Whether or not you think eight teams is too many, the Super League play-offs get underway this weekend.
There have been grumbles about the fact more than half of the competing teams will take part in the end of season showcase, with the threat of a team who finished as lowly as 8th and 16 points off the league leaders reaching the season finale.
Then there is of course the controversial club call system, which makes an already confusing play-off format that more puzzling.
In time, I imagine we will move closer to the system employed in the NRL, but for now, we have this system – which pits 1st against 4th and 2nd against 3rd, with the two losers given a second chance, against the two winners of the 5th v 8th and 6th v 7th clashes.
Whatever format used though, the line-up is looking somewhat intriguing. Leeds and St Helens don’t appear to carry the same aura as they have had in recent years, and the new kids on the block – namely Nathan Brown and Justin Morgan – will fancy their chances of moving within 80 minutes of a maiden Grand Final this weekend.
Brown has almost certainly got his hand on the coach of the year trophy after an impressive debut campaign, and his Huddersfield side will be buoyed by last week’s defeat of Wigan which helped to erase memories of the Challenge Cup final defeat to Warrington. They will be looking for inspiration from their Challenge Cup semi-final win over Saints, while they did themselves no harm when losing 12-10 at Knowsley Road a few weeks ago.
However, the Giants will be missing Scott Moore, banned internally by the club for a breach of discipline. It puts more pressure on fellow Dream Team member Brett Hodgson to produce.
Meanwhile for Saints, Mick Potter will be looking to overcome the disappointment of finishing runners-up to Leeds by ending the Rhinos two year stint as Super League champions.
Leeds appear to be hitting form at the right time, and they face a Hull KR side – who like themselves – can boast four players in the Dream Team (Senior, Hall, Peacock and Sinfield; Fox, Dobson, Newton and Galea). Justin Morgan has done a fantastic job at Craven Park, with the Robins earning their way up the ranks via the traditional methods, and not the fast-tracking licensing way. They have built on the platform laid in National League 1, and they are the blueprint that many other Super League hopefuls will surely be following in future years.
Can anyone outside the top four challenge? If there’s one man who knows his way through the play-offs it’s Wigan coach Brian Noble, who could be on his way out of the DW Stadium if rumours are to be believed. He has been solid if unspectacular at Wigan, and the most successful British coach in recent memory will be hoping he can work his magic before the end of this campaign, and end a barren spell for the cherry and whites.
John Kear’s achievements must not go unnoticed either. He has led Wakefield to a record points tally and a superb season, with a team built around the playmaking talents of Danny Brough and Sam Obst. Their problem will be that to reach a Grand Final, they will have to win away at one of the big four – a tough ask.
Castleford will be happy just to be there after a few years of instability going up and down the leagues – in fact their success, together with Wakefield, is a far cry from the end of the 2006 season when the Wildcats relegated the Tigers to a season in the second tier.
Cas travel to Wigan for what will be an intriguing encounter, while Wakefield face Catalans, who take part in the play-offs for a second successive year. They will find it difficult away from France, but they are another dangerous team – highlighted by their surprise triumph over former coach Mick Potter’s Saints last weekend.
Qualifying Play-off 1: Leeds v Hull KR (Headingley, Friday, 8pm)
Leeds by 6
Qualifying Play-off 2: St Helens v Huddersfield (Knowsley Road, Saturday, 6pm)
Huddersfield by 8
Elimination Play-off 1: Wakefield v Catalans (Belle Vue, Saturday, 8pm)
Wakefield by 14
Elimination Play-off 2: Wigan v Castleford (DW Stadium, Sunday, 7pm)
Wigan by 7