The Super League play-offs are here, and we run through the teams battling out to reach the Grand Final at Old Trafford on October 6th.
1st – Wigan Warriors
First opponent: Catalan (Home, Friday, 8pm)
Odds: 5/4 (joint 1st)
Key quote: “We need to make sure our preparations are nailed. We can’t think 2 games on, whereas in season we group games together we don’t in the play-offs. We treat it like life or death, if we lose we’re out, and although that’s not technically true, that’s how we approach it.” (Shaun Wane)
There’s clamour among certain quarters that first place in the league table should earn you the title of Super League champions, and it would hard to be argue against anyone who says Wigan deserve that moniker. Just about consistently the best team all season, ahead of Warrington, the Warriors went all the way in 2010, and will be looking to put behind last year’s play-off exit to arch rivals St Helens, with coach Shaun Wane hunting glory in his first season in charge.
They won’t have it all their own way against Catalan in their first play-off game, and despite the security blanket of a second chance, a week off could be key to keeping Wigan’s key men fresh, especially considering Michael McIlorum is out.
2nd – Warrington Wolves
First opponent: St Helens (Home, Saturday, 6pm)
Odds: 5/4 (joint 1st)
Key quote: “I get the feeling that this is what they have waited for and they have had these games in the back of their minds for a while. You can tell that we are ready.” (Tony Smith)
If there’s one team that appreciates the lack of champion feeling in finishing top of the table, it’s Warrington. They came top of the tree last season only to suffer semi-final heartbreak to eventual winners Leeds. They’ve never been to Old Trafford, and that’s something Tony Smith and his men are desperate to put right.
With the Challenge Cup already in the bag, the Wolves are bang in form, having defeated both Wigan and St Helens in the end of season run in, which has been marred only by that bizarre loss to London the week before Wembley.
St Helens are first up for the Wolves, so not an easy one to get started with, and they’ll have to be at their best to ensure they don’t end up having to go down the difficult road to Manchester.
3rd – St Helens
First opponent: St Helens (Away, Saturday, 6pm)
Odds: 8/1 (3rd)
Key quote: “We need to be at the top of our game to beat arguably the form team in Super League at the moment. In play-off football, you have to take your chances. The team that takes them will be successful.” (Mike Rush)
St Helens’ problem in recent years hasn’t been getting to Old Trafford, it’s been doing the job on the big stage. They’ve appeared in the last six Grand Finals, and they’ll be a team no one will want to play in the semi-finals. Coach Mike Rush has done a good job on an interim basis, and he’ll be hoping to have a winners ring in his back pocket before handing the reins on to Nathan Brown.
Despite a testing trip to Warrington, Saints may use that to their advantage as the pressure will be more than likely on their opponents to come up with a result. Whether it be the hard way, or the easy way, Saints know what it takes to navigate through the play-offs, and there will be few surprised should they line up in the big one on October 6th.
4th – Catalan Dragons
First opponent: Wigan (Away, Friday, 8pm)
Odds: 18/1 (5th)
No one will be queuing up to play Catalan in the play-offs, and they are more than capable of causing an upset against Wigan on Friday. A win in that game would give the Dragons the huge advantage of a home semi-final, and it would be very difficult for any team to go to France and deny the Dragons their first Grand Final appearance.
Trent Robinson has done a fine job in his two years in Perpignan to land the head coach’s job at NRL side Sydney Roosters, and he’ll be looking to bow out on a high. Boasting the best half-back Super League has had to offer in the past two years in Scott Dureau, a mighty pack and an in-form set of outside backs, teams will be have to be at their best to deny the Dragons.
5th – Leeds Rhinos
First opponent: Wakefield (Home, Saturday, 8pm)
Odds: 12/1 (4th)
Key quote: “Maybe we’re in the same position but we have been on a different journey and we have found ourselves here for different reasons and a different route through. There are similarities in league placing but the task ahead of us is equally as challenging and equally as big as it was last year.” (Brian McDermott)
Brian McDermott says there’s no deja vu about the Rhinos finishing 5th, the same place they ended the regular season last year before going on to win the Grand Final. Lurking on the fringes, and just about under the radar, the top four will be a lot more wary of the threat of the others than last year.
After Challenge Cup heartbreak for the third successive year, Leeds will be looking to ensure their big game experience gets them back to Old Trafford, where they have won four times in the last five years. They were soundly beaten by Huddersfield last week, in contrast to their perfect run from Wembley to Old Trafford in 2011, and face a resurgent Wakefield side who have nothing to lose on Saturday.
6th – Hull FC
First opponent: Huddersfield (Home, Sunday, 6pm)
Odds: 40/1 (6th)
Key quote: “It’s very satisfying to get a home semi-final and something we set as a goal early in the season. It’s a bit of a thank you to our fans and we’ve only lost once at home to a very good Wigan side.” (Peter Gentle)
Hull haven’t fired on all cylinders this season, but have shown enough in fits and starts to show that on their day, they can cause any team some problems. First up for them is Huddersfield, and the Airlie Birds should fancy themselves as favourites in front of their home crowd.
Whether they can go any further remains to be seen. Peter Gentle’s squad is in a period of transition, and with a few new faces ahead of next season, it may be that 2013 proves to be their break through year. They have got history at Old Trafford, though, having reached the 2006 Grand Final, but were unable to build on that, and it’s something Gentle and the club are keen to make sure doesn’t happen again next time they reach the big one.
7th – Huddersfield Giants
First opponent: Hull (Away, Sunday, 6pm)
Odds: 80/1 (7th)
Key quote: “We have talked about been successful this year and Leeds was the first of the five Grand Finals that we have to win, we have managed to cross one off and now we will move onto number two.” (Paul Anderson)
The season started full of promise for Huddersfield, but fans will probably want to forget most of what’s happened since then. Losing their coach Nathan Brown, first to St Helens for 2013, and then for 2012 too, was a setback they really struggled to overcome, and they slid down the table to finish in a lowly 7th, having been sitting at the top of the pile for a while.
Signs that Paul Anderson is starting to steady the ship and build his own ethos were evident in the win over Leeds last weekend, and the Giants are one of those teams that have little to lose in the play-offs. They’ll see the trip to Hull as a winnable game, and the Giants have got form there, having knocked the Airlie Birds out of the Challenge Cup earlier this year.
8th – Wakefield Wildcats
First opponent: Leeds (Away, Saturday, 8pm)
Odds: 150/1 (8th)
Key quote: “We’ve thoroughly earned our right to be in that eight. You can see in the boys eyes that they want it and it can’t come quick enough.” (Richard Agar)
Who can stop Wakefield? Seven wins in a row has fired them in to a play-off spot, and that in itself is a great achievement for the Wildcats. But they aren’t finished there. They’ve done well against Leeds this season, beating them at home and taking them all the way at Headingley, and if they can get a few early scores, the home fans may get a bit restless.
Despite their run, they are rank outsiders, and even the most ardent Wakefield fan will admit that three consecutive away wins against teams of this calibre is very unlikely. One thing you can guarantee though, is that Agar’s resurgent squad will give it a damn good shot, and Leeds will know they’ve been in a game on Saturday, win or lose.
Wigan v Catalan – Wigan by 8
Warrington v St Helens – Warrington by 12
Hull v Huddersfield – Hull by 10
Leeds v Wakefield – Leeds by 6