With less than 4 weeks to Grand Final night, the Super League season gets serious as the race to be champions of 2012 heats up. With the all-important play-offs set to kick off this weekend, I will consider all 8 remaining club’s credentials, looking at the favourites, dark horses and outsiders to make it to next month’s showpiece in Manchester.
1st: Wigan Warriors
After already winning the League Leaders Shield in his first season, Shaun Wane looks to repeat Wigan’s achievement of 2010 under predecessor Michael Maguire and convert the league leadership into a title win.
Blitzing all before them in the first half of the year with some devastating attack, a midseason injury to scrumhalf Thomas Leuluai, who broke his knee playing for the Exiles in June , coincided with a dip in the Warriors’ momentum. However, Leuluai’s return a fortnight ago, along with Pat Richards’ has put the wind back in Wigan’s sails heading into the play-offs.
Wigan will be hindered by Michael McIlorum’s 3-match ban coming into the play-offs, meaning the hooker, who has enjoyed a great season will not play again should Wigan get to the Grand Final without any hiccups. However, Leuluai’s return a fortnight ago, along with Pat Richards’ has put the wind back in Wigan’s sails heading into the play-offs and they will be confident of a second Grand Final in three years, after missing out last year.
They begin their play-off charge versus Catalans Dragons next Friday night at the DW, aside they have already beaten twice in the regular rounds and, the absence of McIlorum aside, will still be favourites to proceed straight through to the last 4.
2nd Warrington Wolves
LSMedia’s pre-season tip for Super League glory have already picked up one piece of major silverware with their Wembley success over Leeds last month.
The Wolves have enjoyed a solid league campaign to finish 2nd as they now set their sights on the trophy that has so far eluded them. Tony Smith has rotated the large squad at his disposal throughout the season to ensure they hit the play-offs healthy as they look to achieve the feat no club other than St Helens in 2006 has managed and win a League & Cup double since the Cup Final’s move to August.
The Wire have performed in the bigger games when needed as demonstrated by victories at St Helens and completion of a league double over Wigan as well as their Wembley success to cap off a successful August. They will enter the play-offs in buoyant mood and look to peak at the right time once more.
Topping the table in 2011 only to agonisingy fall at the penultimate hurdle to Leeds, missing out on Old Trafford again is simply unthinkable for the Wolves this time round. A tasty start to their challenge lies in store with a visit of rivals St Helens, the only side who have managed to overcome the Wolves at home in the regular season.
The Dark Horses
3rd: St Helens
A far cry from the champion Saints sides of the previous decade but still a threat when it comes to the serious end of the campaign, as proved by their record of making the last 6 Grand Finals, despite losing in the last 5.
Since the disappointing start to the Langtree Park era with Royce Simmons’ sacking, form took an upward turn under the interim watch of Mike Rush and a double over Leeds and a win at Warrington have been the highlight performances. The win at leaders Wigan last week, their first of the season over their derby rivals, should add confidence ahead of the play-offs.
2012 was another year which has seen young players develop their careers or introduced into the side as the Saints’ squad transition continues. The second best defence of the league, question marks over the team’s lack of attacking edge and big game mentality when it comes to the crunch games remain.
Pre-season I tipped a record-extending seventh consecutive Grand Final for the Saints and they care certainly dark horses to get there again although it’s hard to see Saints having the quality to go one further and win the fixture which has eluded them since their last triumph of 2006.
The Saints march begins at Warrington on Saturday evening.
5th: Leeds Rhinos
The holders enter the 2012 play-offs in the same position that they shocked the rugby league world to win the Grand Final from last year. Lacking the week-by-week consistency of the past, the big game Leeds players can still produce on the big stage as proved again this season in the World Club Challenge and that Cup semi-final shock win over Wigan.
However, the challenge is undoubtedly tougher this time around. Whereas 2011 saw them enter the play-offs with great momentum, that confident aura does not seem to be pervading the Headingley air quite as strongly this year The Rhinos did not quite leave Wembley with the same credit this time as they did 12 months ago when unlucky to lose out to Wigan and they enter the play-offs with a heavy defeat to Huddersfield on Sunday.
