Inside RL: Very little to separate this year’s contenders – Smith

Paul Aiton.
Paul Aiton.
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LAST YEAR 14 points separated top from sixth in the final First Utility Super League table.

This year there are just six points between the leading half a dozen sides and the play-offs are intriguingly poised.

St Helens were the unlucky ones. Despite defeats in their final two matches they ended up with the leaders’ hubcap, which everyone seemed desperate to avoid. No wonder. It is four years since the team finishing top of the table went on to win the Grand Final, or even reach Old Trafford.

Saints were the most consistent team over the 27 weekly rounds, in spite of some horrendous injury woes, but whether they have the strength to go much further remains to be seen.

Their injury problems and shaky form represent an opportunity for Castleford Tigers, who went into round 27 with top spot in their sights and ended up finishing fourth; still a tremendous achievement for a team who were 12th in 2013. Add in a Challenge Cup final appearance and it has been a hugely encouraging season for Tigers. The question now is whether they can go all the way to Old Trafford.

Their Challenge Cup form, including a win at Wigan Warriors, indicates they have what it takes, though poor performances in their two biggest games of the year so far – at Wembley and in Catalan last Saturday – are a concern. Players who have been good all year went missing in those two matches and Tigers can’t afford a repeat in the post-season series.

That said, if they get it right on their day there’s no reason why they can’t make an impression, with a near-clean bill of health and having beaten all their top-eight rivals this year, other than Saints – who they visit in a qualifying tie tomorrow – and Leeds.

Speaking of which, Rhinos finished sixth, their lowest league position since the inaugural summer campaign 18 years ago. Having won the Grand Final twice from fifth, nobody will write off the Challenge Cup holders this time, but Catalan Dragons will be tough first opposition at Headingley Carnegie on Saturday.

Leeds’ form over the second half of the season has been very poor: four wins, a draw and eight defeats. However, all but two of those losses were by a converted try or less, so they have been competitive and a couple came with weakened teams when they were preparing for vital Challenge Cup ties.

Of the five teams who finished above them, they drew at Huddersfield, won away to Castleford and lost at the others. They’ll have to win away to two higher-ranked teams to get to Old Trafford and that is a tall order, based on current form.

Leeds thrive on a challenge and at their best when nobody gives them a chance. It will take a huge upturn in form for them to go all the way to Old Trafford this time, but they are capable.

If Leeds don’t win the title this year, Warrington may be the best bet. They started poorly and have had some poor results during the course of the season, but when they get it together they are close to unstoppable.

Wigan seem to be running into form at the right time, but are prone to off days and Huddersfield Giants are always dangerous opponents, but need Danny Brough fit and firing. Widnes Vikings have done remarkably well to qualify, but aren’t good enough to go any further.

And Catalan’s poor away form means they can also be discounted as serious Grand Final contenders.

For what it’s worth, this column’s tips for the first round winners are Wigan, Castleford, Warrington and Leeds.

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FINISHING 12th is hardly a cause for celebration, but Wakefield Trinity Wildcats could be satisfied with their 2014 Super League campaign – and will be aware of what Castleford Tigers have done from a similar position a year ago.

At the end of last season Wildcats were everybody’s tip for relegation, but they were safe with a third of the campaign to go, were in top-eight contention until the final couple of weeks and would have survived even if Bradford Bulls hadn’t been penalised six points.

A change of coach doesn’t always work, but in Wildcats’ case the departure of Richard Agar and James Webster’s promotion in his place brought about an upturn in form. Wildcats played 12 games under Webster, winning six, drawing one and losing five. Their victims included top-six teams Leeds Rhinos, Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves.

According to Webster, pictured, Wildcats will have the smallest playing budget in the competition next year and will be operating with a reduced playing roster, so they will need to keep their senior players fit, but there has been some smart recruitment already and prospects now are much healthier than they were 12 months ago.

Leeds Rhinos 16 St Helens 14: Rhinos dig deep to edge out St Helens