A ridiculous top-six battle takes another twist, Sam Burgess has been sacked by the club where he has legend status, and Betfred Super League finally has a new broadcast deal.
This is the time of year where moves are made, and for rugby league’s passionate fan base it is fascinating to be a part of.
With the top four looking secure behind dominant leaders Catalans Dragons, who continue to justify their backing to make history as France’s first ever Grand Final winner, the final two play-off places could go anywhere. Just two points - one Super League win - separates wobbling Warrington Wolves in fifth and Hull FC in ninth. So who do we fancy for those last two spots?
Warrington are fifth but are in freefall, with Sunday’s defeat at Leeds Rhinos their eighth in a row. The game was streamed live on Our League (more on that later) and featured some of the best and worst of Warrington, namely an electric attack but a brittle backbone. Matt Dufty is an infuriating enigma, both the best player on the pitch and the most likely liability in the same breath. The Wolves may still occupy fifth but it feels like they are the most vulnerable as a storm picks up in the places behind them.
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Salford Red Devils snapped out of their own losing run with victory at Huddersfield Giants and can consolidate when relegation favourites Wakefield Trinity visit on Friday. I spoke this week to Red Devils full-back Ryan Brierley, who believes that whoever finishes fifth or sixth will go on to make the Grand Final. Such is the importance of finding form in September every year.
Hull Kingston Rovers in seventh were well beaten at Saints last week but should absolutely not be discounted from the play-off fixture, and this week they announced the signing of England Knights full-back Niall Evalds from Castleford Tigers.
Eighth-placed Leeds may have beaten Warrington but even their die-hard fans will wonder how. The Rhinos, led brilliantly by Cameron Smith, look light and defensively fragile. Supporters have criticised their recruitment drive, or lack of it, in a season that has instead seen big names like first choice half-back pairing Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer, plus young forward Sam Walters allowed to agree deals elsewhere.
Lachie Miller, a speedy NRL full-back, will arrive from Newcastle Knights next season, and Mickaël Goudemand has been signed from Catalans. But right now, Leeds don’t have much of a spine and that is likely to prevent them repeating the damage they did at the end of last season, when the Rhinos scraped into the play-offs on the final day of the season and made it all the way to the Grand Final.
Tucked in just behind Leeds on points difference are Hull FC, who lost to a dramatic golden point at Wigan that could prove costly to their play-off hopes. Tony Smith is a fantastically honest coach and, despite the agony, he admitted his side weren’t good enough. Are they good enough to make the top six though? Probably not, but the next fortnight will sort that out. The Black and Whites have two home games against Warrington and Leeds. Win them both and they are suddenly favourites.
Speaking of Warrington, their incoming head coach Sam Burgess was remarkably sacked this week as assistant coach of South Sydney Rabbitohs, where he is a club legend. Souths CEO Blake Solley told reporters that Burgess’ departure came after “a good conversation with Sam” but much of the Australian press pack weren’t buying it, so close to the end-of-season play-offs.
There has been talk of Burgess’ huge presence in the dressing room, and the respect the players have for him perhaps diluting the authority of head coach Jason Demetriou. There are also rumours of dressing room unrest regarding perceived preferential treatment of star man Latrell Mitchell. For his own part Demetriou rubbished that, citing that there was nothing “going on untoward”. The club say it merely boils down to priorities, which they feel for Burgess right now are his forthcoming move to Warrington and the impending birth of his child.
Whatever the truth, it has caused a storm for a Rabbitohs side focused on finals rugby that they could yet miss out on. It is also a distraction that Burgess could well do without. I’m told the sudden change in circumstance will not, however, see Warrington get their head coach before the end of this season. Burgess will not be arriving any sooner, despite his already daily phone calls to Warrington and the recruitment list that he is finalising with his top transfer targets on. I’m told the big names who Burgess is wanting the Wolves to sign are almost entirely defensive players. He wants to make Warrington tough to break down before he even thinks about finessing the attack.
Away from Burgess, the other B word of the week had been broadcast, with Super League and Sky Sports finally agreeing a much-anticipated deal to continue with the broadcast status quo on the competition’s long-standing and preferred partner. The money is down - cue immediate criticism of strategic partners IMG from the game’s critics - but there is at least scope to take the next step up and stream every game not selected for Sky broadcast. The finer details of the whole deal will be agreed over the next month, but league fans can rest assured they will have more of the product to consume.
This writer has had the pleasure of leading the streaming coverage on Our League this season, with four Super League games having been aired alongside dozens of cup games, Women’s Super League and Wheelchair fixtures across Our League and The Sportsman. It is an exciting chapter for the sport, and will also allow a video referee at every Super League game - something players and coaches have been screaming for for years, to ensure parity in decision-making across all fixtures. It was fascinating to watch Chris Kendall doing that job alongside us on the commentary gantry at Headingley, another reminder that these much-maligned officials seldom get the respect they deserve.
This week sees attention return to that epic top-six fight and the relegation dog fight between Wakefield and Castleford, the latter winning last week’s big derby to plunge Trinity back into the mire. You would expect both to lose this weekend, with Salford away a tough night for Trinity and Cas having to host the champions St Helens.
We have that Challenge Cup final repeat at Hull KR, with Rovers desperate for a win over Leigh to ignite their play-off hopes, while along with Warrington’s trip to Hull Saturday also sees Wigan at Catalans in a fixture that will tell us much about who the top four heavyweights really are. A Leeds win at Huddersfield on Sunday would effectively end the Giants' season and give the Rhinos renewed hope that their own race is far from run.
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