Four sides battle for a place in the Grand Final at Old Trafford. Here are my predictions…
St Helens vs Warrington Wolves (Thu, 7:45pm)
The first play-off semi-final sees St Helens and Warrington meet again, two weeks on from the curtain raiser at the Halliwell Jones in the Super 8s.
That was the day that Saints really looked a force again, after arguably four months in which they had failed to replicate the scintillating early season form that had put them head and shoulders above any of the competition.
Ben Barba is back in form now that his future has been resolved but he’s not the only one, and the win at the Wolves, followed by the nilling of fellow semi-finalists Castleford last week, showed that the team as a whole is as strong as ever.
For Warrington, that defeat to Saints emphasised the lack of creativity and potency in big matches, while the win over Wakefield that featured four tries against them showed another difference between themselves and St Helens.
When a team is vulnerable they come out of their shell – Leeds in the Challenge Cup semi-final and Hull FC in the Super 8s being obvious examples – but they still have the same old problem of lacking players who will do it for them in the big matches.
The Challenge Cup final proved that, with half-backs Kevin Brown and Tyrone Roberts doing very little between them to change the course of the game. They have been rested in recent weeks and both came off injured against St Helens a fortnight ago, but Steve Price may now even look to shake things up and keep Harvey Livett and Dec Patton there.
Stefan Ratchford is the only player in the backline that really excites but even he can’t produce like Barba. Josh Charnley is a great finisher, but wingers don’t win you matches and he needs position and service to have an influence.
Warrington need to be aggressive up front from the off, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t when you look at that front row, not to mention impact players like Ben Murdoch-Masila and Joe Philbin throwing their weight around.
And yet Saints were far more enthusiastic in that department two weeks ago, as they seem to be every time the sides meet. Both have top-class hookers, and Daryl Clark needs to drive his side forward because without him the Wolves look lacklustre. James Roby always lifts Saints, bringing in a set of forwards that will possess more variation than their opponents.
St Helens are the heavy favourites and rightly so, although that’s not to say that the underdogs can’t compete – Warrington matched them stride for stride when they last came to the Totally Wicked Stadium at the end of the regular season.
But the Wolves need to play a perfect game from the first minute to the last to stand a chance, and St Helens look to have regained their powers at the perfect time. Semi-finals are usually tight and nervous so I don’t expect a blowout like two weeks ago, but the League Leaders will make it to Old Trafford.
Prediction: St Helens 24-10 Warrington Wolves
See my prediction for Friday’s semi-final on page 2…