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So, now the fun starts!

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George Riley George Riley | 13:32 UK time, Friday, 16 September 2011

After 27 rounds of blood and thunder, we're down to knockout rugby league to determine which two sets of gladiators will square up at Old Trafford.

Of course it's a bit more complicated than that but I think the first weekend of fixtures will give us a very strong indication of who will go on to win that Grand Final and lift the Super League title.

With all due respect to Catalan Dragons and Hull KR, League Leaders Warrington and fourth-placed Huddersfield, it is the Wigan v Saints derby and Leeds v Hull FC eliminator that get my adrenalin pumping.

Super League Grand Final Trophy held aloft

Wigan Warriors held the the Super League Grand Final trophy aloft at Old Trafford last year. Photo: Getty

With the current play-off structure, champions Wigan probably won't lose too much sleep if they lose to Saints on Sunday. After all, Leeds went to the Warriors in week one last year, turned them over 27-26 and then look what happened.

Wigan haven't hit top gear since their draining Challenge Cup success over the Rhinos at Wembley while St Helens have developed a Manchester United streak. Just as Sir Alex Ferguson has quietly unleashed a youthful team of emerging stars on his Premier League rivals, Saints have elevated their own youngsters to the big stage with great effect.

I was at the Stoop last weekend to watch Rob Purdham's emotional final game for Harlequins against Saints. Fourteen of Saints' 17 players were home-grown. Tom Armstrong scored a hat-trick, Gary Wheeler sparkled, Carl Forster looked at home on his debut. One Quins player told me after the game the Saints kids were "too fit and too fast", of which Wigan will be wary.

Now one of Saints' older hands, Jon Wilkin always tells me the side have not been scarred by their three successive Grand Final defeats to Leeds between 2007 and 2009. I don't buy that, but this new Saints breed features players who have not experienced that Old Trafford Saturday night misery. Quite simply Wigan know that if they don't return to their brilliant pre-Wembley best then they will have a real game on.

So do the reigning champions have enough left in the tank? "Without a doubt," is coach Michael Maguire's verdict. "I've been able to rotate the last few weeks to get the boys fresh and we are ready to defend our title."

And even though the coach won't admit it, I can tell you the players are definitely talking about doing a Super League and Challenge Cup double. But with Man of Steel favourite Sam Tomkins sailing the ship it would take a brave man to back against Maguire's men. As captain Sean O'Loughlin told BBC Radio Manchester's Rugby League Extra programme this week: "His accolades are well deserved. He comes up with plays no other player could."

Chatting to Saints great Paul Sculthorpe during the week as we both finalised our preparations for Sunday's Great North Run, he told me the champions will come from the top three. So that's his former club, plus Wigan and Warrington battling for the big prize.

Hull FC and Leeds Rhinos' players

Hull FC and Leeds Rhinos could be decent outside bets to take home the silverware this season. Photo: PA/Getty

I'm not so certain. Hull FC and Leeds are my dark horses. Only one will be standing after their eliminator at Headingley on Sunday. Having dominated the competition prior to Wigan's re-emergence, the Rhinos find themselves in an unusually precarious position. The last time Leeds had to play a week one eliminator was under the old set-up in 2006, when a third-placed finish meant a home tie with Warrington. Lee Briers broke Leeds hearts that night with two trademark drop goals to secure a one-point win - still the Wolves' only ever play-off victory.

"I remember the game well," Rhinos scrum-half Rob Burrow tells me. "It was a real shock as we were expecting a Grand Final and for our season to be ended in a few seconds like that was not something we prepared for. With one kick, the rugby stopped for us that year."

So how big a disadvantage is not having an extra life in the play-offs? And how different does it make your approach? "This time we always knew there would be no second chances," Burrow says. "We are prepared for it and have the experience to deal with it."
And does he agree with me that whoever wins this eliminator could go on and prove a real threat to the higher ranked sides? "I really do believe that. If we beat Hull we can go on and compete with anyone. For us and Hull FC, Hull KR and Catalan there is no choice. It is desperation for us lot."

Leeds certainly believe they can go all the way. The players are heading off to Vegas for Carl Ablett's stag do but won't be booking it until after the Grand Final.

As for Hull FC, they may have ended the season with defeat to Warrington, but they have been running hot. Richard Agar's side have developed a hunger and Agar believes he can sign off with success before taking over at Wakefield.

I'm not saying the Black and Whites can go all the way, but momentum can be a hugely dangerous end-of-season weapon and they scored 148 points in a run of three successive Super League wins prior to that Wolves defeat.

"They are not scared of anything," says Leeds coach Brian McDermott.
Nor can they afford to be. There is no room for fear in the Super League play-offs.


  • Comment number 1.

