back Zak Hardaker whose suspension for a positive cocaine test rocked the Tigers on the eve of the Grand Final.
Cas have done a shrewd piece of business by recruiting classy centre Joe Wardle from Newcastle Knights but even so it's difficult to escape the conclusion that 2017 may have been their best shot at Grand Final glory.
The Tigers almost didn't have a shot at all as they trailed St Helens in the semi-finals with seconds remaining, but the boot of Luke Gale rescued them. Saints were the better side that night and that performance was one of several in the second half of the season that served notice they will be among the leading contenders in 2018.
They made a dismal start last year, winning just five of their first 14 games, but replacing club legend Keiron Cunningham as coach with Australian Justin Holbrook led to a change of style and fortune.
Hull were routed 45-0 at the Magic Weekend in Holbrook's first game at the helm and Saints won ten of their next 16 before the playoffs with four of their six losses coming by four points or fewer – only Castleford performed better.
Holbrook has kept faith with last season's squad but that isn't a negative. Australian superstar Ben Barba played only five games after arriving mid-season and he can be expected to perform better this year. New captain James Roby remains a world-class hooker while prop Alex Walmsley and centre Mark Percival are arguably the best in the competition in their positions.
Saints have reached the semi-finals for the last four seasons and look almost certain to be in the final four again. At 5-1, they are the standout selection.
Bitter rivals Wigan were one of the big disappointments of Super League XXII as the ante-post favourites limped home in sixth.
That failure was masked by reaching the Challenge Cup Final and winning the World Club Challenge, and it can be partially excused by a number of injuries to key individuals.
However, most of the big names were back on board by the end of the season yet the Warriors could muster only seven victories from their final 17 games.
Since then, they've lost Michael McIlorum and Anthony Gelling and an early-season jaunt down under to play a friendly against South Sydney and a Super League game versus Hull may not help their rhythm.
Lost ground can be made up but early setbacks could put coach Shaun Wane under pressure and make the 8-1 about him being the first coach to leave his job an interesting proposition.
It could also be worth taking a punt on the Cherry and Whites failing to make the top eight at a juicy 12-1. They finished only three points clear of the bottom four after 23 games last season and over the past two seasons big hitters Warrington and Leeds have both dropped into the Qualifiers.
The Rhinos bounced back from their woeful 2016 to win a glorious record-extending Grand Final last season.
'Never write off the Rhinos' is one of Super League's oldest adages but 'never back the Rhinos at pre-season prices' would be equally wise. In almost all of their championship-winning campaigns, Leeds have traded at much bigger odds during the season and that trend continued last year when a 66-10 hiding at Castleford in week four led to a big hike in their price.
And Leeds are rarely worth backing to top the regular-season pile. Only three of their Old Trafford triumphs were preceded by a table-topping campaign.
For the first time since the turn of the century, the Rhinos will go into battle without legendary duo Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow. Scrum-half Richie Myler has a tough act to follow after his arrival from Catalans Dragons.
There will doubtless be a time when it's wise to add Leeds to the punting portfolio but the champions are swerved for now at 6-1 – as are Warrington, who are 7-1 to win their first title since the 1950s.
The Wolves have made wholesale changes after a dismal 2017 with Ben Murdoch-Masila's arrival from Salford the most eye-catching move. Warrington have a new half-back in Tyrone Roberts and a new man in the hot seat in former St George Illawarra coach Steve Price after Tony Smith's departure after nine years.
Eight previous coaches have lifted the big prize in their first season in charge of their club, including Smith when he was at Leeds in 2004, so having a new leader of the Wolves pack shouldn’t put punters off, but Warrington have flattered to deceive many times.
The other team to back at this stage are Hull. Lee Radford's side have fallen at the semi-final stage in the past two seasons and have lost two key men in captain Gareth Ellis and powerhouse Mahe Fonua as they bid to make the Grand Final for the first time in 12 years.
However, blockbusting winger Bureta Faraimo has arrived and the Airlie Birds have one of the competition's best half-back combinations with the quiet control of Marc Sneyd paired with the mercurial talent of Albert Kelly.
They are 6-1 to land the big one at Old Trafford and the same price to make it a hat-trick of Challenge Cup wins at Wembley in August.
If Hull can win that knockout tournament, beating teams such as Wigan, Leeds, Saints and Cas along the way, there is no reason they can't string together two wins in the playoffs.
If this is finally to be the year that a new name is inscribed on Super League's roll of honour then Hull could be the team to make the long-awaited breakthrough but St Helens look a decent bet to delay the changing of the guard.
Punters should note that Betfred, Sky Bet, Ladbrokes and Coral's each-way terms are half the odds to reach the final while other firms go a third.
St Helens to win Grand Final
4pts 5-1 Betfair
Hull to win Grand Final
2pts each-way 6-1 Sky Bet
Wigan to finish in bottom four
1pt 12-1 Betfred
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