Ask your average fan for the aspect of the ‘New Era’ they look forward to most and I’m betting most would choose the Middle 8s.
It will be more fun than a zombie apocalypse, we are promised. Expect high-octane battles for survival, thrills, desperation, blood, atmosphere and the buzzword that has usurped ‘intensity’ lately: jeopardy.
And if current activities at the top end of the Championship and foot of Super League are anything to go by, the games may indeed be tight enough for talcum powder – that’s what the RFL is hoping for anyway, given all the hype.
Perhaps these new ‘qualifiers’ will turn out to be even more newsworthy than the play-offs and Super League Grand Final itself, which would be a bit of a turn up, and a concern for those who would prefer that we sold rugby league on the back of excellence rather than doomsday scenarios.
Still, this is a professional sport and therefore part of the entertainment industry. So whatever grabs eyeballs or puts bums on seats – assuming these games do put bums on seats, far from guaranteed – surely has to be welcome.
How remarkable then that with only a third of the season gone we are about to have a sneak preview courtesy of this weekend’s Challenge Cup.
The rejig that put last year’s ninth to twelfth-placed Super League teams in the fifth round draw – before the other big boys join on May 16-17 – will be a handy gauge for how effective the Middle 8s are actually going to be.
Each of the four games in question are so intriguing that the validity of the supposed top and middle-flight ‘gap’ – trumpeted as fact within Super League and denied as a myth by those pressing for promotion – will get a rigorous test.
The upshot being that over the next few days widespread optimism about the end-of-year promotion and relegation jamboree will either be ratcheted up higher than the waistband on Ben Thaler’s shorts or chopped off at the knees.
Wakefield, of course, are staggering around like extras in The Walking Dead, so if we are looking anywhere for a bloody nose then the smart money would be on the Rapid Solicitors Stadium on Friday night. Yet I’m not so sure.
As coach James Webster has admitted, the injury-hit club is already focussed on the Middle 8s business end – the first flaw in the structure perhaps, since for the Wildcats every minute between now and then will very much not matter.
Then again, without the Middle 8s to look forward to and plan for, Wakey would most likely be doing a Halifax Blue Sox in 2003 or Leigh in 2005, propping everyone else up and giving the division as a whole little but an eight-month pain in the butt. Misery like that can be tough to shake off for club and comp alike.
It’s a sign of sport’s cyclical nature when left to its own devices that Halifax will be Wakefield’s opposition in round five. And you could be forgiven for predicting another drubbing for the hosts. But though the Cup will perhaps matter even less than the regular league season I’ve a hunch pride will kick in.
Though Halifax are nicely positioned in fourth on points difference having won five (against Workington, Dewsbury, Batley, Whitehaven and Hunslet), they have also lost to a quartet with whom they might expect to be scrapping to make the top four – namely Bradford, London, Featherstone and Leigh.
Similarly, though Hull have thus far been inconsistent in Super League and are languishing in tenth, they come into their game with Sheffield on the back of a couple of victories since defeat in the Humberside derby, one being St Helens away. Even with ‘home’ advantage it’s hard to see the Eagles having enough to get past them.
Hull KR will most likely be too strong for a Bradford team that has just lost scrum-half Harry Siejka for at least ten weeks, with sights at Odsal also set firmly on the Middle 8s rather than the distraction of a Wembley dream. That said, a Rovers side stung by a hefty defeat at Castleford last week may well have been knocked off their stride and the Bulls may seek to send a message.
But no, if you’re after a real litmus test for the Middle 8s look no further than Leigh Sporting Village on Saturday. Can much-improved Salford put the Super League wannabes in their place? Or will Leigh, brash, cocky, bubbling with confidence and unbeaten in twenty games, make a point for the Championship?
Just as interestingly, given that Gareth Hock now looks set to go back on a reported ‘agreement’ not to play against the Red Devils, how long will he actually stay on the field?
If the answer to that is more than an hour, then the Centurions, with a home crowd roaring them on and led by a nucleus of players who would slot into the top flight nicely – Ryan Brierley, Tom Armstrong and, of course, Fuifui Moimoi leap to mind – have more than enough firepower to keep excitement for the Middle 8s on course and put a smile on the face of the ‘New Era’ architects.
And if all of this sounds a little like ignoring the romance of the Challenge Cup as a treasure in its own right, not a bit of it. For when Leigh Miners Rangers play York, they may yet go further in the competition than any amateur club has ever done before.
And we haven’t even mentioned Ben Flower’s return for Wigan tonight and four Super League games as unpredictable as they come. Suddenly, spring isn’t the only thing busting out all over. Rugby league is too.
Tone’s Tips: Super League victories for Wigan, Leeds, Huddersfield and Castleford. Challenge Cup wins for Leigh, Wakefield, Hull KR and Hull. Midway through second half, someone in Leigh press box to ask if Gareth Hock is playing.