After seven weeks of garbage, the Super League season is finally going to burst into life with the two semi-finals this week.
St Helens, Warrington, Wigan and Castleford will go toe to toe on Thursday and Friday for the right to get to Old Trafford.
This is shaping up to be the best pair of semi-finals that I can remember. I can’t wait for these two encounters.
When I look at the spine of 1-6-7-9 of each of the four sides, there’s sheer quality everywhere.
Those four sets of ballplayers will ensure we are treated to two great spectacles.
There’s also the Million Pound Game to look forward to!
This is how I see the three games panning out.
ST HELENS v WARRINGTON
Warrington will obviously go into this match as big underdogs. It would take a brave tipster to back them to beat St Helens on Thursday evening.
I have three concerns about the Wolves.
The first big dilemma for Steve Price is whether to pick Declan Patton or Tyrone Roberts at halfback.
Patton has been the much better when he’s been given a chance and I think Price should go with him.
Twelve months ago, Saints coach Justin Holbrook had a similar call to make between Danny Richardson and Matty Smith. He chose the young, in-form Richardson and Saints came closer than anyone could have
imagined to toppling Castleford at the same stage of the competition.
Roberts doesn’t look like he has a big performance in him against an opponent of the calibre of St Helens.
The other players seem more comfortable with Patton. It would be a brave call, but I think it’s one the coach needs to make.
Secondly, will Warrington play some football, or will they bore the pants off everybody as they did at Wembley against Catalans Dragons?
They deserved to lose on the basis of their tactical plan that day. It played right into the Dragons’ hands, as it would also do against Saints.
Because of their dull tactics at Wembley, Daryl Clark didn’t make a scoot until the 53rd minute. That meant defeat was much more likely.
On Thursday, they must get the ball to the edges and ask some challenging questions of Saints if they are to have a chance of progressing to Old Trafford.
Lastly, can the Warrington pack mix it with the St Helens six?
I’m not so sure they can. There’s not much more to say here. I just think Saints have a stronger and more mobile pack of forwards who are more likely to set the foundation needed by their ballplayers.
Warrington can lift in these games, but I’m concerned that they would need literally everything to go right for them, and everything to go wrong for St Helens, for them to win.
But that’s not to say Saints will stroll to an easy victory.
Warrington have a history of giving Saints a good game when they travel to them. It is a derby, and I’m sure it will be very competitive.
There’s a lot of pressure on St Helens and there’s none on Warrington, so that will make the game a bit tighter than expected. Saints haven’t been in a Grand Final for four years either.
Not many of their squad have experienced one, so there will be plenty of nerves.
But, when push comes to shove, Saints will be too good.
Their backs certainly hold an advantage in the backs too. They have so much quality.
There are a lot of tantalising match-ups, but I don’t think it will come down to individual brilliance because I can’t see Warrington getting quite close enough for that.
I’ll take St Helens to win by 13 points.
WIGAN v CASTLEFORD
With all due respect to St Helens, I wish this was the Grand Final because it looks like it will be an even better game than the Grand Final.
This fixture has everything. It will be brutal – and that’s just the two coaches!
We know what Wigan will bring. They are aggressive. They take no prisoners.
But I’ve still admired their style this year.
They were criticised last year for the way they played. They’ve addressed that by tweaking things. They’ve not changed anything too drastically, but they’ve got the balance right.
I enjoy watching them now and they have remained competitive.
They will really fancy their chances of winning the Super League title.
They had a terrible mid-season blip on the back of the club making some poor decisions.
Maybe the two are connected, maybe not.
I remember Alex Murphy saying in this newspaper that they didn’t look like winning a pre-match coin toss.
And he was right.
But they have turned it around fantastically.
Their forwards will set about Castleford’s and it will be great to watch.
Daryl Powell doesn’t need to tell his forwards what sort of a battle they’ll be in. They will know. Much of the game will come down to the two sets of forwards.
It could take an hour for this game to be cracked open.
You won’t see Castleford playing like they did last season. They will be much more patient in the business end of this season than they were last year.
When the game does open up, the battle of the two sets of halfbacks will be a joy to behold. It’s so difficult to split them.
I can look through the two sets of players all day long and barely find an advantage either way.
In the end, home advantage and big-match experience probably count for as much as anything.
It’s Shaun Wane’s last home game as the Wigan coach. His players love him and will do anything to prevent him going out a loser on his home turf.
It’s such a tough call to make, but I’m going to go for a Wigan win by seven points.
TORONTO v LONDON
What an intriguing encounter this will be!
Even for an old traditionalist like me, it’s exciting to see these two sides play off for the right to get into Super League.
I am a neutral and have no preference who wins, in terms of the two clubs or the two sets of players.
I have developed something of a soft spot for the Broncos this season after my disastrous pre-season tip. I’ve had lots of good-natured banter come my way. It’s hard not to have developed an admiration for everything the club has achieved this season.
I’ve been impressed with the Broncos all season and Sammut can create anything.
But what is best for the game?
At risk of upsetting my southern friends again, I don’t think they are ready for Super League, on or off the pitch.
If they get back into the top flight, it would be too early for them.
The last couple of seasons have shown that they are best off in the Championship, competing at the top. They are producing homegrown talent, which is moving into Super League, and that’s great.
Either way, I feel Toronto will have too much quality for them and that it will be the Canadian club that will win promotion.
They’ll have to handle the pressure, which will be on them much more than London. Discipline is also a problem for them.
But they should have too much for the Broncos. I’ll take them by 10 points.