Betfred League 1 is building towards a fascinating and dramatic climax.
An early disclaimer – this piece was written prior to last weekend’s matches for deadline purposes, and given the unpredictable nature of results at this level, that could be folly.
But nothing should change the fact that automatic promotion is still very much up for grabs, the play-offs race is wide open and the competition continues to deliver shock results on a regular basis.
Starting at the top, the automatic promotion spot is down to a straight shoot-out between Cumbrian rivals Workington and Barrow.
Town recently replaced the Raiders in first place following the latter’s defeat at in-form North Wales, but there is plenty of scope for further movement.
When the teams met in June they drew 24-24 at the Matt Johnson Prestige Stadium – it’s just such a shame that the August 1 return clash at Derwent Park had to be postponed.
Whether or not it gets replayed could be absolutely crucial.
Away from that, Town look to have the tougher run-in, but have achieved a high level of consistency the season under Chris Thorman. It could go right down to the wire.
Behind the top two, it now looks like four from five for the remaining play-off places.
Coventry Bears – who let’s not forget have beaten Hunslet, Keighley and Rochdale this year – might now be a little off the pace, although they cannot be fully discounted.
Above them, the only thing consistent about most of North Wales, Doncaster, Rochdale, Keighley and Hunslet has been their inconsistency – but all have cause for optimism ahead of the run-in.
The Crusaders’ recent triumph over Barrow was their fifth win in a row, which helped Anthony Murray’s squad overcome a decidedly stuttering start.
Murray has uncovered some previously unheralded gems this year, with Alex Eckley impressing at loose forward and Jordy Gibson at scrum-half, while Rob Massam has rolled back the clock with some typically destructive displays on the wing.
Doncaster looked automatic promotion contenders at the start of the campaign, but their squad has been stretched significantly of late and their 44-8 defeat at Rochdale saw them drop firmly back into the pack.
Still, with experienced figures like Ryan Boyle, Jason Tali and newly-signing fullback Ben Cockayne in their ranks, they cannot be discounted from regrouping in the coming weeks.
That Hornets win was a season high for Matt Calland’s team, another that has been ravaged by the unavailability of key men.
They will be hoping to confirm a play-off place and by then have a near to full-strength side – which would include maverick recruit Rangi Chase, who played just 20 minutes for his new club before breaking his arm.
Keighley’s campaign is probably best summed up by consecutive games, when they lost at Coventry and then comprehensively beat Barrow – when they’ve been good they’ve been excellent, but at times they’ve fallen well below that.
With as experienced a team as anybody at full strength – think Scott Murrell, Jake Webster and Quentin Laulu-Togagae – they will fear nobody.
Hunslet parted company with coach Gary Thornton midway through the campaign and the arrival of Alan Kilshaw has galvanised their team, despite the recent absence of key man Dom Brambani.
His expected return at the weekend, combined with the likes of Simon Brown, Alex Rowe and Duane Straugheir, means that they are another side with vast experience and know-how, as well as a coach with promotion from this level on his CV.
Coventry’s season has already been a success in most people’s eyes, but they might have to win every game to make the play-offs, and while London Skolars and West Wales Raiders will have to wait another year, both have shown – particularly recently – that they can test any team.
It all adds up to a fascinating final three weeks of the regular season – and a play-off scrap beyond that.
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