THE SUPER-8S may not have been a thrill-a-minute, but the battle inside the top-four has been a cracker.
The sides who will compete in the Super League semi-finals has been known for a couple of weeks, so every minute hasn’t mattered for the likes of Hull, Catalans Dragons and Warrington Wolves.
But going into the final round of the league season, any of the top-four could still – mathematically at least – finish as league leaders, which makes for a fascinating final few days’ action.
Fourth-placed St Helens will go top of the table if they win at home to Warrington tonight. They are a point behind the leading two, Leeds Rhinos and Wigan Warriors and level with third-placed Huddersfield Giants, but a massive disadvantage on for and against means it would take some freak results – including a victory by at least 64 points tonight – for them to claim a second successive shield.
Saints also need both Leeds – narrowly – and Wigan to lose tomorrow. Realistically, the best they can hope for is second place and third is more possible.
Huddersfield’s hopes of top spot aren’t in their own hands, but they can secure a home semi-final, which seemed unlikely at the end of last month.
A win over Leeds would, barring a miraculous points difference swing in Saints’ favour, achieve that, but they will also need Wigan to lose at home to Castleford Tigers if they are to finish top for the second time in three seasons.
Wigan will go into their game tomorrow knowing victory would seal at least second and a home play-off. They are then relying on Huddersfield to defeat Leeds. Rhinos’ equation is the simplest, at least in terms of the league leaders’ shield. If they win at John Smith’s Stadium, they will finish top.
A draw – for the third time in as many visits – would only be good enough if Wigan don’t win and defeat would condemn them to anything from second down to fourth, depending on results elsewhere.
It’s the sort of finale the RFL – and broadcasters Sky – could only have dreamed of when the new format was introduced at the start of this season.
To an extent, the decision to revamp the play-off system has been justified and the best four teams will be competing in the semi-finals.
Hull coach Lee Radford raised concerns with the format following his team’s home loss to Huddersfield Giants last weekend. He reckons there have been too many meaningless matches in the eights and would like to see teams restarting on zero points when the competition splits.
Under Radford’s plan, the top side after 23 rounds would be league leaders. Starting again on level points would give all the top-eight an equal chance of reaching the Grand Final.
The problem with that is it benefits the poorer teams, rather than the ones who have been consistent throughout the year. If sides like Hull have had too many meaningless games, that’s because they haven’t been good enough.
Castleford provided the answer to all this “nothing to play for” nonsense when they went to Headingley a week ago and out-played the league leaders.
Tigers knew they couldn’t finish in the top-four, but they did a professional job anyway, against a team with everything at stake.
Any time players are being paid to take the field – and fans part with good money to watch them – they have a reason to perform.
If they can’t manage that, it’s their problem, not the system’s.
Catalans Dragons are the team who need to take the longest, hardest look at themselves following their results this term. The French outfit have won just once on their travels, at Super League’s whipping boys Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, but been beaten only twice at home.
Their last two results have been a 46-16 victory over Leeds at Stade Gilbert Brutus and 48-6 drubbing away to Warrington Wolves. Obviously travel plays its part, but attitude must have an even greater bearing.
All that said, Leigh Centurions – who have under-performed in the Qualifiers – can feel aggrieved at missing out on promotion after being the Championship’s dominant side. The new system is heavily-weighted against promotion and that is something which will have to be reassessed.