    It'll be close this weekend and the big question as you said will be if Wigan will have enough left in the tank to take on Saints you guns. It will be a great game, i wouldn't put it past Wigan Losing to Saints and then going on to win the grand final.
    i'm struggling to see past a Wigan vs Warrington final really.
    Leeds and Hull FC will be up for it but i don't think either has the steel this year to challenge the wolves or warriors, and maybe St Helens will be to inexperienced to go all the way.

  • Comment number 2.

    I may like to point out and correct the bit where you mention Bradford where the last team to do the double, actually Saints where the last team to do it in 2006.

  • Comment number 3.

    Sir, I agree the derby between Wigan and Saints is sure to be a great match, as always. However I do have to be somewhat picky and refer to the point you make regarding Wigan wanting to do the double "something no team has done since Bradford's Vainikolo-Vaikona vintage of 2003." It is a great feat, one which St Helens achieved in 2006... "By defeating Hull 26-4, they ensured they won every major domestic competition going in 2006, adding the Super League crown to the Challenge Cup and League Leaders' Shield they had already secured..." I quote the following 2006 BBC article to supports this

  • Comment number 4.

    apologies Saints fans! Unintentional, original line was "Since Bradford's Vainikolo-Vintage of 03, only St Helens three years later have achieved that elusive double." My desire to sub-edit completely ruined the sentence! Have a great playoff weekend everyone

  • Comment number 5.

    hull will have lost an edge with fitzgibbon retiring. He drove them on with his 80 minute peacockesque performances. without him i don't think they will feel they can go all the way. Shame really as i would have fancied them to get to final.
    Wigan should win as maguire has such a strong interchange and that sprinkling of genius with tomkins.
    Watch out for leeds on the rail!

  • Comment number 6.

    can't wait for pies v scousers...need some tries after watching the rah rah !!

  • Comment number 7.

    Hey, hey. Don't forget the French connection guys. If the Cats find some form, they could go all the way to Old Trafford and from there on in I wouldn't bet against them. Totally unpredicatble, they've got to be the neutral fans' favourites although Hull KR fans will be wanting to spoil the party in Perpignan today. And what about a classic all Humberside final to give a roaring send off to Alan Agar and Justin Morgan? OK, so sue me if you think I've got an overactive imagination!

    As for the play-off structure, the odds are firmly placed on the top three teams. Personnally, I would prefer knock out quarter and semi-finals before a grandstand finish at Old Trafford. A bit boring, but a lot easier to understand. As it stands, having a week off while the other teams play for the right to get to the semis provides a massive advantage and Warrington are going to be very difficult to stop from here on in. The odds are stacked high for the poor old tailenders although Balmain almost did it in Australia's Grand Final with Ellery Hanley back in 1988. Being the runt of the litter, I can't help but back the underdogs. So Go Cats Go!!!

  • Comment number 8.

    Pretty good display by Catalan today, Sputnique! 2 semi's, 2 blowouts, but it gets better now. I am hoping the Pies and the Stains kick lumps out of each other. That will either be a great game, or a fight. Leeds shouldn't have trouble with FC. Which gives us Leeds v Hudds, which Leeds shoud win , and Wigan or Saints v Dragons. You better hope it is Wigan lol considering how they trashed them. Either way, can't see Wire being fussed, it should come down to 3 of the Pies, Stains, Leeds and Cats. So guess what Warrington will call? Oh yeah, make Wigan and Saints beat each other up again. Take your chances against Leeds or Catalans. But right now I'd put a rested, fit Wire team up against anyone. Shame about Westwood but great to have Mozza and Harrison again

  • Comment number 9.

    Is it just me, or do women want to protect Sam Tomkins? This is a funny article about the bullying:

  • Comment number 10.

    He attracts abuse partly because hes talented and the British Sporting Public seem to have a tendency to do that to our top sportspeople but more than that, he too often behaves like a pratt and that gives fuel to the people who want to have a go....

  • Comment number 11.

    Ok, ok, so whatever. The Hull derby final was never really on. FC and KR just got owned, end of. That's no way to end your season. Gutted for them.

    Saints and the Cats seem to have timed their preparation perfectly but Wigan are going to have to dig deep again which is bound to catch up with them. Can't wait for next week now and no more second chances.

    And George, how's a bit more coverage of the Championship games and the unsung heroes of rugby league?

  • Comment number 12.

    Well, I think the Saints-Wigan derby stood out as the one playoff match worthy of being called a playoff match. I was very disappointed by the other three games, which weren't even contests really. Probably Hull put up the best fight, bearing in mind they have no halfbacks. But even so, there were three disappointing games and one thriller.

    Which Saints won! YESS!! At last! We're a young team and on Sunday a largely home grown team (three foreign players, three from other areas of the country and the rest local) but we really put up a fight on Sunday and if we can carry that through to the semis, preferably without the bad decisions and lack of discipline, we actually stand a chance, which is 100% more than I thought we had about two months or so ago when in the worst moments of our injury problems. What a performance we put in and what a match it was. THAT's what a playoff game looks like!


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