How a grim Super League season could have a spectacular finale – Peter Smith
IN AMONG all the negativity surrounding Betfred Super League at the moment, there’s actually a compelling end to the season in the offing.
Catalans Dragons have one hand on the league leaders’ shield and could secure it for certain on Saturday with a win over St Helens at the Dacia Magic Weekend in Newcastle. That would be quite a story, just four years after they were in the million pound match.
Leigh Centurions’ have looked doomed to relegation all season, Warrington Wolves will be third and Wigan Warriors now appear good again for fourth place.
But, with three rounds remaining - assuming postponed fixtures are not rearranged - who will finish fifth and sixth is anybody’s guess.
Fifth-placed Leeds Rhinos were in pole position before Monday’s derby at Wakefield Trinity and, to an extent, still are.
What seemed like a very damaging defeat when the final whistle blew turned out to be not quite such a severe setback as the three teams immediately below them on the ladder - Castleford Tigers, Hull KR and Hull - also lost.
For Leeds, it was an opportunity missed though and, most concerning, is their inconsistency.
Other than maybe a meeting with Leigh, there are no ‘gimmies’ in Super League this season but, after three successive wins, culminating in the 14-0 victory at Wigan, Rhinos should have performed better than they did.
Trinity were the better team, particularly in the second half and full value for the win.
They were certainly very spirited and interim-coach Willie Poching is doing his chances of getting the job on a long-term basis no harm at all.
Wakefield have played four, won three since he took over last month.
All the victories were against clubs where Poching has spent time on the coaching staff and they face another, Huddersfield Giants, at Magic.
It is a shame Wakefield couldn’t do something similar for their previous boss Chris Chester.
Poching admits he has only made minor adjustments, but the squad are clearly playing for him. They let themselves down under Chester and bear much of the responsibility for his dismissal.
Poching, a former Wakefield and Leeds player, is one of rugby league’s ‘good guys’, has served a long apprenticeship and, if results and performances continue to improve, surely deserves a chance to show what he can do as head coach.
It’s too late for Trinity to make a push for the top-six, but - with Giants, Leigh and Hull to play - they have every opportunity to finish the season strongly.
The race for the final two play-offs spots looks set to go down to the wire, as the four contenders play each other over the final weeks of the season.
Rhinos take on Hull and Hull KR either side of a visit to St Helens and Castleford have a game at Hull KR still to come.
Two wins should be enough for Leeds and Tigers’ fate is also in their own hands, though both teams will have to improve from last weekend. Tigers’ 22-0 home loss to Wigan was a shock after their recent good run but, other than the top-three, no side has been able to establish any real consistency this year and injuries and Covid will have a significant bearing on the final table.
What’s so intriguing about this year’s play-off is, all six sides will quietly fancy their chances of a run to Old Trafford and the two lowest placed are already becoming hardened to ‘must-win’ rugby.
Saints, the holders, Challenge Cup winners and an established big-game team, should be favourites, but Catalans have had an outstanding campaign, Warrington and Wigan will both pose a threat and Rhinos and Tigers - even Hull and Hull KR - have proven they can match anyone on their day.
It’s likely to be the healthiest and least-weary squad that wins it, which probably rules out Rhinos, but what has been quite a grim season overall - for a variety of reasons - could yet have a spectacular finale.
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