Warrington Wolves vs Leeds Rhinos (Sun, 2:45pm)
When this draw was made two months ago, it looked like we were set for a very tight, unpredictable game between two evenly-matched sides. Again, it certainly doesn’t look that way now.
Warrington have kept a strong hold on their top four place since thrashing Wigan in the quarter-finals. They may have lost three of their seven games since that cup win, but play-off rivals Castleford, Wigan and St Helens only got the better of them by a combined difference of seven points, so they’re not far away from the rest by any means.
Their squad is a very strong one, starting with full-back Stefan Ratchford who has been superb this season. It’s the forward pack that is most impressive though, with hooker Daryl Clark having another fantastic season and props Chris Hill and Mike Cooper completing a devastating front row, while Ben Westwood continues to defy his age having missed only one game all season.
Winger Josh Charnley has been in great form since his return from rugby union, but there are perhaps some questions around the rest of the back-line. In the halves Tyrone Roberts is improving but has never set the division alight, and he has already confirmed his return to Australia at the end of the season. It’s not a complete side but it is still a very good one, and any side needs to work very hard if they want to beat them.
And so to Leeds. What to say about them? I’ll start with the positives – Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Anthony Mullally could make their comebacks while the likes of Ryan Hall, Adam Cuthbertson and Brett Ferres return too. They’ve been missing too many big players for too long over the course of the season, something that Brian McDermott will no doubt still be ruing as he watches Kevin Sinfield attempt to recover a disastrous season.
McDermott’s last win with the club was against Leigh in the quarter-finals, and while they went into that with three defeats on the bounce it still looked like they could turn around their season enough to make the top eight. But four more defeats followed and their long-serving supremo was shown the door, with the club legend brought in to pick up the pieces managing just the one win in four games so far.
Last week’s comprehensive defeat to a Salford side who played an hour with 12 men was ten steps back from the win over Widnes. You still feel that they should make it through the Qualifiers, but it won’t be comfortable unless Sinfield makes effective changes quickly. They are certainly a long, long way behind sides like Warrington right now.
For all of that though, it is still Leeds we are talking about. They know how to turn up for the big events, while the Wire have notoriously struggled on such occasions in recent history. You never rule out the Rhinos, but it still feels like there is too much between the sides on current form and that Warrington will be the ones heading to Wembley.
Prediction: Warrington Wolves 34-16 Leeds Rhinos
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