THE SUPER-8S are turning out to be a bit of a damp squib, but in the Qualifiers the action is beginning to hot-up.
The expectation at the end of the regular season was there would be no promotion or relegation, for the second successive year.
The top-three after seven rounds of the Qualifiers will play in First Utility Super League next season, with the fourth-and fifth-placed sides meeting in a one-off ‘million-pound game’ for the final spot. At the moment, it looks like that could be an all-Super League affair.
Kingstone Press Championship leaders Leigh Centurions lost seven from seven in the Qualifiers 12 months ago, but are in much better shape now.
Like Leeds Rhinos, they have a 100 per cent winning record after three rounds and their home victory over Salford Red Devils was huge. That puts them in the box seat for a top-three finish and they already appear to be a Super League side in waiting.
A team being promoted would breathe new life into the format, but be disastrous for whoever goes down. Salford look to be in real trouble and their next game, away to Rhinos a week tomorrow, is one they must win.
Salford would have finished above Leeds but for their six-point deduction, for past breaches of the salary cap and relegation would be tough on a team who accumulated enough points to finish seventh in the top flight.
They have beaten Leeds just twice in the summer era. One of those victories was at home earlier this season, but Rhinos were in the depths of their slump at the time and almost snatched it.
Rhinos were on a seven-game losing run when the teams met in June, but pulled off an 8-0 victory in a dire game.
That was the first of eight wins in nine matches and, even though Leeds have been poor in the last two and injuries are beginning to bite once again, Rhinos will fancy their chances next week.
With Batley Bulldogs due to visit Headingley the following Friday, a win over Salford would make Leeds very nearly safe and send the visitors tumbling towards, at best, the ‘million-pound game’.
There will be negative consequences if any of the current top-flight clubs go down. Leeds are a huge club with massive support, Huddersfield are a sleeping giant with an excellent stadium and a good recent record and Hull KR are an established big-city club.
In Salford’s case. it is important, strategically, to have a top-flight club in the Manchester area. Unfortunately, the move to AJ Bell Stadium has not worked and crowds have remained embarrassingly low with just 2,078 turning up last Friday when the home team suffered a costly loss to Hull KR.
Marwan Koukash is a divisive figure, but the negative attitude some in the game have towards Salford’s owner does not reflect well on them or the sport. He can be his own worst enemy at times; he seems to enjoy baiting the governing body, which is probably counter-productive and the six-point deduction – confirmed following an appeal – was a self-inflicted wound.
But the last thing rugby league should be doing is discouraging a rich backer, who is clearly a fan of the sport and prepared to put his money where his mouth is.
Salford were in a poor state before Koukash took over, but he has brought in better players and raised the club’s profile. He certainly has the knack of attracting media coverage which is something else the sport needs, though many of its administrators don’t seem to understand that.
Without Koukash, rugby league would simply have another club struggling to pay its bills.
Hull KR were many pundits’ tip for the ‘million-pound game’, but on current form it could well see Salford face the Giants, who are another club with a rich investor and who are in genuine peril after just one poor season. Whatever happens, a big club – or one with lofty ambitions – is going to find itself outside the promised land next year. With so much at stake, it is set to be a nervy and intriguing finale to the campaign.