Writing for his League Express column “Pulling No Punches”, Garry Schofield talks us through each club in the Qualifiers, and where they’ll finish.
1 LEEDS RHINOS
Even though they’ve had a shocking season, when you look at their squad, they have more quality than everyone else in the Qualifiers, so I’m happy to tip them to come top. Surely their motivation is to do what they did in 2016, by getting some early wins and ensuring safety as soon as possible. I’m writing this before the semi-final with Warrington, but I’m banking on them finding some form as soon as possible. The fixtures have been kind to them. They’ll start off with wins against Toulouse and London, which will give them a great boost before they entertain Hull KR. Then they have Widnes. They will win at least three of those four matches and safety will be all but guaranteed at that point.
2 HULL KINGSTON ROVERS
They are playing with more confidence at the moment, but I think Leeds will come good and deny them top spot. Rovers finished the regular season superbly and go into the Qualifiers with some momentum. They’re getting their big players back, but even without some of them, including Danny McGuire, they were still too good for Hull FC. They’ll start off with a home win against Salford. The next two fixtures are tricky, away to Toronto and Leeds, but the run-in is easy and I think they’ll avoid the Million Pound Game with ease.
3 TORONTO WOLFPACK
When they play at home, they’ll be okay. They should have enough for at least one win away from home as well, and that will come on Sunday when they play at Halifax. They’ll beat London in round three as well, so a good start will see them well on their way. They’ll have enough to avoid the Million Pound Game. But they’ll need to watch their discipline after what happened against Warrington. They don’t need to resort to that sort of rubbish. Yellow and red cards won’t help them. Paul Rowley gets them going as a team and they play with plenty of spirit. They’ve got experience of winning big games and they’ve got plenty of class in the key positions.
4 SALFORD RED DEVILS
They had a great win against Leeds, which will make them confident they can beat anybody. But I don’t feel they are consistent enough. I like Ian Watson as a coach, but I was surprised he said they’ve played well all season. That’s simply not true. The pressure will be on because there’s a big chance they will get relegated. It’s going to be tight if they do stay up. I can’t see them doing it with ease. But if the table finishes how I predict, they should win the Million Pound Game.
5 TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE
They’ve had an excellent season and they play with plenty of confidence. Jonathan Ford is a top-drawer halfback and Mark Kheirallah excites everyone from fullback. They have a great team ethic and they’re well coached. They play the game the right way and their flair has been rewarded this season. But they’ll find it tough against the Super League sides and I can’t see them picking enough wins to make the top three. They should win two of the first three, but it will be very hard for them after that. If they do make the Million Pound Game, all the pressure will be on the other team, which could work in their favour.
6 WIDNES VIKINGS
It’s for the good of the game that Widnes get relegated. They don’t bring anything to Super League. Surely they can’t finish bottom and survive again, especially after their disgraceful performances this season. They’ve given themselves a slim chance of survival by signing Liam Finn, but I can’t imagine any neutrals will be supporting them. The five teams I have predicted to finish above them should all be confident of beating them and I think they will. Finn will make a difference, but he’ll have to work miracles to even get them into the Million Pound Game.
7 LONDON BRONCOS
They’ve proven me wrong once, so can they do it again? The Qualifiers will be very tough for them. I can’t see them having the quality to make the top five, but it’s been a tremendous season for Danny Ward and his players. They’ll fancy their chances on Thursday of winning at Widnes, but I can’t see them beating the Rhinos or the Wolfpack in the following two rounds. They’ll have to pull up some trees in the last few weeks to have a shout of getting back into Super League.
I like Richard Marshall, as I’ve said many times before. Scott Murrell is their main man and he still has plenty of class. They won’t make it easy for anyone, that’s for sure. They’ll try and give it a shake-up, but they won’t have the quality to win the games necessary to make the Million Pound Game. Their confidence will be up, and they’ll be playing with a smile on their faces, so expect at least one surprise. They’ve done well to get to this stage, but this is as good as it gets for them.