THE next round of matches will mark the halfway point of Engage Super League XVI, so how have Leeds Rhinos, Castleford Tigers and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats fared so far?
Leeds Rhinos have under-performed, but are showing signs of recovery.
Three weeks ago, a review of Rhinos’ season so far would have had a different tone. There wasn’t much to smile about after their first home defeat by Huddersfield Giants in more than half a century had left them with just four wins and a draw from their opening 10 matches.
But three victories in nine days over the Easter period have transformed the outlook and suggest that Leeds may be about to come good.
Importantly, Rhinos’ injury situation is beginning to improve. The loss of in-form three-quarter Kallum Watkins is a blow, but Danny McGuire and Jamie Peacock are back in action and the team looks a better-balanced, more cohesive unit with those two on the field.
Ryan Bailey and Brett Delaney have both returned from long-term injuries in good form, Lee Smith and Zak Hardaker are available again and Ali Lauitiiti and Ben Jones-Bishop are not far away.
Having key players like Peacock and McGuire available has given Rhinos a lift at a time when they appear to be coming to terms with the style of play that new coaching duo Brian McDermott and James Lowes are trying to promote. In recent games the error count has been reduced and the defence has vastly improved.
McDermott said in the winter that it would be the midway point before Rhinos began to play their best rugby and that seems to have been an accurate prediction.
Kevin Sinfield has been the key man so far, but Brent Webb has also impressed, along with Carl Ablett, Luke Burgess and Jamie Jones-Buchanan in the pack – and Keith Senior and Rob Burrow, written off a few weeks ago, are also running into excellent form.
Danny Buderus has benefited from longer game time and maverick back-up hooker Paul McShane has – over the last few weeks – underlined his outstanding potential.
It was crucial for Rhinos to still be in touch with the leaders when Peacock and McGuire returned and they have done that, currently sitting just three points adrift.
The leading group will be glancing anxiously over their shoulders after Rhinos’ successful Easter and if they can maintain recent form – and the leading pack keep taking points off each other – Leeds will be on course to match last year’s top-four finish.
Castleford TigerS are beginning to find the going tough, after an outstanding start to the campaign.
Victory over Wakefield Trinity Wildcats on Good Friday would have taken Tigers top of the table, but instead three straight defeats has left them in fifth spot, though they are only three points off pole position, with a game in hand on most of their rivals.
An overall record of seven wins from 12 matches is better than anyone in the Tigers camp would have predicted at the start of the year, but their strong opening to the season has raised expectations and the question after four matches without a win is: Has the bubble burst?
No it hasn’t, but they have faced stronger opposition in their last couple of games and injuries have begun to bite with prolific try scorer Nick Youngquest and top forward Craig Huby among those on the long-term casualty list. Tigers are now struggling for go-forward and their squad is beginning to look stretched.
Cas have successfully blooded a host of youngsters this year, with Joe Arundel, Jordan Thompson, Adam Milner, Oliver Holmes and particularly Daryl Clark all making an important contribution, but having so many young players in the side can lead to inconsistency.
Richard Mathers was a good signing in the back division, Jacob Emmitt is fast becoming a fans’ favourite and Danny Orr has proved the perfect half-back partner for stand-off Rangi Chase.
The likes of Brett Ferres and the under-rated Kirk Dixon have also done a sterling job, though with Nick Fozzard and Huby sidelined against Leeds last week, Cas’ pack did look worryingly lightweight.
Cas aren’t far away from getting back on track. They led against Harlequins, Wakefield and St Helens and the 48-6 scoreline against Leeds was harsh on them; it could have been a different story but for two disallowed touchdowns in the first half.
Tigers are perhaps overly-reliant on Chase, who must surely be a genuine Man of Steel candidate, but – providing their injury list does not continue to lengthen – they are well on course towards securing a play-offs spot, which would constitute a good season for coach Terry Matterson’s side.
WAKEFIELD TRINITY WILDCATS
The Wildcats have exceeded expectations – with more improvement to come.
Wildcats’ squad posed for a new official team picture a few weeks ago as the one taken at the start of the campaign was no longer relevant as so many players have come and gone.
Shorn of many of their experienced players and with a four-point deduction for entering administration, Wildcats looked odds-on to finish bottom of the table.
Five wins from their opening 13 matches would have been a decent return under any circumstances – exceeding that achieved by more fancied outfits Hull KR and Bradford Bulls and equalling the achievement of Salford City Reds and Hull.
Had they not suffered a points deduction, Wildcats would currently be tenth in the table, trailing the two teams immediately above them only on points difference.
Many of Wildcats’ games this year have followed a similar pattern, with them competing in the first half, before falling away in the final quarter, but they seem to be addressing that.
Tellingly, they finished the stronger side in two of their three Easter fixtures – the wins over Castleford and Hull KR – and that is a positive sign.
Wildcats are developing week on week and coach John Kear is in his element. Motivation has always been one of Kear’s strengths – along with his ability to take misfits and cast-offs and turn them into better players.
Youngsters including Paul Johnson, Frankie Mariano, Stuart Howarth, Josh Veivers, Josh Griffin and Chris Dean were released by other Super League sides because they weren’t regarded as good enough.
They have proved that they are capable of competing in the top flight, with Johnson, Howarth and Mariano in particular looking like established Super League players.
On-loan Kyle Amor has made a strong contribution in the front-row, Aaron Murphy is having a good season and relative rookies Matthew Wildie and Kieran Hyde are showing real promise.
Wildcats don’t have a lot of experience in their ranks, but Glenn Morrison has been a stalwart in the pack, with Julien Rinaldi playing arguably the best rugby of his Super League career.
Wakefield aren’t good enough yet to beat the top teams and scoring points remains a problem, but it’ll be no surprise if they claim at least one top-four scalp before the season is over and at their current rate of progress they are on course to defy the four-point deduction to finish as high as tenth, which would represent Kear’s greatest coaching achievement to date.