It’s an early testament to the new era that almost a third of the way through the first phase of the season, just four points separate all but two in Super League.
Every game carries meaning and the pendulum will no doubt swing back and forth for all the teams throughout the next 16 rounds, with all knowing just how crucial it is to finish inside the top eight – especially with the relentless Leigh Centurions juggernaut mowing down all before them in the Championship. Paul Rowley’s side racked up a club record 17th successive win in Sunday’s 60-0 demolition of Whitehaven, who will be fighting to avoid the bottom two and the drop to League One once the season split occurs in high summer.
Those with smiles on their faces this Sunday evening include Salford, following their comfortable televised defeat of one of last season’s top eight, Widnes on Thursday night, and Hull KR, who survived a couple of astounding refereeing decisions to inflict a first defeat of the season on champions St Helens.
Salford’s win was one of the few times since Dr Koukash admirably invested some of his fortune in to the club that they looked like the team their owner believed he could put together. The triumvirate of Chase, Dobson and Locke sparkled without really having to hit a high gear, behind a pack that had the answer to the challenge Widnes threw down to them by naming three props in their starting line-up.
Perhaps the lasting legacy of Tim Sheens’ brief stint at the AJ Bell Stadium is the increased team spirit evident amongst the players – who to a man, were all more than happy to run around the field congratulating their team-mates on a big hit, a tackle that forced an error, or as what happened on seven occasions on Thursday, scoring a try.
Some will say it was forced, but a good team spirit in a tight competition could prove the difference in earning a top eight finish – or even a top four berth, if Salford can find the consistency that has evaded them in the Koukash era.
Hull KR had two former Great Britain internationals eating their words following their win over Saints, only secured by former Robins half-back Travis Burns missing a tricky conversion attempt with the last kick.
Garry Schofield had predicted that Saints would go the 23 games of the first phase of the season unbeaten, while Barrie McDermott had called Chris Chester’s side a “touch and pass” team during the week, something which the Robins coach was eager to point out in his post-match interview on Sky Sports.
His reaction would have been far less jovial had they been denied the two points, following two embarrassingly forward passes in the St Helens’ tries that dragged them back in to contention for an unlikely draw. With the presence of former referees chief Stuart Cummings in the Sky Sports commentary box, watching Super League on Sky is at times cringeworthy – not due to Cummings, you understand, but simply due to the variety of interpretations on the laws of the game which result in Cummings and the commentators often left perplexed by the on-field decision.
It is encouraging to see some movement from the RFL to get this sorted though, with the appointment of Ben Thaler as National Match Officials Manager to help recruit and develop the next generation of referees and touch judges.
The Robins and Red Devils were both licking their wounds this time last week, having suffered defeats to Widnes and Castleford respectively, and now both occupy top eight spots – what a difference a week certainly makes in this new era.
It certainly points to Easter being a pivotal weekend. Four points could make a hell of a difference, while picking up none could leave some behind the eight ball.
Injury hit Widnes would seem to be most at risk, with a tough home game against Warrington followed by an Easter Monday trip to Catalans, though Hull FC will have to turnaround their indifferent form to get anything out of a derby clash against Hull KR and a visit to St Helens for the first leg of this season’s Steve Prescott Cup.
Finally, let me for the last time, compare our game to rugby union. The 15-man code attracted a club rugby record crowd of 84,068 to Wembley Stadium for Saracens’ Premiership game against Harlequins on Saturday. Union is on a different planet to league now in terms of international recognition, commercial and marketing, and it’s probably time now to stop comparisons and get on with it as if we were any other independent sport.