All eyes are on Super League this week. There are three games taking place, and the results of each of those games are massively important for different reasons.
Arguably the most crucial game of the year is taking place at Leigh Sports Village, as Catalans Dragons travel to Leigh Centurions in the Million Pound Game. Due to Hull Kingston Rovers’ promotion back to Super League, one of the current members of the top flight will be plying their trade in the Championship next year. It’s relief for the winners and despair for the losers, it’s as simple as that. After the drama of last year’s contest, nerves are set to be shattered when Leigh and Catalans fight for survival.
Then there’s the small matter of the Super League semi-finals. Now, it may not be the big dance, but to get to Old Trafford you have to get over the penultimate hurdle on the way to becoming Champions. The runaway League Leaders Castleford Tigers will host St Helens, while Leeds Rhinos’ redemption from a disappointing 2016 continues, as they take on Hull FC. It’s knockout football, and until next week’s Grand Final it’s the biggest game of the season for those involved.
While everyone else is looking up this weekend, on Sunday a game of equal importance is taking place at Barrow Raiders’ Craven Park. The League 1 outfit welcome Whitehaven in a play-off final, with the implications similar to the MPG. The winners will be rewarded with an increase in prize money, bigger gates (meaning more income) and of course a place in the Championship for 2018, while the losers will be consigned to another year in the third tier.
League 1 is getting tougher to get out of year on year for those looking to progress up the ladder into the second tier. Last year Toulouse Olympique competed as a full-time team in a division otherwise occupied by part-time outfits and claimed one of the promotion places despite losing the Grand Final to Rochdale Hornets, who were promoted as Champions. This year it happened again, with Toronto Wolfpack topping the division and advancing to the Championship next year with a squad littered with top flight experience.
The final promotion spot will be decided in Barrow, and it could be one of the biggest games in both club’s recent history. The winners will gain all of the benefits previously stated, while the losers have another uphill battle on their hands. As of yet, there will be no full-time expansion project in the competition in 2018, however the relegation of Bradford Bulls means there will be a full-time club to compete with. Add to that Oldham, who also suffered the same fate as the Bulls, it makes the division just as tough.
Whether it be the Raiders or ‘Haven who are on the wrong side of the scoreboard this weekend, they will again be one of the favourites to push for promotion again next year. With the aforementioned Bradford and Oldham as competition it won’t be as straight forward as that though.
Then there’s the current clubs in the division who will undoubtedly strengthen for next season, as York City Knights will be looking to build on their impressive run to the semi-finals. Keighley Cougars will likewise be out to improve as they continue in their re-building process, while Newcastle Thunder seem to be going from strength to strength. Doncaster can’t be ruled out either, making it a difficult competition to climb out of.
The travel is tough too, as there are a lot of long away trips which can take their toll on the players throughout the course of the campaign.
In the last meeting of the two clubs, back in July, Barrow claimed a hard fought 15-2 away victory over Whitehaven, two weeks after they were heavily beaten 32-6 by the same side in the final game of the regular season.
It all comes down to Sunday though, when one team will be jubilant in the triumph of gaining promotion, while the other side will be devastated by the despair of coming so close only to fall at the final hurdle.
To the outsiders looking in, the importance of this contest may not come close to the Million Pound Game, but to those involved it is the by far the biggest game of the weekend. When you take into account what is at stake, it is hard to argue with just how crucial an 80 minutes it is for Whitehaven and Barrow.