IT’S HARD to believe it is less than four years since Ryan Hall scored THAT try for Leeds Rhinos at Huddersfield Giants.
On September 25, 2015, the England and now Sydney Roosters winger raced over – out of the blue, as the hooter sounded – to snatch a 20-16 victory which sealed top spot in Super League and kept Leeds on course for the treble.
It was Rhinos’ first win since the 50-0 victory over Hull KR at Wembley a month earlier and denied Wigan Warriors the league leaders’ shield, which – famously – had been en-route by helicopter to DW Stadium when Hall latched on to Danny McGuire’s chip over the Giants’ defence.
Huddersfield finished third in the table and St Helens were fourth. London Broncos had ended the campaign third in the Championship Shield – for that division’s bottom-eight teams – and were hammered 36-4 by Featherstone Rovers in the competition’s final the weekend after Leeds’ win at Huddersfield.
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, having been 11 points adrift at the bottom of the regular-season Super League ladder, were beaten 24-10 at Sheffield Eagles two days after Leeds’ shield-clinching success, but overcame Bradford Bulls a week later in the Million Pound Game to retain their top-flight status.
It seems like a different world. All the clubs mentioned have had at least one change of coach since that memorable weekend and their fortunes have fluctuated, but the demise of Leeds and Huddersfield has been the most startling development.
They meet at John Smith’s Stadium tomorrow in what is, arguably, an even bigger game. There is no silverware up for grabs and it isn’t make or break for either team, but with six games remaining both could ease the pressure, or find themselves even deeper in the mire.
There has never been a Super League season like this one, with – after 23 rounds – nine teams closer to the foot of the table than the top and five of them involved in the relegation battle.
Giants looked to be the team with most to worry about when they lost at Wakefield a month ago, but since then shock – and very hard-fought – wins at Salford Red Devils and Hull KR have given them a fighting chance.
They are two points off the bottom and, while a win against Leeds wouldn’t make them safe, it would go a long way towards it. Rhinos could be either two points above the relegation zone or sitting bottom of the table by the end of the weekend, depending on their result and others elsewhere.
It is so tight Wakefield, who were third three months ago, may drop a place to ninth if Rhinos win and they lose at runaway leaders St Helens.
Trinity have lost eight of their last nine and have probably the toughest run-in so need to pick up points urgently from somewhere.
Having had a two-week build-up, it might not be the worst time to face Saints. They have twice rested players for games at London, which has kept Broncos in the fight and are coming off the back of a Challenge Cup semi-final victory, but could secure the league leaders’ shield this weekend and surely won’t want another slip-up, especially at home.
After tomorrow, Wakefield play Hull (home), Hull KR (away), Wigan (home), Warrington Wolves (away) and London at home – a fixture list which includes meetings with the current top four.
Hull KR – at home to Castleford Tigers – and London who host Salford Red Devils, also have tough games this weekend, but ones they’ll see as winnable.
At this stage, any team who can string three wins together will pull clear, but none of them seems capable of that.
Rhinos have, on a couple of occasions, given themselves hope with back-to-back wins, only to drop straight back in trouble after successive losses.
It is likely the matter will come down to some key dates, most particularly the final three weekends when London face Leeds at home before trips to Hull KR and Wakefield.
Even at this stage, it is impossible to predict with any certainty which team will go down – and whoever finishes bottom is likely to do it with a record number of points.
London, Hull KR and Leeds are all on 16 which was Catalans Dragons’ total when they were wooden spoonists in 2006. They were exempt that year and Castleford went down, with 19.
It is all very exciting and has completely overshadowed what is happening at the top of the table, where four clubs are battling for the final two play-offs spots.
That is one of the problems with relegation, it focuses all the attention on the poorest teams.