AFTER FOUR full rounds Wigan Warriors can feel happiest with the way the very early stages of Betfred Super League have gone.
They aren’t top of the table or playing the best rugby. That’s Castleford Tigers.
But things are falling into place nicely for the defending champions, whose traditional rivals all look short of being title material at this point.
Only six clubs have featured in a Grand Final. One of those – Bradford Bulls – are rooted to the foot of the Kingstone Press Championship and two others, St Helens and Warrington Wolves, are in Super League’s bottom-four.
Of the rest, Hull are third – and will fancy their chances of staying in a semi-final spot – and Leeds Rhinos fourth.
Castleford and Wigan are the only teams with a 100 per cent winning record and so far they have been head and shoulders above the rest.
Wigan, who have featured in the last four Grand Finals, would certainly fancy their chances of winning at Old Trafford against a Tigers side who would regard getting there as a major achievement.
Tigers don’t look to have many weaknesses at the moment and have moved on from Luke Dorn and Denny Solomona – two of their top players last year – without the slightest hiccup. Solomona scored a competition record 40 tries last year, but Cas’ current wing pair of Greg Eden and Greg Minikin already have eight each – and in Zak Hardaker Tigers have recruited a full-back with an even better all-round game than the one he replaced.
Defence was Tigers’ Achilles heel last season, but they have taken big strides in that department and last week’s clean sheet at Widnes Vikings was a notable achievement.
But Tigers’ real tests lie ahead, particularly on April 6 when they visit Wigan. Cas have a decent recent record against the defending champions, but Wigan won’t let them play the free-flowing attacking style they are enjoying at the moment.
Daryl Powell is a smart coach and he will be aware of that and of the fact teams will be working on ways to disrupt his team’s flow, so it will be fascinating to see how they handle the challenge.
As Powell has pointed out, this time last year Widnes Vikings were setting the pace and they tailed off badly after a flying start. Castleford are a better team, with a deeper squad and unlikely to fade in a similar manner, but it’s too early to get carried away.
Wigan are playing a better brand of rugby this year than in past seasons and deserve immense credit for their ability to unearth a seemingly endless stream of young talent, who come into the team and immediately look at home. Though Cas deserve the plaudits they are getting, Wigan’s experience means they are still the team to beat.
This might be Warrington’s year, but after four straight defeats it’s not looking like it at the moment.
Surely they have too good a squad – and coach – to struggle for long, but they have already made a worse start than Leeds did last term and if they lose at Leigh Centurions tonight, which is by no means out of the question, the pressure really will be on.
Saints are similar, having lost three of their first four games. They tend to start slowly and turn things around, but there have been few signs of that so far and the heat is on coach Keiron Cunningham.
His plight underlines the problem with having a local hero take over as team boss.
Cunningham is arguably Saints’ greatest player of the Super League era, but sadly his time there will almost certainly end unhappily.
As for Leeds, they looked like a good team in last week’s win over Catalans Dragons, for the first time in at least a year. Credit goes to coach Brian McDermott for some astute tactical changes and on that form they could perhaps hang on to a top-four spot, but reproducing it week-in and week-out is the real test.
They face an intriguing challenge at home tomorrow to a Wakefield team who look to be finding their feet.
Trinity are capable of repeating last year’s top-eight finish – at least – if they can start playing for 80 minutes, rather than 60 as they are doing at the moment.