Rugby League Week #22: Race for Old Trafford should not be ignored

In the immortal words of R&B singer R. Kelly, or was it Kevin Penny: “I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the corner flag…”

With Super League strugglers (!) Warrington and Championship pace-setters Leigh to the fore, what a wonderful display of Challenge Cup rugby league we had last weekend, before a national TV audience of millions.

Though personally I couldn’t see the point of Chris Kamara making the draw – few sports get in as much of a tizz about celebrity endorsements as this one – the timing was first class, with Dave Woods (or was it the Dalai Lama?) hosting ahead of a flash BBC trailer for Wimbledon and the bit of Glastonbury that everyone was waiting for: Lionel Richie.

Hello? Is it Leeds you’re looking for?

Many expected that the Wolves-Centurions clash would offer a tantalising taste of what might be to come from Paul Rowley’s men in the Middle 8s.

Yes, they’d already beaten Wakefield and Salford in the Cup and seen off nearest rivals Bradford in round one of the Championship too.

But how would they fare against a side that had won the Cup itself three times in the past six years? A spanking would surely undermine their credentials to take the next step up, while victory would signal that Leigh had the firepower needed and that they might well face Warrington again come round 23.

As it turned out, we saw more than enough to suggest that in the three-way battle between the Wolves and the two Hull sides, the men in primrose and blue must be favourite to escape the bottom four and, anyway, aren’t going to take the ultimate drop if they do get sucked in.

And we also had it confirmed that this Leigh team is very good indeed. A bit lacking in one or two areas maybe (Fuifui Moimoi is one unexpected worry), but with a genuine half-back superstar in Ryan Brierley, a fine supporting cast and a thrillingly expansive playing philosophy that would bring a welcome whiff of unpredictability to the top flight should they eventually reach it.

The club were everybody’s favourite good guys last Saturday; a useful PR exercise, though just a passing fad hopefully. I like Leigh best when they embrace their inner mongrel. They are the one-fingered salute personified and sport needs its villains as much as it does its heroes. Often, they are the same people.

Anyway, having four pulsating Challenge Cup matches on our screens in as many days – two on terrestrial TV when the only other sporting event of note was Alpine Downhill Yoghurt Rolling on Eurosport – was clearly A Good Thing.

But with two nicely hidden midweek Super League matches at Hull KR and Wakefield on the back of it (superbly camouflaged by Sky, it has to be said, thereby attracting a size of audience more usually associated with church coffee mornings) it did also introduce the possibility that these here Middle 8s could well end up being a bit too popular.

Why do I say that? Well, for one thing … the main thing in fact … the race to Old Trafford runs a risk of being all but overlooked.

And as for the – what are we calling the third group of eight again? – how can they hope to compete in their quest to be fifth-best among the also-rans?

Even at that level, you suspect, the hunt for a bit of welcome silverware for one club – London Broncos perhaps – will probably be less interesting than the relegation scrap to avoid falling into next season’s League 1. We’ll see.

As for the Super 8s, were the divisional split to happen tomorrow, at least five clubs would put it on course to being damper than the sweatiest damp squid. (Squib, surely – Ed) (Fireworks don’t sweat, learn your physics – TH) (Nor do squids – Ed) (Shut up – TH)

Warrington and Hull KR, in seventh and eighth, would embark on the last lap with 18 points, already four behind Huddersfield and Castleford in fourth and fifth respectively; that’s a lot to make up in just seven games – four of them away – against sides who the table says are better than you.

At the top end, Leeds, Saints and Wigan would be as good as in the final four before a ball was kicked, with Catalans, Cas and the Giants scrapping it out for the remaining place, which will no doubt make for eye-catching fixtures, though just how eye-catching will depend on what’s happening mid-ships.

That said ­ – and though the signs are increasingly to the contrary – there is a very real chance that the Middle 8s won’t be all that competitive at all.

Given recent performances, you’d assume that Hull KR and Warrington have what it takes to stay up, which means that any route to the elite is going to have to come via Salford, Wakefield or a suddenly stuttering Hull.

Leigh have already proved that they can beat two of those teams, though in the case of Wakey that was before the Brian Smith factor kicked in. Their turning over of the black and whites last night, with Kevin Locke making quite an impact, has really set the wildcat among the pigeons, hasn’t it?

Salford too are on a right old wobble just now, much to the delight of those small-minded souls who would chase an enthusiast like Marwan Koukash from the sport. But they still have class players and can’t be taken for granted.

Furthermore, from Leigh’s perspective, despite their surprise loss to Featherstone, it is Bradford who currently sit top of the Championship pile, with Sunday 19 July at Odsal still shaping as a potential league decider, although Leigh do have the superior points difference.

The top and bottom of which is that with three rounds to go, the Middle 8s permutations are endlessly fascinating. Once play begins, however, that could very well change, as hype and excitement fall prey to harsh reality.

And though the future of the ‘New Era’ structure may well depend upon at least one Championship club being promoted – sorry Halifax, Sheffield and Fev, I doubt it will be you ­– or more than a couple of competitive weeks at least, it’s just as important that the race for the Super League title itself isn’t neglected in all the hubbub.

Given the undoubted quality in the playing ranks of the current holders and their closest contenders, you’d hope that will not happen. Yet where was the hoo-hah when Leeds, Saints and Wigan were mathematically guaranteed to finish in the top eight, as they now are? I don’t recall seeing any fuss.

Starting tonight, this weekend sees the current top three and Warrington go head to head, so will sparks fly in anticipation of battles to come or powder be left to dry?

Whatever happens in the minutes that matter, fans and media in print and online will surely devote most of their attention and column inches to those striving to be the best of the best rather than just the best of the worst, won’t they?

As the Euro financier said to the Greek politician: don’t bank on it.

This is the entertainment industry after all and while relegation scraps have been shown in the past to be no guarantee of packing a stadium to the rafters, there is no doubt that such games do make riveting car crash TV.

When you can find which channel – or device – they are on, that is.

But that’s another column.

Tone’s Tips: Victories for Wigan, Leeds, Huddersfield, Hull, Catalans and Castleford. In remarkable turn of events, RFL’s match review panel bans itself for three games, despite early guilty plea.

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