Peter Smith - Inside Rugby League:
ONE OF the problems with the '“ possibly '“ soon to be abandoned Super-8s format is it creates more interest at the bottom of the table than the top.
A glance at the Betfred Super League table illustrates that. Ahead of tonight’s game between Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos there’s no doubt about who will finish top and the leading four have already opened up a significant gap over the chasing pack.
Warrington Wolves, who are fourth, are four points clear of fifth-placed Hull with just five rounds remaining in the regular season. That’s not an unbridgeable chasm, but it’s unlikely there’ll be many, if any, changes to the top-four before the competition splits into Super-8s and Qualifiers after 23 rounds.
The significance of being in the top-four at that stage is those clubs have four home games in the final seven matches of the season before the semi-finals and if the gap remains the same it will take a special effort from one of their rivals to crash into the play-offs.
The real drama is at the other end of the league ladder where four teams are battling to fill the final two places in the Super-8s, or more realistically, to avoid being dragged into the Qualifiers.
That includes Wakefield Trinity, but they should be safe. They are four points ahead of Catalans Dragons and have a much better for and against. However, if they lose at St Helens tomorrow and Catalans Dragons beat Castleford Tigers on Saturday, Trinity will be back in the mix.
They still have Catalans, Leeds and Huddersfield Giants to play so it is in their hands and, after seven defeats in eight games earlier in the campaign they are in decent shape.
Definitely in trouble are Rhinos and Huddersfield, who are seventh and eighth, both one point ahead of Catalans. Catalans and Salford Red Devils are still in contention, but need other results to go their way and, effectively, Hull KR and Widnes are already preparing for a relegation battle.
Rhinos’ fate is still, just about, in their own hands, but they could be in the bottom-four by Saturday night. Three wins from their final five games would take them past the 20-point mark and that might be enough, but, on current form, only the visit of Widnes in round 22 looks like a guaranteed victory.
It will be a tall order for Leeds to win at Wigan and/or Castleford and both Wakefield and Salford, who will be as desperate as Rhinos are, are in better recent form. Rhinos have a much better points advantage than any of the teams below them, but Huddersfield are also an improving side and their win at Emerald Headingley three weeks ago could yet prove priceless.
It is a tense, unpredictable situation and much more fascinating than what’s happening at the top of the table, where St Helens already have one hand on the league leaders’ shield. There’s also some big games looming in the Betfred Championship. Toronto Wolfpack will finish top, but only two points separate second-placed Toulouse Olympique from Leigh Centurions in sixth.
The Championship’s leading quartet will go into the middle-eights alongside the bottom four from Super League and whoever represents the lower division will be capable of causing an upset on their day. The Qualifiers will be hard fought this year and the Super League sides who find themselves in the mix will be in real peril.
Wakefield Trinity: St Helens (a), Catalans Dragons (h), Leeds Rhinos (a), Hull (h), Huddersfield Giants (a).
Leeds Rhinos: Wigan Warriors (a), Castleford Tigers (a), Wakefield Trinity (h), Widnes Vikings (h), Salford Red Devils (a).
Huddersfield Giants: Hull KR (a), Hull (h), Wigan Warriors (h), Castleford Tigers (a), Wakefield Trinity (h).
Catalans Dragons: Castleford Tigers (h), Wakefield Trinity (a), Warrington Wolves (a), Salford Red Devils (h), Wigan Warriors (a).
Salford Red Devils: Warrington Wolves (a), Hull KR (a), Castleford Tigers (h), Catalans Dragons (a), Leeds Rhinos (h).