Inside RL: Play-offs all set for cracking final bow

Michael Shenton
Michael Shenton
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WITH two rounds remaining in the regular First Utility Super League season, it is impossible to predict who will reach the Grand Final.

Any of the current top six are capable of going all the way and there could still be a major shake-up in finishing positions before the final whistle blows on round 27.

Castleford Tigers were sixth last Sunday morning, but the only team with a mathematical chance of pipping St Helens to the league leaders’ hubcap.

A win over Bradford Bulls rocketed them up four places and victories in their final matches, home to Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and at Catalan Dragons, could steal top spot, if Saints lose both theirs.

Even if Saints get something out of their games with Warrington Wolves and Huddersfield Giants, second place is Tigers’ to lose.

A top-two finish would be a remarkable achievement for a team who came third from bottom in 2013 and Cas – with the Wembley experience behind them – are real contenders for Old Trafford.

Saints have done remarkably well to lead with two games remaining, considering the number of injuries they have suffered to key players.

Warrington have recovered from an horrendous start and Huddersfield Giants have gone under the radar this year, after finishing top last season.

All will quietly fancy their chances, as will defending champions Wigan Warriors, though their recent form is poor: just one win in their last four league games.

Leeds Rhinos will begin the penultimate round in sixth spot, which is disappointing for a team who have been in the top-three for most of the year.

Three successive league defeats scuppered their hopes of claiming the hubcap for the first time since 1999, but they have won the title twice from fifth and nobody will look forward to playing them in the play-offs, wherever they finish.

So it is all to play for and if recent games between the top teams are anything to go by – there were two matches between top-six sides last weekend with one ending in a draw and the other being decided by a single point – the post-season series should be a cracker.

The top-eight format has failed to take off, resulting in some meaningless matches and poor crowds, so it is ironic it will be scrapped next season after what may be the tightest and most unpredictable series.

At times this year it has looked like teams have been trying to avoid finishing top, a position which has not produced a Grand Final winner since 2010.

Of the leading six, only Castleford have not suffered at least one shock loss to a team they would have been expected to beat quite comfortably.

Hopefully, whatever happens over the next month or so, it will be the players who decide results, not match officials.

Last weekend’s two televised fixtures were marred by some baffling decisions, for example Warrington’s “benefit of the doubt” try against Huddersfield, awarded by the video referees and two late calls which handed possession to St Helens, when it clearly should have been Leeds’ ball.

Also, there is now a precedent for referees referring possible fouls to the video official, so no excuse for the on-report cop out, in televised games at least.

After the match allegations emerged on social media that Leeds full-back Zak Hardaker had used offensive language towards Saints’ Mark Flanagan, something they both played down via the same medium and which has clearly angered and upset the Rhinos man.

The RFL are investigating, but the governing body needs to be careful not to be influenced by what seems to be a witch hunt against Hardaker on Twitter.

You miss him when he’s gone

RETIRING from international sport seems to be a relatively new phenomenon – in the past it was up to a coach or manager to decide when a player’s time was up.

Steve McNamara made it clear Kevin Sinfield was in his plans for this autumn’s Four Nations and it must have been tough for such a passionate and committed player to decide otherwise.

Even at 34 Sinfield is far from past it, but England need to look towards the 2017 World Cup and the Leeds captain has recognised that.

He may well also have glanced at club colleague Jamie Peacock, who has massively benefited from a couple of off- and pre-seasons after stepping down from Test rugby.

Sinfield is one of the most under-rated players in the code. He is far from just a remarkably accurate goal-kicker, his leadership and game management is outstanding, he inspires those around him and he does everything to an eight out of 10 level on a consistent basis.

The recent Challenge Cup win confirmed his status as an all-time Rhinos legend and fans watching him on a regular basis should make the most of it.

He will not be around forever and it might only become obvious how good he is when he is no longer playing.

Adam Milner on the Elland Road pitch.

Video - Leeds Rhinos v Castleford Tigers: Milner relishing Elland Road experience