As we approach the business end of the season, this year’s Super League has been one of the most closely contested competitions in years. The dangerous cocktail of increased stakes and increased pressure that is knock-out rugby league always makes predicting the outcome of the play-off’s a thankless task, and this season it is even more of a challenge.
If the play-offs started tomorrow, seven of the top eight sides could harbour serious hopes of reaching Old Trafford, and the eighth, Widnes, have already surpassed all expectations they could have had going into this season. The traditional big four (St Helens, Wigan, Warrington and Leeds) has expanded into a big six with Huddersfield and Castleford joining the party, and a resurgent Catalan side remain as unpredictable as ever.
Under gun-point, I would put my money on league leaders St Helens to go all the way this season, Nathan Browns side have built on a strong start to the season to establish themselves as the pace-setters. The loss of destructive prop Kyle Amor will be a big miss for Saints, but in his place, Samoan prop Mose Masoe has begun to live up to his billing as a leading Super League forward.
Despite this, it’s impossible to ignore rivals and champions Wigan Warriors, who as ever have established themselves as strong contenders to retain their Super League crown. Going into this season there was much debate about how the Warriors would cope following the departure of star Full-Back Sam Tomkins, but replacement Matty Bowen has filled his shoes superbly. With the return to form and fitness of winger Josh Charnley, and Joel Tomkins returning from Rugby Union, Wigan look set up for another strong run in and a serious title charge.
History shows that Leeds are end of season experts, the play-off specialists have featured in five of the last seven Grand Finals, and have enjoyed another strong season, sitting in second place. Leeds have the tightest defence in Super League, conceding just 255 points so far this season and their strength lies in their experience. Peacock, Sinfield, McGuire and Bailey have all seen their fair share of play-off action, and know what it takes to win the 50/50 games. They are also armed with perhaps the most lethal finisher in the league, arguably the world. In Ryan Hall Leeds have a man upon who they can rely to produce moments of magic, from seemingly impossible situations.
Warrington will perhaps be disappointed with their league standing so far this season. Last year’s runners up had a slow start, but have won their last eight games and are unquestionably the form side at this stage of the season. Whether they can maintain this form for the rest of the season and into the play-offs remains to be seen, but Tony Smiths side will be desperate to appease the pain of two consecutive Grand Final defeats, and win their first Super League title.
Huddersfield will also be disappointed to find themselves in sixth after winning the minor premiership last season, but they do possess quality throughout their side and cannot be discounted as a play-off contender. Meanwhile Castleford have shown they are able to mix it with the big boys with early wins over Wigan and Warrington but have struggled since to find consistency, they will be looking to find their best form of the season as we approach its climax.
Picking a winner out of that bunch is as hard as its been for years, and there’s still a lot of rugby league to be played, but already I think we can look forwards to some mouth-watering encounters over the next few months, in the most open Super League for some time.