1. Huddersfield horror
It was a different year but the same story for the Giants as they were knocked out again in the semi-finals. Getting to a grand final has eluded Huddersfield once more, heart-breaking as it is for the Giants players and fans. They have now lost 12 semi-finals from 15 attempts in the past eight years. Sadly the Yorkshire side never really looked in it against a very-fired up and in-form Wigan outfit. Confident on their home turf, where they have just lost one game all year, the Warriors ran riot. At 12-2 at half-time, the match wasn’t effectively over but it seemed it. At times the Giants looked like rabbits in the headlights, unsure of just why they were there. The post mortem at the John Smith’s Stadium won’t be pretty.
Full credit to Shaun Wane and his team. Wigan didn’t go out and make a load of big-name signings at the start of the year, compared with Warrington and Leeds, or as they have done in the past. They will have Sam Tomkins back in 2016, but he is a local junior returning to his old club. I thought Wigan might struggle somewhat this season with the departure of Blake Green and no new overseas import to add a touch of class in the way a Terry Campese has to Hull KR, or Adam Cuthbertson at Leeds. But the Warriors have showed great grit and determination to grind their way to Old Trafford. It hasn’t always been pretty at times, but it’s been effective. The likes of George Williams, Oliver Gildart, John Bateman and the rising Dom Manfredi prove that Wigan also has a solid base for the years ahead.
2. Saints slip
While Thursday’s semi-final was one-sided, Friday’s was a classic. Two talented teams going toe-to-toe, neither prepared to back down, neither wanting to miss out on a grand final. It was Leeds who eventually prevailed after a close and tense encounter, as they march on to what could be a famous treble. Injuries and players moving around in positions finally seem to take their toll on the red and white, who did fantastically well to get as far as they do. With third-string halves they claimed glory at Old Trafford last year, but they couldn’t get there this year missing half a dozen fullbacks after a long, tough campaign with many twists and turns. But Keiron Cunningham and his men can keep their heads up after an admirable performance. The margins are often small in these crunch ties and there was little between the two sides on Friday night. St Helens will be back in 2016.
Kevin Sinfield’s 40-20 was a turning point and the veteran’s game management was particularly telling. Surprisingly, Saint’s halfbacks Luke Walsh and Travis Burns have never really clicked and thrived together like many would have expected. Perhaps Theo Fages can add something different next season. Regardless, it is old sparring partners Leeds and Wigan in Manchester on October 10. After the Challenge Cup and the League Leader’s Shield, the Rhinos can cap off a sensational 12 months. No one would be calling Wigan underdogs, considering their illustrious history, but the Yokshire club has to be slight favourites. And I think they will get the cash, with their potent cocktail of big-game experience, dynamic backs and vast depth.
Sinfield, McGuire, Burrow, Peacock, Leuluai and co have been playing with each other for eons and basically know what each other will do before they do it. At times they remind me of the great Melbourne and Manly NRL teams of the past decade, where the Storm’s ‘Big Five’ – now the ‘Big Three’ ruled the roost. Or the Sea Eagles platoon of the Stewarts brothers, Steve Matai, Anthony Watmough, Jamie Lyon, Matt Ballin and company who keep getting to grand finals. Add in Hardaker, Watkins, the underrated Joel Moon and big Adam Cuthbertson as well, and it’s a fearsome sight. Leeds should take out the grand final, but only after a torrid test for 80 minutes as Wigan certainly won’t give up. Hopefully we’ll have 26 men on the pitch for the full game this time. Ben Flower, behave.
3. Bowing out in style
There has been some star names already hang up their boots already this season. Adrian Morley, Richie Mathers, Chev Walker, Garreth Carvell, Chris Bailey, the list goes on. But a couple of more have the chance of ending their illustrious careers with the dream finish – a winning grand final trophy medal. Front-rower partners Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai have already won a stack of metal over the years. Both are Rhinos legends and Peacock’s illustrious time in Super League has included honours with Bradford and at international level. Both are also great ambassadors for our game. Then there’s ‘Sir Kev’. While he isn’t retiring technically, as he makes a weird move to second division rugby union side Yorkshire Carnegie, it is the last time he will put on a rugby league shirt. Sinfield has been a terrific leader, a dead-eye goal-kicker and one of the driving sources of Leeds’ success for the past decade. He has captained club and country with distinction and deserves praise after such a sensational stint.
