For the second successive season, the runaway league leaders won’t walk away as Super League champions.
Following classy Castleford’s romp to the shield last season, before defeat at Old Trafford to Leeds, this year’s winners St Helens succumbed to Warrington a stage earlier in the play-off semi-finals to deny Ben Barba the dream farewell.
The reform of the Super League play-offs from next season will hopefully give more weight to the team finishing first – the top five system meaning that a loss for them would at least give them another chance of reaching the Grand Final, something which the achievement of finishing top warrants.
But it lends more weight to the argument that the League Leaders’ Shield needs to be revolutionised to give it greater significance and for it to be an achievement that is perceived to be worth celebrating.
Almost immediately after the 18-13 defeat on Thursday, there were tweets from opposing fans pointing out that Saints should have celebrated the achievement when they had the chance, following the rather subdued celebrations at the Totally Wicked Stadium when they were presented with the shield a few weeks ago.
Those fans are right, of course. Though it’s not Saints’ fault that they felt that it wasn’t something worth celebrating at the time.
— Gail Lee (@drivingale) October 4, 2018
No doubt had they celebrated it like winning say the Challenge Cup or the Grand Final, they would have copped criticism for going overboard.
Like with many things in rugby league, you can’t win.
It’s a shame for St Helens that they will walk away from what has been a stellar season with nothing, not even a final appearance, having lost in two semi-finals, and it will be interesting to see if they use that as motivation next season.
Justin Holbrook has recruited well for 2019, even considering the departure of Barba, and they will likely enter the year as the team to beat.
Wigan and Leeds will have new coaches, as well as significant changes in personnel, while Warrington will need to bed in their new half-back in Blake Austin.
A word on Warrington, who were first class in their victory over St Helens, and coach Steve Price was keen to point out that their Wembley disappointment was a factor in pushing them over the line against the favourites.
Price has done an excellent job with the Wolves in his first year, and it is to his credit that he didn’t panic in the early rounds of the season when they looked scratchy. Certainly if you were at their defeat to Huddersfield early doors, you wouldn’t have expected them to have appeared in both finals this season.
For all their investment, Wembley wins and establishing themselves as a top four side, albeit with a few blips over the years, the Super League title still eludes them and of the 10 teams who’ve been crowned champions in their history (Castleford and Catalans being the two that haven’t), Warrington fans have been waiting the longest – since 1955.
That is one of many subplots in what will be an intriguing Grand Final, what with Shaun Wane, Sam Tomkins et al playing their last game for the Warriors, but Warrington will be hoping it will be third time lucky for them, having lost to Wigan in the 2013 and 2016 finals.