It has been one of the strangest ends to the regular season for years, with all the top teams losing matches they were expected to win. That was perfectly encapsulated at the weekend by Saints and Castleford, with neither of them looking like they wanted to finish top of the pile.
None of the top six can be happy with their end-of-season form and it makes the play-offs quite hard to predict. But here is my assessment of how I think the first week will pan out.
Wigan v Huddersfield
There’s only one winner here, and that’ll be Wigan, who have sharpened their knives at just the right time of the season. Their top players are playing well and they don’t seem to have the injury worries that other clubs have. They are the team to beat and I don’t see the Giants being the team to knock them down. I’m certain they’ll get to the Grand Final and I’m tipping them to win it. They resemble their coach in that they have an excellent attitude and they have very good players in the important ball-playing positions. Out wide they are strong too, and overall they are a very well balanced team. Can Huddersfield’s forwards handle Wigan’s? I’m not sure, and if Danny Brough isn’t fully fit then it’ll be a sorry end to the season for the Giants like last year.
Tip: Wigan by 14
Saints v Castleford
This will be a very interesting fixture. Cas won’t be intimidated by going to Langtree Park but you have to worry about them bombing out like Huddersfield did last season. They have two bites of the cherry, but they didn’t handle Wembley well and they blew another chance of silverware on Saturday in France. Both teams are out of form and struggling. Saints’ lack of creativity is going to hurt them in the next month, as will a possible suspension to the outstanding Alex Walmsley. Liam Finn and Marc Sneyd have to step up again for Cas as they’ve been found out in those two big games, but I feel that the Tigers have one last hurrah in them in what has been an unbelievable season.
Tip: Castleford by 7
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Warrington v Widnes
Warrington will win this and I don’t think it will be particularly close. They have a small injury crisis and will possibly be fielding some players who aren’t fully fit, but they should still have too much for Widnes. The Vikings should be congratulated on getting into the eight, but I think their season will end here. I don’t think Kevin Brown will be able to dictate in a big game like this and if I’m right then they have no chance. For the Wolves, Matty Russell has been outstanding. In the halves Gareth O’Brien and Richie Myler seem to have clicked and although neither is as good as Lee Briers they do finally seem to have moved on in that regard. It’s hard to find an area where Warrington won’t be stronger.
Tip: Warrington by 18
Leeds v Catalan
Leeds are badly out of form, and they’ve been abysmal in the league in the last couple of months, but they’ve been there and done it as far as play-offs are concerned. On their day Catalan can beat anybody in a regular game and in Morgan Escaré they have a great fullback. Thomas Bosc is excellent too and their forwards are very good. They have recovered well from a terrible start to the season, but under no circumstances can I see them winning at Headingley in a play-off game. Leeds in semi-final mode will be too strong for them and their big players will stand up. The Rhinos won’t have it all their own way, but should still have enough, and I think they’ll kick on and reach Old Trafford.
Tip: Leeds by 13