The most unpredictable of Betfred Super League seasons may just be heading for a predictable conclusion, as the sport’s two heavyweights hit heights at the perfect time.
After months of Dragons dominance, Wigan top the table heading into round 25, and champions St Helens are tucked in menacingly behind the French side, who have suffered untimely back-to-back defeats.
Worrying wobble, or a late-summer power shift?
Either way, Steve McNamara’s Catalans know they have to respond immediately.
The Warriors have quietly but surely produced their most consistent run of form of the year, winning five on the spin including a stunning 34-0 away triumph at the Dragons that showed the first cracks in the 2023 French armour.
“It’s in our hands and would be a massive achievement for the club,” says coach Matty Peet, with Wigan now in the box seat to clinch an unlikely League Leaders’ Shield.
And ominously for the rest, Saints are on an even better run of six successive victories, having started the season with a stutter following their long-haul trip Down Under to win an historic World Club Challenge.
It is Wigan and Saints - seeking a record fifth straight title - again flexing their muscles for the big prize, and time to see what the Dragons are made of in their pursuit of a first ever French Grand Final win.
McNamara admitted he was frustrated this week, not least because the team’s private jet back to Perpignan had to land a couple of hours away in Montpellier. But the former England boss is staying calm despite the big moves being made by the usual suspects around them.
“We have to find a way of getting back to our best form,” he said this week.
“It is our form and basic individual errors, it’s down to people’s concentration. We are a really good team but we are not doing the basics right.
“We need to get back to some of the good things we were doing earlier in the season, if we can do that and get back on track then we can play our game once again.”
Key to rebooting the Dragons’ machine will be the retiring Sam Tomkins, who could make his 100th appearance this weekend. Tomkins is desperate to sign off with a bit of rugby league history under the Old Trafford lights next month, and if his dodgy knees stay intact then he is the man to make it happen.
But right now, those betting on the Dragons to triumph at Old Trafford, may instead be casting worrying glances at Wigan and Saints.
Elsewhere it’s all been kicking off, not least with a bizarre floodlight failure at Leigh that saw the final half hour of their match with Huddersfield played two days later.
Leigh won the game, having led 16-12 when it went dark, and Giants coach Ian Watson - whose much-fancied side have had an awful season- wanted the match scrapped and replayed in full. Key to his argument was that two Leigh players John Asiata and Tom Amone had just been taken off exhausted, and were therefore afforded 48 hours’ rest before the resumption. A refreshed Asiata then scored a try in the 34-16 victory.
You can see Watson’s point, but replaying the whole thing would have been even more unfair, or in Leigh coach Adrian Lam’s words “ridiculous with where the season is at”.
You can file this away in the hefty “only in rugby league” cabinet.
Leeds have reacted to their abject season by announcing the signing of Canberra half-back Matt Crawley, which has been met by a degree of indifference by their increasingly frustrated fans. The 28-year old previously had an undistinguished spell in Super League at Huddersfield.
St Helens forward Sione Mata’utia and Salford giant King Vuniyayawa have both signed new deals while a couple of the game’s stalwarts in Wakefield’s David Fifita and Hull’s Scott Taylor have announced their retirements. Former England prop Taylor cited family as a major reason to quit this brutal sport, which “takes its toll over 15 or 16 years.”
Like most rugby league players who cannot retire on the riches of Premier League footballers, Taylor has other business interests that he will now focus upon.
Hull legend Gareth Ellis is also leaving the sport, with the club confirming on Wednesday that he is giving up his role as assistant coach.
This weekend can resolve a fair few issues, not least a top-four spot for Betfred Challenge Cup winners Leigh, which at the time of their Wembley triumph appeared a certainty.
The Leopards face the wrath of champions St Helens on Friday night but a win would guarantee them a top-four finish if Hull KR and Warrington lose this weekend.
The Wolves have a colossal Sunday lunchtime contest at fellow playoff hopefuls Salford live on Channel 4, which would pretty much guarantee their top-six place with a win.
Salford have to win to keep their hopes alive but will have to do it without banned captain Kallum Watkins and Oli Partington, although prop Vuniyayawa is free to play after his suspension was overturned.
Last season’s Grand Finalists Leeds have had a wretched second season under boss Rohan Smith and will be put out of their misery unless they can beat Wigan on Saturday.
In the dramatic relegation scrap between fierce rivals Wakefield and Castleford, the Tigers could really turn the screw with victory over Hull given Trinity face league leaders’ Catalans. That would leave Cas four clear with two games to go and Wakefield would be pretty much condemned to the Betfred Championship.
Speaking of which, Featherstone clinched the League Leaders’ Shield with Sunday’s win at Bradford, so now know they have just a home semi-final and home Grand Final between them and a place in Super League for the first time ever.
I understand the club already has strong recruitment plans in place if they can get over the line, with Leigh half-back Ben Reynolds one of a handful of top-flight stars poised to join.
And the playoff action continues this weekend in Betfred League One, with The Sportsman’s cameras heading to Oldham for the Roughyeds’ eliminator against North Wales Crusaders. You can watch that one live here.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change