1. Super showdown
With just one round left four teams can finish with the League Leader’s Shield, with just one point separating Leeds, Wigan, Huddersfield and St Helens. Talk about a climax. The RFL couldn’t have asked for a better ending to the finals if they had scripted it themselves. The Rhinos have dropped three games straight since romping to victory at Wembley. Alarm bells are surely ringing at Headingley Carnegie. They have to go to the John Smith’s Stadium, where victory will secure the premiership. But the Giants are in form and confident, they will surely fancy their chances. It should be a bell-ringer.
Wigan host Cas knowing that a win could secure them the Shield. At home they haven’t lost this season, apart from against Brisbane Broncos in the World Cup Challenge and that was a close one as well. But the Tigers have nothing to play for, can score points when they want to and would love to be the party-poopers. Don’t write them off. Saints also have an outside chance to defend their title. If Leeds and Wigan both falter, a win for them over Warrington would mean back-to-back premierships. But will the Wolves do them a favour? Hardly. This weekend coming of Super League action could be the best yet this year, which is exactly how it should be. Bravo.
2. Middle 8s match-up
It’s an almost similar story in the Qualifiers, but not quite. With Bradford beating Leigh and Salford too good for Widnes, the final key positions of fourth and fifth are still be decided. Hull KR and Salford are safe in first and second, and with the Vikings’ good for and against they will definitely finish third. But Wakefield and the Bulls are in a battle for fourth and who will have home advantage in the million pound game. Will it be Belle Vue or Odsal? It’s West Yorkshire vs West Yorkshire, a derby game separated by all of 19 miles. The venue will be decided in the final round when the Wildcats go to Sheffield and Bradford host Halifax. You would expect both teams to win those matches, but you can’t beat your house on it.
Wakefield and Bradford met on August 15 earlier this year at Belle Vue and the Bulls were thrashed. 48-18 was the score that day, when Lee Gaskell was taken off with injury. That game was effectively over at half-time and the Wildcats never looked in danger. Wakefield’s forwards were in control that afternoon and Jacob Miller was outstanding. But the Bulls have improved since then while Wakefield, arguably, have faltered. They had some off-field issues to contend with, some more injuries and were pumped by Widnes. After that match Bradford managed to dismantle Salford spectacularly, but were then thrashed by both Widnes and Hull KR. A strong performance to defeat Leigh this weekend though shows they are up for the battle and remain dangerous. The million pound game could be a toss up, a match decided by one penalty or a crucial knock on. There is not a lot between these two teams, regardless of whether they played in Super League or the Championship this year, and it’s unlikely their next meeting will be as one-sided. Both clubs’ destiny in the next few years will be determined by the result of this fixture, which is a tantalizing prospect.
3. Leigh’s low
Where did it all go wrong for the Centurions? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. Their brilliant form in the past two seasons, not to mention their entertaining brand of footy, had them as front-runners of the four Championship sides aiming for promotion. But Leigh have faltered, winning just one of six games in the Middle 8s. Has the pressure got to them? Has the opposition worked them out? Discipline and defence are the two things that have gone missing in the Qualifiers for the Centurions. Defence is what wins you tight games and Leigh’s just hasn’t been up to scratch. Everyone knows they can score tries – from anywhere on the pitch in reality – but if you can’t defend your own line then you’re in trouble. And when Super League attacks have put the blowtorch on Leigh’s defence, not to mention Bradford’s and Halifax’s, they wilted.
What also hasn’t helped has been the antics of Leigh supremo Derek Beaumont. A controversial owner who seems at war with the RFL, not to mention other clubs, Beaumont made a goose of himself this week by publicly claiming that he plans to “ignore the salary cap” next year and make four new star signings. Ignore the cap? Has he lost the mind? While he’s at it, Leigh should also ignore the two-marker rule and getting back 10 metres in defence. This is just childish, as is the move to ban Bradford owner Marc Green from Saturday’s game. You can’t decide which rules you follow and which you don’t. Leigh can claim conspiracies from head office if they like and that the goalposts have been moved unfairly against them, and they have some valid points about the transfer window and TV money, but this battle with seemingly everyone and everything just hurts the game and themselves. In essence in the Super 8s, they just haven’t been good enough. It’s pretty simple. The siege mentality can work at times in sport, as Jose Mourinho and Des Hasler have shown, but at the end of the day if that’s all you have you’re in trouble, as Leigh have found out. There will be quite a few fans of other clubs enjoying some schadenfreude with the Centurions now missing out on Super League.
4. Wild cats
According to Australian radio station Triple M, the Wakefield situation with Tim Smith, Kevin Locke and Reece Lyne is as messy as it gets. The allegation is that Smith, Locke and Lyne went for a drunk joyride in coach Brian Smith’s car and crashed it. [See HERE]
If true, it’s shocking and outright crazy. Wakefield is investigating the manner and all three were stood down for Saturday’s game. It was the right move by the club at a crucial time.
Tim Smith has had various incidents in his career and was virtually kicked out of the NRL. If he did steal the coach’s car, not to mention the drink-driving, then his time at Wakefield is surely finished. The Wildcats, just like Castleford with the Justin Carney business, have drawn a line in the sand when it comes to bad behavior. It’s a stance to be applauded as too long Super League has been a dumping ground for the bad boys of the NRL. Some might say the Australian competition has become too politically correct, too sanitized, and there may be some truth in that. But it’s worrying when Salford reportedly target the likes of Robert Lui as a star signing. Lui’s talent as a half is not in doubt but his record – two separate incidents where he assaulted his pregnant partner, is disgusting. Is that the kind of individual we want in Super League?
5. World Cup competition
In case you didn’t notice, the rugby union World kicked off on Friday night as England struggled to beat Fiji. Rugby league’s Sam Burgess came off the bench to help spark a defeat of the Pacific Islanders. The other code’s tournament has sparked some debate, some talk, some comparisons and ridicule from several rugby league folk. The union people have done a good job marketing and promoting their World Cup, as the attendance figures have shown. They have also launched a full frontal assault on our sport by scheduling an England match in Manchester on the same day of the Super League grand final. Petty and unnecessary, but it is what it is.
Rugby union borrows heavily from rugby league, much more than the other way round. From attacking patterns, the use of dummy runners, banana kicks, defence coaches and star players – think Sonny Bill, Slammy Sammy, Izzy Folau and many others – it’s a common trend. After years of this rugby league continues to go along, continues to survive and evolve, producing more outstanding talent. We should be proud of our sport, proud of what its achieved and of its history. Competition can be healthy and rugby league could learn a few things from its 15-man cousin, especially on the marketing side. The RFL say they aren’t concerned with the union World Cup, that it will actually help rugby league interested and crowds. I think that’s very doubtful and that actually now is the perfect time to promote all that is good and great about our code. Don’t sit on your laurels; shout loud and proud about the best of rugby league – the skills, speed, toughness and heart, the special players – to a worldwide audience. Be adventurous, be cheeky, be bold and provocative. The time is right.