After last weekend’s relegation battle went down to the wire, attention now turns to the Championship play-offs.
The league has enjoyed one of the most competitive seasons ever this term, with the league eventually being won by Barrow, and just 14 points separating the top ten clubs, and just five points separating the relegation places and the play-offs.
Indeed it’s a shame the regular season can’t go on. Many clubs in the lower leagues have bemoaned the lack of games – although is partly subsidised by the Northern Rail Cup – while others have also complained about big gaps in their calenders.
Widnes take on Whitehaven in tonight’s televised play-off clash after a three week break, owing to them receiving a bye for the final round of the season, and of course the previous weeks Grand Final. The Vikings thumped their Cumbrian opponents 58-10 at the Stobart Stadium in their last game and were handed what at one stage looked an unlikely home draw thanks to Haven’s capitulation at the hands of relegated Leigh on Sunday.
Paul Cullen fancies his chances of guiding the Northern Rail Cup winners to the play-off glory, despite them finishing in 4th, and they have shown over the past two months their capabilities – thrashing rivals Halifax, Featherstone and Haven at home, while also triumphing over Barrow comfortably in the NRC final.
Cullen said: “We can win the Grand Final from fourth position.
“The three week break from matches has done us the world of good, although we have trained hard in the meantime.
“It’s a bonus to have a home fixture but there will be no over confidence in the camp. We need to treat Whitehaven with respect.”
Whitehaven, meanwhile, seem to have gone off the boil after peaking mid-season, but coach Ged Stokes knows his men go in to tonight’s game with nothing to lose.
The Kiwi said: “We’ve achieved what we wanted to in the league. We’ve made the play-offs and that’s been an exceptional effort by our players to do that. The contribution from the players this year has been tremendous.
“We’ve been written off and probably in some respects rightly so after our last two performances, but we’re fairly renowned for bouncing back from adversity.”
The winner of tonight’s clash will play the winner of Friday night’s game between Sheffield and Featherstone. Sheffield have enjoyed an understated season, finishing the season in third place having earned a point in every single game – a feat that went unmatched in the Championship – winning a bonus point for losing by less than 13 in each of their nine defeats.
While some are still sceptical of the bonus point ruling, it has certainly benefited Sheffield, who will fancy their chances at the Don Valley Stadium, even if it won’t be easy as director John Whaling inadvertantly claimed in his programme notes.
Halifax enter the play-offs on the back of two consecutive wins after seemingly pressing the self-destruct button when the league title was all but theirs. They were running away with the title at the height of summer, but a dismal turn in form which saw them lose five successive games ultimately cost them what would have been a well-earned piece of silverware.
However, they go in to the finals series with a few points to prove. Still licking their wounds no doubt from the NRC semi-final loss at home to Widnes, they travel to Craven Park seeking revenge from Barrow for stealing the minor premiership they felt was theirs.
Barrow themselves have stuttered in their last two games, after yet more unprofessional turmoil within their ranks – caretaker coach Steve Deakin departed the club over an apparent argument with chairman Des Johnstone over player selection. It has meant the return to the head coach role for Dave Clark, who was stood down from the role earlier in the season despite leading the Cumbrians to their first final in more than 25 years.
Defeats to Gateshead and Sheffield in the final week of the season are hardly the ideal preparation for the Raiders, who host Halifax next Thursday live on Sky.
Thursday 10th – Widnes v Whitehaven (Stobart Stadium, 7.30pm)
Prediction: Widnes by 16
Friday 11th – Sheffield v Featherstone (Don Valley Stadium, 8.00pm)
Prediction: Featherstone by 6
Thursday 17th: – Barrow v Halifax (Craven Park, 7.30pm)
Prediction: Halifax by 4