Forty-20 Column: The Morning After
The intrigue is back in league.
Up until now, the 2015 season, new era and all has had a ring of familiarity, albeit with two less teams in Super League meaning less blow-out, regular season scores.
But, with the first round of the ‘eights’ played, the flares have gone up for the new era, we have a compelling, rolling narrative.
In the Super League Super 8s, the top three are all-but secured in the semi-finals, Catalans and Hull have another week’s grace, and Warrington have to win at Castleford on Thursday to maintain their outside hopes of making the top four after their drubbing at the rampant Rhinos.
The Dragons showed with their touch up of Saints, despite being a man down for most of the second half, that the lower-ranked sides can still shake up the mix, they are the wild cards in every sense.
Leeds backed up their Cup exploits with another silky performance led by the almost untouchable Zak Hardaker – presumably re-appointed England assistant coach James Lowes sending an urgent cable to Steve McNamara about his imperious form – and Kallum Watkins.
They became the first side to breach the 800 points scored barrier, almost 200 ahead of their nearest rivals, at an average of 34 per game, much of that down to the glorious offloading of Adam Cuthbertson.
If the ‘Man of Steel’ is determined by who has had the greatest influence on the season, the former Novocastrian must be in with a shout for adding a completely new yet throwback dimension to Super League XX.
But Paul Aiton’s broken arm is a serious loss for the Rhinos, the PNG hooker doing so much to control the side’s tempo and meaning Rob Burrow’s bench impact is heightened.
And the Headingley outfit will be wary of ten years ago when they blitzed the competition, running in 70 points on four occasions, but came up trophy-less as injuries kicked in at the wrong time.
But it’s in the Qualifiers that most of the interest centred this weekend and although the danger is to extrapolate too much from one set of fixtures, that’s where the intrigue comes in.
Most credit goes to Hull KR for a magnificent second half at Leigh.
After the physical and especially emotional toll of making Wembley, without talisman Albert Kelly, brushed aside in the opening half at a side rampant all year and with a week off to prepare, their controlled comeback led by experienced Tony Puletua up front and Maurice Blair behind spoke volumes for their composure and structure – exactly what the Centurions lacked when the match started to go away from them.
All season Paul Rowley’s men have bossed the opposition, especially at home, but they couldn’t respond to the continually faster play the balls than normal or the overall diminishing of space in which to run their refreshing, inventive plays – and there was little better all weekend than Greg McNally’s try from Sam Barlow’s offload and Ryan Brierley’s delicious chip – due to the regulation size and covering speed seen in Super League.
More than anything, the try-saving tackles by opposite numbers – Kieran Dixon thwarting McNally and Ken Sio on Liam Kay – illustrated the difference.
And, growing fatigue tends to lead to increased indiscipline.
But nothing has changed for the Centurions. Their first goal is to be the highest ranked Championship side to be part of the million pound game; their distance to target was always seven weeks.
Nor is it true as glibly mentioned by Eddie Hemmings that if they don’t go up, “The season will mean nothing.” That demeans the eights principle.
The image of the weekend was the respective coaches, Paul Rowley and Chris Chester in genuine friendship and appreciation together on the sideline before the final whistle blew – imagine that between Chelsea and Arsenal.
What Leigh were shown was that the margins for error in this blend of cup and league are finer, and similarly for re-vamped Wakefield; an ill-executed Scott Moore kick to Rangi Chase and Billy Tupou non-pass away from what would have been a notable win at Salford.
Arguably, the most significant result for the concept was at Halifax, where the eighth ranked side took the top seeded one, Widnes, all the way. By general consent, the 14-point final margin was harsh on Richard Marshall’s part-time men.
Like Catalans and Hull, ‘Fax and Sheffield have considerable nuisance value even if they won’t trouble the promotion scorer.
Avoiding injuries to the lesser number of key men in the former Championship sides will be key too, as the return of Lee Gaskell showed for the Bulls.
Many of the sides in the middle 8s, as they are being colloquially called – that’s where the branding doesn’t quite work, even for Sky commentators – recruited heavily for this part of the season and who looks to have come up trumps?
Charly Runicman with two tries on debut looks a great finisher for the Vikings, many in the NRL were surprised to see him leave St George which is telling; Reni Maitua was tireless in the Red Devils’ back row and Michael Sio the catalyst for the Wildcats revival.
League 1 has tended to take a back seat with the, inside league circles anyway, eights euphoria but, significantly, Gloucestershire All Golds (have they officially dropped the University of) almost unnoticed, beat Newcastle Thunder on Saturday night; the first time in 58 weeks that a side from the south has beaten one from the north.
And there are indications that their format will change next season, with the division splitting after 14 rounds, each side having played each other once – Toulouse coming in for 2016 – into an eights for promotion and a, most likely, development shield for the remaining seven clubs.
News of the first part of the new mega TV deal for the NRL with Channel 9 and free to air rights has implications over here with a likely increase in demand for Super League’s top players, marquee or no, a mid-season Test with the Kiwis while the Second Origin game is played on a Sunday as part of a representative weekend, and less regular season rounds which we should be matching.
The broadest smiles are still in Hull KR the morning after.