IMAGINE IF the Super League title was decided by first past the post.
If the team finishing top of the table after 27 rounds were crowned champions, this would be one of the most exciting seasons of the summer era.
With 10 games left, just four points separate the top six in the table and it is impossible to predict who will collect the league leaders’ hubcap.
The situation seems to change every week and at least three teams have looked favourites at one stage to finish first, only to fade.
St Helens got off to a flier, before hitting turbulence around Easter. That was when Leeds Rhinos came into their own, but they have lost three of their last five.
Defending champions Wigan Warriors looked to be getting into their stride, but then stumbled on Sunday when they suffered a shock defeat at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.
Castleford Tigers were eyeing top spot a fortnight ago, but have slipped to fourth and it is the next two, Huddersfield Giants and Warrington Wolves, who seem to have momentum now.
It is a fascinating race and the battle at the top of the ladder is finally eclipsing goings on at the bottom, where it is more or less game over.
London Broncos – still without a point after 17 rounds – have been doomed for a long time and Wakefield’s victory at the weekend all-but ended Bradford Bulls’ faint hopes of staying up.
They are now 10 points adrift of Wakefield, who – to general amusement across the competition – have climbed a place to 11th, above big-spending Salford Red Devils.
At the top, nobody seems willing or able to take a grip on matters and despite recent wobbles Saints and Leeds remain in the top-two spots, where they have been for most of the year.
Suffering a mid-season injury crisis, Leeds have dropped off from the form they showed around Easter, but they could be back to full-strength by early next month, with some key players fresh and ready for the big games to come in August, September and October.
For what it’s worth, this column’s tip for the Grand Final – if Leeds don’t win it again – is Warrington, who are coming good after a poor start. Having failed to claim the big prize from first and second in the table, they maybe fancy a crack at it from fourth or fifth.
The close-fought race this year will add to calls for the team who top the table to be crowned champions, as they were from 1974-1997. Obviously the league leaders are the most consistent side throughout the year. Nobody could argue Giants weren’t that last year, but they blew it when it came to the games that matter.
That’s what makes the current system – despite its flaws – so intriguing. It is possible to lose a game or two without it affecting a team’s title chances and that adds an extra element to the regular season.
Under the play-offs and Grand Final format, it is a tactical battle and while that may lead to disappointing results for the pace-setters – such as Wigan’s defeat at Wakefield or Saints losing to Widnes over Easter – shocks like that are good for the competition.
Teams may pick and choose their matches to an extent and there’s an argument the current system leads to too many meaningless matches.
But seasons as close as this one are the exception rather than the rule. Though there’s every chance this year’s race for pole position will go down to the last game, that happens every year when the title is decided by a Grand Final.
THERE really has been more penalties, on average, for obstruction this year than previous seasons. A meeting between match officials and the media this week was told that so far in 2014 there have been 157 penalties for obstruction, at an average of 1.4 per game. The average for rounds one to 16 last year was 0.9 and it was 0.8 in 2012. So an increase of 50 per cent, according to cynical members of the media, or half a penalty per game, in the referees’ eyes. The controversy over obstruction dominated what was a feisty debate and it was revealed a protocol for how that aspect of the game would be handled by match officials was agreed with all coaches at the start of the year. The match officials present – referees Phil Bentham, above, and Robert Hicks, refs’ coach Ian Smith and the department’s head Jon Sharp – were adamant video referees are not attempting to find ways to disallow tries, which was something this column claimed last week. The officials seemed surprised the media were keen to see referees take more ownership, with less reliance on their video assistants – even if that means mistakes are occasionally made. Apparently, around 95 per cent of on-field decisions are correct, which is an impressive statistic.