TONIGHT marks the start of the second half of the regular Betfred Super League campaign.
There is still a long way to go, but this year is showing signs of being one of the best seasons in the competition’s history.
Maybe not in terms of standard. The fact two of the four Super League teams involved in last weekend’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup fifth round lost to lower league opposition says something about the strength of the elite competition.
But Super League is certainly unpredictable now. In the space of five days last week St Helens managed to beat the team leading the table, Castleford Tigers and then lose to the side at the bottom, Widnes Vikings.
Players and coaches say it every week, but that is an indication there really are no easy games in Super League any more. Of the four fixtures last weekend, three were decided by just two points. There is now genuine uncertainty of outcome and that is what any competition needs.
The stars of the first half of the season have been Castleford Tigers who finished fifth last year, but now look like realistic Grand Final contenders.
Tigers have the best attack, 396 points scored in 11 games and tightest defence – having conceded only 189 – and the three games they have lost have been by a combined total of seven points. That is impressive form, but Tigers won’t silence the doubters – fuelled by the two recent defeats – until they actually win anything. Saturday’s visit of Wigan Warriors is a huge game for Castleford.
Tigers were clearly superior when they won 27-10 at DW Stadium three weeks ago, but there has been a reversal in form since then and a win for Wigan this weekend would lift them above Cas on the league ladder. Cas have the tools to go all the way this year. They have a big squad and play some of the most thrilling rugby seen in Super League, but a lack of composure has proved costly in recent weeks and there are question marks over how they cope in tough games.
So far Cas have tended to win easily, or lose a close contest. Other teams have more big-game experience and that may tell in the Super-8s and semi-finals, but so far Cas are where they deserve to be.
However, they will knocked off top spot if Leeds Rhinos beat second-bottom Huddersfield Giants this evening. “Deluded” was one word bandied about on social media when Leeds coach Brian McDermott said – a week after a 66-10 thrashing at Castleford in March – he believed his side could go on and win the Grand Final.
That doesn’t seem so ridiculous now with Rhinos quietly having climbed to second in the table behind Tigers on points difference. Unexpectedly, they are now the second-highest scorers and for the first time since the summer of 2015 they look a threat with ball in hand. Joel Moon’s switch from centre into the halves has paid dividends and, the Castleford game apart, Leeds have handed injuries and suspensions pretty well.
Matt Parcell is proving to be one of the signings of the season and with the likes of Adam Cuthbertson, Kallum Watkins and Mitch Garbutt all in fine form and some fringe players and youngsters showing up well, suddenly Leeds appear to be a good team again. They have already matched last year’s points tally.
A top-eight place, which had to be their initial target, is all-but secured and six wins from the next 12 rounds should be enough to secure four home games in the Super-8s.
Wakefield Trinity had a tough Easter, losing to Castleford, Wigan and Warrington Wolves, but are still well-placed in seventh spot.
Their season could yet go either way – to the Super-8s or Qualifiers – but they have been competitive in almost every game and have a squad good enough to at least hold on to their current position.
As he said after the defeat at Warrington last week, Wakefield have come a long way since Chris Chester took over as coach 13 months ago and with signs things may be starting to happen on the stadium front, it has been a relatively positive season so far at Belle Vue.