Super League Leaders Shield winners St Helens have the chance to take the quickest route to next month’s Grand Final when they face neighbours Wigan on Friday night.
The outstanding team of the season, Saints had the Shield wrapped up weeks before the end of the regular season though they were the victims of an upset in the Challenge Cup final, beaten by Warrington Wolves.
Wigan’s year has not been as straightforward. For the opening months of the season, they didn’t look like a team capable of even reaching the play-offs. But dramatic dips in form from Warrington and Hull FC - along with a phenomenal finish to the season by Salford - saw Wigan sneak into second spot.
It is possible that these two teams will meet again in the Final itself at Old Trafford as the losers on Friday will then face the winners of Thursday night’s play-off, Salford v Castleford. Last week, Wigan had to battle hard to see off a tenacious Salford side, 18-12. But because they finished third, Salford stay alive in the competition and will play the Tigers at the AJ Bell Stadium on Thursday.
St Helens v Wigan
Saints have not been beaten at home all season though they came close to losing that record a few weeks ago when they sneaked past Castleford 4-0, the joint lowest-scoring game in Super League history.
Coach Justin Holbrook is leaving for Gold Coast Titans at the end of the season and he will be desperate to leave on a high after missing out on an appearance at Old Trafford last year.
Influential hooker James Roby is expected to be fit while Wigan have a doubt over Sam Powell. Should he not make it, coach Adrian Lam will consider switching Thomas Leuluai from half-back to hooker meaning a recall for Jarrod Sammut.
Saints were the last team to beat Wigan in July but Lam’s team have been in fine form, winning their last eight. Games between these two rarely fail to deliver and it should be a contest worthy of the Grand Final itself.
Salford v Castleford
Prior to losing at Wigan last Friday, Salford had won eight games in a row. The form of Ian Watson’s men has made them one of the stories of the season with many neutrals hoping Salford can reach the Grand Final for the first time.
Written off as relegation candidates at the start of the season, Salford have defied expectations thanks to the form of their key player Jackson Hastings - who will be at Wigan next season - and a terrific team spirit.
Their squad is unchanged from the one which pushed Wigan so hard while opponents Castleford bring in Nathan Massey and Greg Eden in place of Mike McMeeken and Calum Turner.
Castleford’s recent form has not been on a par with Salford though they worked hard to upset Warrington atthe Halliwell Jones Stadium last Thursday, 14-12, and the feeling is they are playing their best rugby of the year.
Main image: Salford Red Devils' Tui Lolhea tackles George Williams of Wigan Warriors. Oskar Vierod/SWpix.com