Matty Bowen comes last, but not least of all. The little full-back from North Queensland hasn’t always been the most loved player during his time at the DW Stadium. There has been times when high balls have eluded him and his performances haven’t met his own high standards. But ‘Mango’ has remained a true professional, not sulking when he was dropped from the team, and he has worked hard to regain his spot. At his peak he was pure dynamite – all quick feet and beguiling dummies to score try after try after try for the Cowboys. Had he not had some blokes called Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Darius Boyd around he would have played a lot more games for Queensland and Australia. It’s a shame Bowen didn’t come to Super League sooner, his attacking mind and instinctive play definitely suit these shores. The Aboriginal attacker has never won a grand final, losing last year to St Helens and to Wests Tigers back in 2005. If anyone deserves to go out a winner this Saturday it’s Matt Bowen.
4. Million pound magic
James Lowes might not agree but the Qualifiers and the Million Pound Game have been a success. Fans responded, the media got on board and Belle Vue was treated to some real drama on Saturday afternoon as a late Scott Moore try – who defied doctor’s orders to play after a bad injury earlier this year – kept Wakefield in the top flight. It’s gutting for Bradford undoubtedly, who have rallied back from severe financial problems and relegation in 2014. But that is the nature of professional sport, the highs and lows are both elating and brutal at the same time. The costs are high. The Bulls can be proud of the way they have rebuilt their club and re-engaged with their fanbase. If they stay the course they can be back in this fixture in 2016. Who knows, with a bit more luck they may well be back in Super League very soon.
Lowe’s spray after the game that “If this is the future of rugby league, I don’t want to be in it” – was petulant and ill-advised. Sure it is sad that some players may have to go, and Bradford may have to go part-time, but that is the game we’re in. It’s a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog world and pressure is part and parcel. After nearly 400 games as player, Lowes knows this. This isn’t park footy, or some pub league, it is the best competition in England. There are repercussions for winning and losing. If the system had stayed the same, or the old ways were re-introduced when the team on top of the Championship was promoted, then Leigh would be in Super League not Bradford. So Lowes can be somewhat thankful his team got this far. A special mention to Brian Smith, who had a mountain of a job on his hands when he arrived in West Yorkshire. Despite all the Tim Smith, Kevin Locke nonsense and a decent injury count, Smith turned the Wildcats around and saved them. Considering his record – he’s lost four NRL grand finals and also a Challenge Cup final with Bradford – he was surely due a change in fortune.
5. International interest
On to matters of an international nature as the Rugby Union World Cup rolls on and the England v New Zealand Test series nears. England will announce their squad for the three-game tour on October 11. After England’s rugby union debacle at Twickenham on Saturday, where the RFU’s team was destroyed by Australia, and made history as the first hosts to be eliminated from a World Cup in the group stage, here’s hoping there is an added boost to our international series as a result. The Rugby Football Union has pinched some of English rugby league’s best talent for years and failed to win anything with them, apart from the 2003 triumph with former Wigan flyer Jason Robinson. But now England’s national rugby league side has the opportunity to get one over the number one ranked side in the world, at a time of despair in the 15-man code.
New Zealand are in disarray, make no bones about it. Shaun Johnson, Keiran Foran, Manu Vatuvei, Thomas Leuluai and Benji Marshall are all unavailable. Sonny Bill is off playing the other code. The Kiwis will have to play a pair of rookie halves – likely Kodi Nikorima and Tuimoala Lolohea – against an England hell-bent for some revenge. Stephen Kearney could throw 19-year-old Te Maire Martin into the fray, but he has yet to even play in the NRL. New Zealand still has Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Isaac Luke at 1 and 9, two of the very best in the world in those positions. They also still have a very good forward pack, with size, power and depth. But they desperately need playmakers who can direct them around the park, who can get the ball to these big forwards and quick backs. Ordinary halfbacks had been the Kiwis’ Achilles heel for years, until both Johnson and Foran emerged. England, on home soil, have to win this series. There are no excuses for Steve McNamara, lose here and he should be gone. England have no injuries, apart from George Burgess, and that’s in a position where they have a ridiculous amount of depth. The Kangaroos look at England’s front-row strength with envy. England defeating New Zealand would give the sport a wide boost in the UK and give the long-suffering fanbase something to cheer about. A real opportunity exists. Over to you men in white.