IT HAS BEEN the tightest season in Super League’s history, but former coach Francis Cummins expects play-offs rugby to separate the men from the boys.
With only six points between the top half a dozen teams on the final table, the post-season series is intriguingly-poised. Castleford Tigers have broken into the top-four for the first time while Widnes Vikings are preparing for their maiden play-offs campaign, but Cummins feels a repeat of last year’s Grand Final between Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves is the most likely outcome – with Leeds Rhinos the third team in the hunt.
The play-offs begin on Thursday, when Wigan play host to Huddersfield Giants. Castleford travel to St Helens the following evening, before two elimination ties on Saturday, when Widnes visit Warrington and Leeds have home advantage against Catalan Dragons.
“It was very close between the top six on the table, but I am not sure it is going to be that way in the play-offs,” said Cummins, a former Leeds player, who was Bradford Bulls coach until controversially being dismissed late in the season.
“I think the play-offs will be more clear cut. I think there’s a couple of spent-forces and a couple who might win one game, but aren’t going to win again after that.”
Saints defied an horrendous injury list to claim the league leaders’ shield, but Cummins reckons their season could have run its course.
“They’ve lost some key players,” Cummins observed. “Especially their halves, they are really struggling in that area at the moment. They have got some makeshift players in there and they are not looking a threat.
“They have got people with experience, but they don’t seem to have any spark. I could see them possibly beating Cas, but I can’t see them beating anybody else.”
Unfancied Tigers were within 80 minutes of the league leaders’ shield before a defeat at Catalan last Saturday pushed them down into fourth spot.
“They haven’t got too many players who have played in the play-offs or are used to playing 30-plus games a season,” said Cummins – a former Leeds teammate of Cas boss Daryl Powell.
“But they have got a great attack and I like how they defend. They have had a fantastic season, but it just seems to be taking its toll on them.
“They were talked about as relegation candidates, but they have been brilliant – the brand of rugby they play and the unity they’ve got. They’ve got a better attack and are less predictable than most teams in the top eight, but I think they will run out of steam.”
Lack of experience isn’t an issue for either Wigan or Warrington. Cummins said: “Wigan are looking fit and they are out-working teams. They have had two good wins, over Leeds and Warrington and they’ve got lots of energy. They have got to be favourites, them and Warrington.
“I don’t think they are as clinical as they have been in past seasons, but they do what Leeds did to Cas in the Challenge Cup final, they kick-chase well and they know how to strangle teams – and their experience is huge.”
Cummins added: “Back in the old days when I was a coach I always used to say you have more chance of beating the big teams in one-off competitions.
“If you have a small squad or not much experience you can always do them on the day. But once you get into the play-offs it always seems to favour teams who’ve got experience. Wigan were involved last year and that gives them a big advantage and it’s the same for Warrington.
“They had a poor start, but it’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish. Warrington have experience and when they play at a tempo, teams struggle to go with them.”
Of Huddersfield, who were third, Cummins said: “They have been winning, but – apart from Wigan away at the start of the season – they haven’t had a really convincing win. They beat us (Bradford) heavily twice, but we only had one prop – and for 25 minutes at the Magic Weekend our one prop was better than their front-row. There are some big question marks about their front-row and I don’t think teams are scared of Huddersfield.”
Which – of the top six – leaves Leeds. Cummins warned: “Never write them off. They have got the experience and they know how to do it, but they have got to go back to strangling teams.
“If they raise the tempo teams can’t go with them, but they have to do that right from the start. If it was any other team I would have big doubts, but you don’t write this bunch of fellas off.”
Catalan Dragons and Widnes Vikings finished in the last two play-offs spots and Cummins dismissed their prospects.
“Widnes have no chance,” he said. “They have had some results against Warrington, but I feel that clubs who make the play-offs for the first time seem to settle for that. It is a massive achievement for that club and they have been great for the franchise system and they have progressed and progressed, but I feel their race has been run this year.
“If Catalan do anything it has got to be this week against Leeds, but if Leeds play at a high tempo I don’t think Catalan can stay with them.”