The architects of Super League’s brave new world must be secretly rubbing their hands together with glee in their darkened Salford lair as the split into inaugural eights comes into sharp relief.
Only a fortnight to go until the rocket boosters fire and the top eight get shunted for the stars while the middle eight aim to cling to rarefied atmosphere rather than plummet back to earth.
And going in to the ‘fascinating fortnight’ preceding it, only three things are certain; improving Wakefield are in the Qualifiers ranked sixth, despite defeat this week Leeds are in the top four and guaranteed four home games to come, and Leigh and faltering Bradford are vying one step nearer the promised land.
Whether every minute is mattering more is a moot point – this season was always going to be more concertinaed in Super League with the dropping of two uncompetitive teams – but to be maintaining interest rather than going through the motions is working.
Comeback wins for Salford, Widnes and with the city of Hull showdown on Friday keeps the story rolling, irrespective that the sides who scrape in to seventh and eighth will have limited aspirations come the ‘super’ part of the season due to the carryover of points.
They will be in Nirvana next year for certain, will have licence to play with a sense of freedom and at least be able to upset someone else’s applecart.
The level of pressure on the middle has been seen with the strangely-timed sacking of Andy Hay at Featherstone with three matches to go, the way results turning out this weekend, with Sheffield’s shock win over the Bulls meaning that Rovers are not now the masters of their own destiny.
Finishing outside the top four in the Championship might offer the chance for Shield silverware but the likely halving of monies as a result shows just how high the stakes are and, as always under promotion and relegation, where there is potential boom, there is likely bust.
Much of the focus so far in 2015 has been staring down into or seeing who might emerge from the abyss, ‘car crash’ stories sell but, with the top four playing each other this weekend, the view was on the summit and both matches, with three points between them in total, were excellent window dressing.
Yes, there is a worry that the sides play each other too often – a sixth of the season can be facing the same opponent with, not least in terms of ticket sales, familiarity breeding contempt – but after the clashes at Wigan and Saints, few cannot be looking for forward to Super Eight rematches, irrespective of where they are held.
The Warriors versus Rhinos clash was immense, attacking skill levels high, a goal kicking masterclass and the outcome dramatically left to last.
Matty Bowen clearly loves Leeds, Joe Burgess’s kick infield for Liam Farrell’s try was absolutely top drawer, Sean O’Loughlin gave his halves the time and space to shine, the Warriors’ forward-heavy bench helped resist the mounting blue and amber tide, and their top four ball carriers were backs.
Although ever-gracious in defeat, pointing to his side’s defensive deficiency in the first half – and had Michael McIlorum passed inside rather than been rounded up by Danny McGuire, which would have made it 30-12 – that would have been emphasised more; Yankee Brian McDermott commendably re-emphasised that he does not subscribe to a blame culture.
Referees do not have an agenda, they don’t determine the outcome of games, they can influence the margin, they will make mistakes as Mr Silverwood did on a feed that led to Josh Charnley’s try.
But he didn’t allow Bowen to run rings to set up the position from the ensuing scrum, which was capitalised on by wonderful vision, precision and execution from Matty Smith.
There were some astonishing stats to come out the game for the effervescently attacking Rhinos, not least Union Jack Adam Cuthbertson making 10 offloads in the game, a competition record, compared to six by the entire Wigan team.
Cuthbertson, who has shown why Super League is such an attractive proposition for Aussies who like the freedom to express themselves – Albert Kelly another – will claim a season-high total and become the first player to cross the three figure mark, already double ahead of his nearest challenger
But that paled compared to the workload of Jamie Peacock who joint-topped the tackle count and ball carries, made most metres by a forward and played the full 80 minutes.
He was even involved in the sparkling passage of play, with two twists away from the cover and an offload, which led to one of the best-ever no tries on the back of some scintillating interplay.
That it was disallowed for obstruction rather than impediment led to much fevered debate about what we should be rewarding.
Maybe Leeds should have been awarded half a try for artistic impression.
With five topliners to come back, the Rhinos still hold an extra ace in their hand.
The following night, Saints and Huddersfield equalled the excitement if not quite the quality threshold, Adam Qunlan one of the few players to mark his debut with a hat trick.
Giants could, and perhaps should, have been out of sight by the break and went conservative at the end with their long range shot at goal that didn’t go dead.
Paul Anderson’s men were given another lesson by the masters about what it takes to hang on in games and find the right play to win them; all that is lacking in claret and amber make up.
Similarly the team on their tail, Castleford; who according to their coach Daryl Powell, believed in their own publicity on the back of a five match unbeaten run, but lost out at Hull – who had eight Academy-produced players in their side.
If complacency was an issue for the Tigers, it won’t be now.
The RFL made a profit for the 13th year in a row, any amount outstanding crying out to be reinvested in media and marketing.
But the USARL also lost a huge PR opportunity with their handling of the announcement of Brian McDermott as their head coach for the 10-day Americas play off series to determine whether they, Canada or Jamaica go to the next World Cup – merely putting it up on facebook mid-afternoon was lame and unlikely to have made a ripple over the big pond.
At the very least they should have sent him was a Stetson to do his next round of interviews, the USA job almost an aside to his regular weekly preview.
Brian Smith’s increasing influence at Wakefield, although losing the much hyped battle with younger brother Tony – which seemed to make little odds to them – was seen in the rejuvenated performance of four try Jacob Miller, while Swinton’s Ian Mort grabbed an astonishing 48 points from five tries and 14 goals as they thrashed Oxford, leading to more questions about the current value of divided League 1.
State of Origin III trended fourth worldwide as the Maroons, their bench magnificent, humbled the Blues. Some said it signalled the impending lessening of the series, presumably just like the last two FA Cup final results have done for football here.
Queensland’s resounding win, in front of a record crowd, showed the value of aged experience and why any marquee players brought over here from the Antipodes are likely to be over 30 but still have massive value.
From the NRL came the highlight of the weekend, spreading Hew Zealand Warriors hooker Nathan Friend’s name worldwide with an astonishing piece of skill, a tunnel pass to set up a simply sensational try.
Brighten up your Monday by viewing it endlessly HERE.
It was carried on all the US networks, shame they couldn’t ask Brian McDermott about it.
It might lead to more of the tweets sent out by Radio Five league-lovie George Riley who noted – ‘My London cabbie this morning: huge West Ham fan. Fell out of love with football after Lampard 2010 Ghost goal & now follows @leedsrhinos !’
It will be interesting to see if Jon Sharp criticizes the performances of referees.
The broadest smiles are in Doncaster the morning after.