Talking Rugby League with League Express editor Martyn Sadler
Of the six clubs still involved in the Super League season, three of them – St Helens, Wigan and Leeds Rhinos – have won the Grand Final on multiple occasions, while the other three – Warrington Wolves, Catalans Dragons and Hull Kingston Rovers – have never won the trophy, with the Dragons and the Robins never having been to Old Trafford.
Warrington, on the other hand, have been to Old Trafford four times but unfortunately for their supporters, have always been the bridesmaids.
That tells me there is something in the culture of Wigan, Saints and Leeds that comes to the surface every year at around this time. And – lo and behold – it does seem to be happening again.
The Rhinos showed their quality when they caned Hull KR at Headingley on Friday night, while Wigan defeated the Catalans in a very tightly contested clash at the DW Stadium and St Helens, despite losing at Salford, turned out a side with three debutants who performed with great credit.
One consolation for the other four clubs is that either Wigan or Leeds will depart the play-offs on Thursday night. But it is still perfectly possible to foresee yet another Grand Final between the old rivals St Helens and Wigan, as we saw last year.
And if we find that Sam Tomkins has a serious knee injury, once he has had medical tests early this week – after leaving the field early at Wigan on Friday night – my bet would be that it will indeed be a Saints-Wigan final.
For those fans hoping to see a new name on the list of Super League trophy winners, we might have to wait yet another year.
The also rans
Six Super League clubs played the final games of their seasons on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, and it’s worth reflecting on where they currently stand.
The only difference from last season is that Hull FC have fallen out of the play-off positions and have been replaced by their near neighbours Hull KR.
It’s interesting to note that the three clubs that appointed new coaches at the start of the season – Hull FC, Huddersfield Giants and Salford Red Devils – all finished out of the top six, suggesting that a new coach is not the panacea that will cure all a club’s ills.
Looking at each club individually, it’s clear that the way the season ended has been a bitter disappointment for Castleford Tigers, their coach Daryl Powell, their captain Michael Shenton and the other players who are leaving the club at the end of the season.
Last Thursday was intended to be a night when the Tigers, on a wave of emotion, brushed Warrington aside to claim their rightful place in the play-offs.
Unfortunately it was obvious from very early in the game that it was unlikely to happen.
And the disturbing thing for Castleford is that the crowd for such a crucial game was only 5,126.
The Castleford supporters have certainly not turned up in the numbers that we saw pre-pandemic and I suspect the reason for that is that they have an abysmal record of losing the majority of their home games.
Fans don’t generally enjoy watching their team losing, especially at home, and the instructions to incoming coach Lee Radford must surely be to make the Jungle a fortress once again.
Hull FC finished in eighth place, and that is a massive underachievement.
That is particularly true when we think back to the start of the season and reflect on how well everything seemed to be going under new coach Brett Hodgson.
At the end of June they were lying fourth in the table with a win percentage of 68.18.
So how did they end up with a win percentage of just 40.48.
Unfortunately for Hull fans, the fact is that in July three successive Hull games were cancelled after a serious Covid attack at the club, and when the team did finally get back onto the pitch it had lost all its previous momentum and many of its players seemed to be struggling to recover from the pandemic.
Of course that isn’t to excuse their disappointing performance on Friday night, but at least we can hope that in a more normal year the Black and Whites will show considerably more consistency than they have in 2021.
In ninth place were Huddersfield Giants, marginally ahead of Wakefield on points difference percentage.
Again, that wasn’t what most Huddersfield supporters would have expected at the start of the year with new coach Ian Watson coming to the John Smith’s Stadium with great credentials.
But the Giants got off to a slow start and things didn’t improve quickly enough for them to be a contender this season. The previous star of the show for Huddersfield had been Aidan Sezer, ably assisted by Lee Gaskell. But both those two players hardly got a look-in this season, partly through injury but also because they seem to have been frozen out by the coach.
On the other hand, the Giants have been boosted by the emergence of Will Pryce, and, as they go into the close-season, I’m sure Ian Watson will have his side tuned up to make a much stronger challenge in 2022.
And the same can surely be said of Wakefield Trinity, assuming they appoint Willie Poching as their new coach.
That of course is not certain. Other contenders for the job have included Brian McDermott, Danny Ward and Andrew Henderson, each of whom is impressive in his own right.
But for me it’s hard to look beyond Willie, after the performances Trinity have given under his guidance in the last seven matches, with five wins and only two defeats.
You have to ask whether it’s a bigger gamble to keep Willie on, or to appoint a completely new coach. I think the answer is fairly obvious.
Then we have Salford Red Devils, who were under Richard Marshall this season, after he had to step into Ian Watson’s shoes, but without some of the players that made it to the Challenge Cup Final in 2020.
Marshall has transformed himself more than any other coach this season.
In the early days he often seemed frustrated with the performances of his players as they racked up the losses and looked like possible relegation contenders.
But as the season has progressed, he has seemed much calmer and positive and he gives me the impression that he is now the coach of a club that has the capacity to develop and finally achieve its potential. I sincerely hope that happens.
Finally we have Leigh Centurions, who faced a massive uphill struggle from day one.
For them, staying in Super League was an almost impossible task, but they generally tried hard and had a couple of good results against Salford and Wakefield, although that would never be enough.
Whether they were wise to come into Super League under such trying conditions is debatable, but I would like to see them back there in the longer term.
Does it have to end this way?
Michael Shenton officially retired on Thursday night after Castleford’s home defeat against Warrington.
He was carrying a busted shoulder and the game must have been a massive anticlimax for him.
But he still looks like he’s got what it takes for me, and if I were a club gaining promotion into Super League for the 2022 season I would be tempted to sound him out.
The experience and talent he would bring to any club entering Super League for the first time would be immeasurable.
He still moves around the field like a much younger player.
Whether he would be up for it, only he could answer.
Rhinos’ Wheelchair triumph
My congratulations to the Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair team, who won the Wheelchair Grand Final at Gillingham’s Medway Park on Sunday in a game that was televised by Sky Sports.
It was a tremendous match, with the Rhinos beating the Leyland Warriors 52-36.
Well done James Simpson and the Rhinos Wheelchair players.
The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.