ONE OF the arguments against the now defunct Super-8s format was it caused too much uncertainty.
Critics claimed it meant four Super League clubs went into the final eight games of the season not knowing whether they would still be in the top flight the following year.
Ironic then that the eights was axed to make way for automatic relegation of the bottom club and, in the first year of that system, five teams are in peril with only four rounds remaining.
There has never been a Super League season like it. At the start of round 25, St Helens are 14 points clear of second-placed Warrington Wolves.
Warrington sit an equal distance ahead of bottom side London Broncos, but every other team from third-placed Hull downwards is nearer the foot of the table than the top.
Take Saints out of it and it’s quite exciting, with only four points separating Warrington from seventh-placed Catalans Dragons.
Other than Saints, everyone else in the leading seven has something to play for, either a high finish to give them home advantage or lifeline in the play-offs, or to quality for the semi-finals series.
Below that, the bottom five are all battling against dropping into the Betfred Championship, with Leeds in eighth being only four points clear of London who remain favourites to go down, though nobody would bet their house on it.
So, this year every game really does matter, at one end of the table or the other. This weekend is a good example. Saints have nothing to play for, but Leeds could make themselves safe, more or less, if they beat them tomorrow.
Wigan Warriors’ home clash with Warrington on Friday will have a big bearing on who finishes where in the top five and, on Saturday, there are two intriguing contests between third-placed Hull and Salford Red Devils, who are fifth, and play-offs-chasing Catalans at home to London.
Finally, on Sunday, Hull KR play host to Wakefield Trinity and Castleford Tigers – now sixth and desperate to seal a play-offs spot – visit third-bottom Huddersfield. The game at KCOM Craven Park is huge. Only points difference separates Trinity, who were third around Easter, from the Robins.
Hull KR are due a win. Since Tony Smith took charge in June they have alternated between victories and defeats – and they lost last week. Smith rested Danny McGuire for the game at Wigan, reflecting the importance of Sunday.
London began the year as favourites for the drop, having won at Toronto Wolfpack in last season’s Million Pound Match.
They still are, but eight wins is more than most pundits predicted and, if they pick up another victory, whoever finishes bottom will do it on a record number of points.
Points difference may be their downfall. Their for and against is much worse than any of the others in the bottom five and means they have to win two more games than at least one of their rivals. They do, though, have some winnable fixtures coming up. After this weekend they face trips to Hull KR and Wakefield either side of a home game against Leeds.
Should London lose their next three, Trinity could go into the final game of the campaign effectively safe, even if they don’t pick up another win.
But it’s risky to rely on that. They are in the poorest form of any team in Super League and face a tough run-in, with games against Wigan and Warrington to come, as well as Hull KR and London. Whoever wins in East Yorkshire this weekend will feel relatively comfortable.
Huddersfield have cause for concern. Their recent form, particularly in the 44-0 home loss to Leeds, has been poor, but they are capable of jagging an unexpected win here and there – for example at Salford and Hull KR in recent weeks – and that might save them.
Castleford should win, but are inconsistent and have lost at John Smith’s Stadium already this season. It wouldn’t be a huge shock if it happened again.
Leeds need to break their two-losses, two-wins habit. They will be secure if they can win tomorrow, or against London, but successive defeats would drop them back in the mire.
Rhinos’ past two performances have suggested a corner has been turned, but there have been previous false dawns this year.
By tomorrow we should know if this is another one.