Leigh’s play-off push, Rohan Smith pressure: 11 conclusions from the weekend’s rugby league

Aaron Bower
Rohan Smith, Paul Wellens, Edwin Ipape

It’s been another big and significant weekend of action in the world of rugby league – with plenty of talking points across the divisions.

From coaches under pressure to teams turning their early-season woes around, there’s plenty to discuss and digest as the halfway point of 2024 looms on the horizon. Here’s our big conclusions from the weekend’s action.

The Grand Final: two from three?

As we approach the halfway point, it looks as though three teams are pulling away in terms of establishing a leading pack – St Helens, Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves.

All three won at the weekend, and won well – with the Wolves’ triumph at Catalans arguably the standout result of the entire weekend. Although there are a number of teams within touching distance of that trio, there’s starting to be a growing suspicion than those three are just a fraction clear of the chasing pack.

It’s probably too early to suggest the Grand Final race is a three-horse one: but the Saints, Warriors and Wire look like the three to beat as summer gets underway.

How do we view St Helens?

Another week, another round of questions surrounding just where St Helens are right now.

For all the talk over the underwhelming aspects of their season, it’s Paul Wellens’ side who sit on top of the table as the halfway mark looms. Yes, Wigan have a game in hand in which victory would take them above the Saints, but there’s no doubting they are firmly in the title picture, without being anywhere near their best, in truth.

Far too good for Leeds Rhinos on Friday with a shortage of frontline forwards, the Saints are still being queried in some quarters. But yet, the facts are undeniable: they’re top of the league for a reason.

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Castleford have turned a corner

At the other end of the table, things are beginning to look brighter for Castleford Tigers after another victory on Friday. The scoreline would suggest it was a close contest against Hull FC but in truth, the Tigers put the cue on the rack after the hour mark.

That’s now three wins and a draw from their last six games, and they continue to move in the right direction under Craig Lingard after a slow start. Clearly a late tilt for the play-offs is out of the question: but victory at Leeds on Saturday would provide a real moment of joy for Castleford fans in what has been a gloomy few months.

Hull FC are in a battle to avoid bottom

Meanwhile, there’s now a five-point gap between the Tigers and Hull after the result at The Jungle on Friday night.

Any suggestion that Hull’s season may simply fizzle out from here now looks unlikely given how, in truth, they’re firmly locked in a battle to avoid finishing bottom of Super League. Okay, there’s no relegation at the end of the season but the embarrassment of being bottom would be a damning indictment on the last few years at the Black and Whites.

They have clearly still got plenty to play for.

Hull KR could be the best of the rest

On the other side of Hull, it was a straightforward afternoon in the capital for Rovers, who were far too good for London Broncos on Sunday afternoon.

They fell desperately short in the Challenge Cup semi-finals, and Willie Peters has acknowledged there is still a gap to bridge between the Robins and the competition’s best sides. But their latest result in London showed how Rovers are potentially are the best side in Super League beyond the leading trio of Wigan, Warrington and St Helens.

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Rohan Smith needs a performance, not just a result

Whether or not the pressure is building at Leeds Rhinos, only the club’s hierarchy know. But the noise surrounding Rohan Smith is growing for sure after another disappointing performance and result on Friday night.

Their heavy defeat at the hands of St Helens caused a significant uproar among Rhinos fans and as they prepare to return home this Saturday against Castleford, there’s a strong argument that Smith and Leeds need an encouraging performance just as much as a positive result to dampen down some of that furore.

Pressure at Huddersfield too?

Having forced themselves into contention on multiple fronts, this poor run of form is turning into a potentially season-defining disastrous patch for Huddersfield Giants.

They’ve now lost five games in a row in all competitions and have gone from being tipped to surprise some pundits to a team drifting from play-off contention altogether. It goes without saying that as they prepare to welcome Hull FC to West Yorkshire on Friday night, the Giants desperately need a win to get their season back on track – or pressure may well be mounting there, too.

Leigh are play-off contenders

There’s still a hell of a lot of rugby to be played this season and as we near the halfway mark of 2024, are Leigh quietly coming up into play-off contention? It certainly feels like it.

Their latest win at Huddersfield on Friday was hard-fought but achieved despite having three men sent to the sin-bin. The return of Edwin Ipape has helped lift the Leopards’ form, along with some other key men like Matt Moylan beginning to hit top form. It’s Hull KR up next: win that, and the noise around Adrian Lam’s side will begin to grow for real.

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The Championship relegation picture is compelling

Away from Super League, there were some fascinating results in the Championship – underlining how, once again, almost anyone can beat anyone.

Three of the bottom four – York, Halifax and Batley – all won against teams higher up in the league to create a congested picture at the bottom, dragging the likes of Whitehaven and Swinton firmly into the mix too. In fact, just two points split 7th-placed Doncaster and 13th-placed Halifax. It’s going to be a compelling summer of rugby in the sport’s most unpredictable league.

Can Sheffield last the distance?

Of course, there’s no promotion on offer at the end of this season for the side who wins the Championship – but there’s still plenty to play for.

And having already reached Wembley in the 1895 Cup final, this is turning into somewhat of a dream season for Mark Aston’s Sheffield, who further strengthened their position at the top end of the Championship on Friday with victory over Dewsbury.

The Eagles sit second after nine games, and are firmly in the driving seat for a strong position come the play-offs at the end of this season. Most would agree that it’s fantastic to see a club with immense potential back competing.

Encouraging strides in the Midlands?

After victory over North Wales Crusaders on Sunday, it’s five wins from ten for Midlands Hurricanes this season in League 1, and they’re undoubtedly in the play-off picture in League 1.

Mark Dunning has done a great job at the Hurricanes since making the move there, and with the club having bold plans for the future off the field, a surprise push for promotion could certainly help accelerate those plans. It’s an area rugby league has potentially overlooked for far too long: but are there green shoots emerging in the Midlands?

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