It’s not easy to monitor the First Utility Super League table without getting motion-sick.
Rollercoaster ride is an over-used cliché in sport, but there has certainly been more than the usual ups and downs in the competition already this year, with half of the regular season still to play.
After 11 rounds everyone has played everyone else once and a pattern normally begins to develop, but so far the only real gaps have appeared at the top and bottom of the table. The rest of the league is incredibly close.
Leeds Rhinos, at this stage, look a cut above. Six points is a huge lead and they already have one boot in the top-four, which was every club’s aim at the start of the year. The top-eight in Super League will go into the Super-eights when the competition splits after 23 rounds. The bottom quartet will compete in the Qualifiers, alongside the top four from the Kingstone Press Championship.
Finishing in places one to four – or nine and 10 – is important as those teams will get an extra home game in the new mini-leagues, playing four matches on their own turf and three away. Also, points from the first 23 rounds carry over into the Super-eights, so every win Leeds have picked up so far is a step closer towards qualifying for the semi-finals.
Unlike previous years, there will be two knock-out semi-finals leading straight to a place at Old Trafford, with the top two after the Super-eights having home advantage against the sides finishing fourth and third.
Leeds have won 10 of their 11 matches to date and six straight since their lone defeat, away to tomorrow’s visitors Warrington Wolves last month. Rhinos were also top after 11 rounds last year, having won nine, drawn one and lost one – so incredibly, they are only a point ahead of the same stage in 2014.
They won six, lost five and drew one of their next 12, which – if repeated this year – would be enough to guarantee at least fourth place.
There’s still work to be done if Leeds want to finish top, but they do seem to be finding the consistency they have lacked in previous seasons under Brian McDermott.
Rhinos’ best form has actually come with key players out of the team. Neither Tom Briscoe nor Kylie Leuluai has played since the defeat at Warrington and Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Ryan Hall are both also currently on the casualty list. Young players have stepped up and shown they can do more than an adequate job. Nineteen-year-old winger Ash Handley has played the last six games and is averaging a try per match.
More impressively, he has been solid in defence and safe under the high ball. Brad Singleton is now an established member of the 17, Stevie Ward has put his two-year injury nightmare behind him and is in outstanding form and Liam Sutcliffe is continuing to emerge as a player of rich promise.
His eye-catching performance against St Helens last week, when he formed an outstanding half-back partnership with Danny McGuire, hinted at a potential future as a Test stand-off. It will be interesting to see where that leaves Kevin Sinfield, who was dropped to the bench for the first time in 12 years last week, but Rhinos are going to have to cope without their talismanic skipper from the end of this season and so far the signs are positive for a smooth transition.
Consistency is one word which can’t be applied to anyone else in the competition, other than perhaps bottom club Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, who are on an eight-match losing run. Castleford Tigers had won two straight – and four out of five – when they travelled to second-bottom Widnes Vikings last Sunday and were hammered 46-16. Widnes climbed two places to ninth and are just one point behind fifth-placed Huddersfield Giants.
That’s what is making this year’s competition so compelling, at both ends of the table. At least one fancied team might well drop into the Qualifiers, though last weekend’s Challenge Cup results suggest the Super League teams in the middle-eights won’t have too much to worry about.