Super League play-offs preview: Big two are the teams to beat

WHO can stop Wigan and St Helens?

That’s the big question being asked ahead of the Super League play-offs, with the odds surely in favour of the two traditional giants battling it out at Old Trafford.

Both were denied in the Challenge Cup semi-finals, losing dramatically to Hull KR and Leigh in brilliant ties that set up a unique Wembley final.

But Super League’s play-offs are never kind to dreamers – it’s the big clubs with the strongest foundations that inevitably prosper, hence there being only four Grand Final-winning clubs in the competition’s history.

And events since those Cup clashes only suggest a continuation of that theme, with both enjoying irresistible winning runs since – Wigan have notched eight victories in a row, and Saints nine.

The Warriors’ run has earned them the League Leaders’ Shield, giving them the easiest route – at least in theory – to the Grand Final.

All they have to do is beat the lowest-ranked of this week’s eliminator winners, on home soil, to move within 80 minutes of a first title since 2018.

They also went straight through to a home semi-final last season, of course, only to be stunned by a resurgent Leeds.

But this Wigan team appears an altogether more complete package, with areas of weakness addressed. They now have a high-class centre pairing, a forward pack with a year of added experience, and a balance in the backs with Bevan French in metronomic form at stand-off.

The latter has brought them a series of resounding victories in recent weeks, and the performances in attack and defence point conclusively towards them lifting the Super League trophy aloft on October 14.

St Helens will surely have something to say about that, however.

The four-time defending champions have not had the smoothest of campaigns, and doubts were even beginning to creep in about promoted head coach Paul Wellens at the beginning of the summer, when Saints were outside the play-off positions.

But they have lost only two league matches since the start of May and appear very much in their world-champion pomp again now.

All the ingredients that have made them England’s dominant force in recent years are in evidence again – the hard-punching forward pack, the suffocating line speed in defence, and the class of star players like Jack Welsby.

The only thing not in their favour is that, to reach a fifth successive Grand Final, they will have to win two matches, including travelling to Catalans Dragons, as a consequence of finishing third.

A late-season slip denied Catalans top spot and a second League Leaders’ Shield in their history, but a top-two finish is the biggest prize when assessing the route to Old Trafford.

Like Wigan, they’re a home win from glory – and like Wigan, they came unstuck against Leeds last year, in a tempestuous affair at Stade Gilbert Brutus.

Keep their cool this time, and a pack directed by inspirational captain Benjamin Garcia, allied to a back division featuring the clinical Tom Johnstone and Adam Keighran, can return to Manchester.

What of the outside bets? Leigh and Hull KR renew hostilities, two months on from the Challenge Cup Final that could only be decided by a golden-point winner from the Leopards’ golden boy, Lachlan Lam.

Leigh have been the revelation of the season, an explosive middle unit featuring John Asiata (a big loss to their play-off hopes with injury), Tom Amone, Robbie Mulhern and Edwin Ipape causing untold damage over the summer months.

But the Robins have been the form team of the two lately, so although the difference should be nothing like the post-Wembley thrashing handed out at Craven Park, Hull KR go in as narrow favourites, especially having secured another home tie by overtaking Leigh on the final day.

A hard-working unit that is stronger than the sum of its parts – though parts like the sparky Mikey Lewis, forceful Elliot Minchella and ageless Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Ryan Hall are pretty handy – will believe they can go deep in the play-offs under Willie Peters, who is enjoying a fine first season as a Super League chief.

And while sneaking into the top six late on can often be a good thing, building form in a series of must-win matches just to qualify, Warrington cannot be said to be in the sort of form that suggests a run to the title.

They have won three of their last five to make the cut, but are a long way from their season-opening best, with turmoil in the playing squad and then the coaching staff meaning the Wolves are a lesser beast.

The fact that they must travel to Saints, who they have already lost to three times this season, albeit in a tight game earlier this month, means they are very much up against it, especially without their suspended star prop Paul Vaughan.

They say anything can happen in knockout games, but that rarely applies to the Super League play-offs. The usual suspects will take some beating.