A BALL has yet to be kicked in the First Utility Super-8s, Qualifiers or Kingstone Press Championship Shield and already the new format has its detractors.
Among them is Hull KR chairman Neil Hudgell, who has claimed his club’s season would be in danger of suffering a “slow, painful death” if they finished in the top-eight.
Hudgell was speaking before last week’s derby, so maybe he was trying to soften a possible blow, but a lot of what he said makes sense. Hudgell, who insisted he wasn’t “talking the competition down” pointed out the eighth-placed side, who could be eight points adrift of the top-four, will find it “virtually impossible” to get into the play-off semi-finals.
After this weekend’s round 23, Super League and the Championship will split into three new mini-leagues of eight. Super League’s top clubs will go into the Super-8s, playing seven more matches. The top-four get four home games and the rest only three on their own turf.
The leading four sides at the end of that will play-off for places at Old Trafford, first at home to fourth and second versus third. Points from the first 23 rounds carry over.
The bottom-four will join the Championship’s leading quartet in the Qualifiers. At the end of their next seven games the top three will be promoted, with the fourth-placed side at home to the team in fifth spot in a one-off game to decide the final place in Super League 2016. Teams in the Qualifiers all start on zero points, but sides nine and 10 from Super League and one and two in the Championship get four home games, one more than the others.
The bottom eight in the Championship will go into the Shield, with points from the regular season carrying over.
The top-four will play-off for places in the Shield final, teams five and six will retain their status for next year and the bottom two will be relegated.
The RFL’s slogan is “every minute matters”, but that is only true to an extent.
This weekend there are only a couple of issues to be decided.
The top-three in Super League are resolved, though the finishing order isn’t and while ninth-placed Hull KR could swap places with Catalans Dragons, who are eighth, it would take something special for that to happen. The top-four in the Championship is also set in stone, so they have nothing really to play for this weekend and only the minor placings below that are up for grabs.
Leeds Rhinos, St Helens and Wigan Warriors aren’t guaranteed a semi-final spot, but they have some breathing space and are strong favourites.
Huddersfield and Castleford Tigers are already four points clear of sixth-placed Warrington Wolves and the gap could be up to six by Sunday afternoon, which is massive going into a seven-game league. Hull KR are likely to finish ninth.
That will give them four home matches, though a couple of them against lower-division opposition – and something to fight for, which is a place in Super League next year.
So Hudgell may be right in terms of that providing a more exciting finalé to the year, though it would be a poor return for last season’s investment.
In reality, neither Rovers nor Widnes, who are currently 10th, are in much serious danger of relegation. Even Salford, if they can get themselves sorted out on and off the field, should be too good to go down.
That leaves Wakefield battling against Leigh Centurions, Bradford Bulls, Sheffield Eagles and Halifax. They have already beaten Halifax comfortably in the Challenge Cup and though they lost to Leigh in the same competition, they were 24-6 up at half-time.
They have improved since then and winning by massive margins, which their most realistic rivals Leigh and Bradford have been doing most weeks this year, is not ideal preparation for intense matches from here on in.
In the Shield, Featherstone Rovers, Dewsbury Rams and London Broncos are so far ahead of the rest, they will almost certainly feature in the semi-finals and only home advantage is at stake. Doncaster are cast adrift at the bottom, so four teams are battling for the final semi-final spot and to avoid the drop.