It’s difficult to realistically imagine a repeat of last season’s heroics but the Rhinos are still worthy of ‘dark horse’ status due to their big game reputation. Leeds’ play-off charge starts with a potentially tricky tie against inform Wakefield as the Rhinos again have to start off in knock-out rugby but should they get over the potential banana skin another play-off run is certainly possible.
4th: Catalans Dragons
Despite finishing in the top 4 to give them the second bite of the cherry should they lose at Wigan on Friday, after much thought I’ve placed the Dragons in the ‘outsiders’ category.
An impressive start to the year suggested they could be contenders, and it has been another improved campaign for the French team under Trent Robinson, who it has been announced will join the Sydney City Roosters in the NRL in 2013.
However, the Dragons have failed to step up in the bigger fixtures and, despite early season wins at Saints and against Warrington, have come up just short of the mark since including a Challenge Cup tie at home to Warrington.
There is undoubted quality in the team, especially in Scott Dureau and veteran Steve Menzies, and, outside the top 3 and Leeds, they are the most likely to make an impression on the play-offs. Progression to the semi-finals is certainly possible but it’d be a surprise to see the Dragons walking out at Old Trafford come October 6th.
6th: Hull FC
The injury curse of recent seasons has ravaged the Black & Whites’ season once more. But expected improvement under Peter Gentle, despite interruptions in personnel has been seen and a recent lift in form just before the play-offs will hold them in good stead ahead of their difficult to call tie against Huddersfield.
7th: Huddersfield Giants
The Giants have definitely had a season of two halves. Leading the table early on until a dramatic mid-season collapse saw them slide down the table and in confidence. A Cup semi-final battering by Warrington saw coach Nathan Brown’s exit with assistant Paul Anderson stepping up to mend the pieces and unify the camp. Anderson will already be planning ahead, but a good performance in the 2012 play-offs would help to cap off a difficult year.
8th: Wakefield Trinity Wildcats
The Wildcats have been one of the success stories of a difficult year for some British rugby league clubs. Twelve months ago faced the prospect of losing their Super League license, now with a new stadium on the horizon to secure the club’s future, the club is blossoming on and off the field.
New coach Richard agar assembled a completely new squad for the season and, guided by the mercurial halfback and former Australian Rookie of the Year, Tim Smith, the Wildcats’ season has seen some good results. And with a run of seven wins on the trot they managed to break into the play-offs, being the major beneficiaries of Bradford’s 6-point deduction.
They can enter the play-offs with the bonus of there being no pressure or expectation as they travel to Headingley to face the champions on Saturday night. This nothing-to-lose situation has helped teams that start from the 8th position in the past and the Wildcats will look to cause an upset with confidence behind them.
Four intriguing and unpredictable games lie ahead to kick off the series, as 8 will be whittled down to 6 over the weekend. With the added intensity and excitement play-off rugby brings, a fascinating 4 weeks should lie ahead. Most pundits are again predicting Wigan and Warrington to be the sides to grace Old Trafford but, as last year proved, anything can happen yet between now and October 6th. The Super League season is about to really begin.
Fixtures – Week One
Friday: Wigan Warriors V Catalans Dragons (8pm – DW Stadium)
LSMedia prediction: Wigan by 12. Despite McIlorum’s ban, I expect Wigan to be too strong for the Frenchmen and progress straight to the semi-finals
Saturday: Warrington Wolves V St Helens (6pm – Halliwell Jones Stadium)
LSMedia prediction: Warrington by 4. Could be a cracker if Saints hit form on the back of last week. I’ll go for the Wolves to edge a tight one.
Leeds Rhinos V Wakefield Trinity Wildcats (8pm – Headingley Carnegie Stadium)
LSMedia prediction:Wakefield by 6. With greater momentum and the Wildcats’ confidence sky high coming into the tie, I predict the men from Bell Vue to produce the shock of the week.
Sunday: Hull FC V Hudderfield Giants (6pm – KC Stadium)
LSMedia prediction: Hull by 2. Hard to call with both sides’ inconsistency but I’ll go for the Black & Whites to extend their winning run.