Peter Smith: One-sided competition is the flip side of Grand Final showpiece

Greg Eden, Paul McShane, Luke Gale and Michael Shenton.
Greg Eden, Paul McShane, Luke Gale and Michael Shenton.
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TOP SPOT at the end of the regular Betfred Super League season is already guaranteed for Castleford Tigers.

They are a remarkable eight points ahead of second-placed Salford Red Devils with only three rounds remaining before the competition splits into Super-8s and Qualifiers.

Kyle Wood.

Kyle Wood.

Wakefield Trinity, who Castleford play tonight, are 10 points adrift in fifth position and there is a chance Castleford could be certain of a top-four finish and therefore a place in the semi-finals before the Super-8s even begin.

The one-sided nature of Super League is due to a combination of Castleford being very good and extremely consistent and the traditional big guns misfiring this season.

However, for all their dominance so far this year only two matches will really matter for Tigers – their play-off semi-final and, assuming they win that, the Grand Final at Old Trafford.

Castleford may finish further ahead of the pack than any other team in Super League history, but one bad day would ruin their entire year. Castleford’s treble hopes have already been shattered after they fell flat in a Ladbrokes Challenge Cup quarter-final at Hull.

Kevin Sinfield with the Grand Final trophy.

Kevin Sinfield with the Grand Final trophy.

That was Hull’s second win of the year over Tigers and they were close to completing a hat-trick a week ago, hitting back from 22-4 and 24-10 down to lose 24-22 in a game they might well have won had they begun their rally five minutes earlier. If Castleford stumble in the final furlong this year it will create a mini-crisis for Super League and fuel a push for a return to the first past the post system of crowning league champions.

Credibility-wise, Super League is caught in a vicious circle: there’s no point having play-offs if teams from further down the table can’t get up to claim the title, but on the other hand the competition will be ridiculed should Tigers finish a huge distance clear of their nearest rivals and then fail to win the Grand Final.

When Leeds Rhinos triumphed at Old Trafford in 2011 and 2012 after finishing fifth in the league it justified the then play-offs system, but there were claims – from inside and outside the sport – their success made everything that had happened earlier in the season meaningless.

The new format was introduced to tackle that issue. Clubs now need to be in the top four after 30 rounds to have a chance of qualifying for the Grand Final and the convoluted play-offs system has been boiled down to two knockout ties.

But even so, Super League is not about celebrating the best team.

It is about keeping the race for the title alive until the final game and creating a money- and publicity-spinning event at the end of the campaign.

In 2011 Warrington Wolves were Super League’s best and most consistent team. The following year it was Wigan Warriors, but neither even reached the Grand Final.

Last year’s most consistent side, Warrington, did, but lost out to second-placed Wigan.

Of the 18 Grand Finals so far, 10 have been won by the league leaders.

If the table-topping team were crowned champions – which has not happened since 1997 – it would be a much fairer outcome, but the race this year would be virtually over already and it would also kill one of the big evenings in the sport’s calendar –the Grand Final.

From 1974 until the second year of Super League the league leaders lifted the Championship trophy and there was a separate play-offs competition – the Premiership – with, in its later years, a final staged at Old Trafford.

But the crowd for the last Premiership final, between Wigan Warriors and St Helens, was only 33,389 and that was as part of a double-header with a lower-division decider.

Wigan’s win over Warrington last October was watched by more than double that, 70,202.

Even the first Grand Final, when the idea hadn’t really taken off, topped the previous year’s Premiership attendance by 10,000. The Grand Final may produce unfair results, but if the code wants its annual evening in the spotlight it is a price it has to be prepared to pay.