Inside RL: Next three games key to Rhinos’ fortunes – Smith

Stevie Ward
Stevie Ward
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AFTER 19 rounds it is still impossible to pick a clear favourite for the First Utility Super League title.

The competition takes a break this weekend, for the quarter-finals of the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup and that may give an advantage to third-placed Wigan Warriors.

They suffered a shock loss to Hull KR in the fifth round, so get an unexpected chance to recharge their batteries while the top-two on the table, Leeds Rhinos and St Helens, are in Cup action.

Rhinos are in a healthy position, a point clear of second-placed Saints, but the next three games will go a long way to shaping their season.

After tomorrow’s Cup tie at Hull, they face Saints and Wigan in successive weeks and whether they are genuine contenders for honours will be clearer after that.

Despite a disappointing recent run, on their day Rhinos are capable of beating anybody in the competition; but most of their rivals can say the same thing, which is what makes this year’s Super League so compelling.

It may not be the highest quality, but the table is remarkably tight and there are no foregone conclusions.

Huddersfield Giants and Castleford Tigers could also benefit from having been knocked out of the Cup.

Giants have flown under the radar this year, but are handily-placed in fourth and with Danny Brough playing behind their big pack, they are always a threat.

Castleford have turned out to be this season’s … Castleford.

After finishing fourth last year, reaching Wembley and being in with a chance of top spot going into the final weekly Super League round, they were tipped to struggle, having lost key players including Marc Sneyd, Craig Huby and Daryl Clark.

They had a slow start and have been inconsistent at times, but back-to-back wins over Leeds and Saints have underlined what they are capable of.

Ben Roberts, last week’s last-gasp hero, has reflected the team’s fortunes. He took a while to settle in, but is finding his feet now and has the potential to become a huge crowd favourite. There are similarities to arguably Tigers’ most popular player of the summer era, Adrian Vowles, whose career at the club began in similar fashion.

Cas are also building a reputation for smart recruitment.

Gadwin Springer, snapped up from Catalans, has huge potential, as does young centre Greg Minikin, who they are understood to have signed from National One outfit York City Knights.

Despite last year’s success, Cas have been a surprise package so far this season. The other shock has been Warrington Wolves’ form. Having brought Clark and Ashton Sims into an already strong squad, they looked like a team capable of winning all the major honours this year.

They still might, but it is going to take a huge improvement and if they slip-up in their next few league matches they could find themselves in the middle-eights.

At the moment Warrington, who have some good young players, but are yet to replace the influential Lee Briers in their halves, are just two points above the bottom-four, with Wigan, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, Saints and Castleford still to play.

Some good sides will find themselves playing in the middle-eights, but at this stage the only real certainty is that Wildcats will finish bottom.

Salford need one more point to make that mathematically sure, but Wakefield are nine points adrift with five to play in the regular campaign.

However, there were signs last week, admittedly against a poor Catalans outfit, of improvement under new coach Brian Smith.

Though they lost 32-12, they matched the French side for all but 20 minutes at the start and end of the game.

With five more matches to get his ideas across and the prospect of some new faces being brought in before the middle-eights begin, this column is still tipping Wakefield to remain in Super League next term.

Disgraced England star Zak Hardaker in action for Castleford Tigers. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

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