Saints pick Giants as Cunningham calls system 'daft'
Huddersfield will have to do something they have not managed since 1978 to reach the Super League Grand Final, after being given the dubious honour of bringing down the curtain at Knowsley Road.
St Helens, as the highest ranked of the four survivors, exercised their right under the innovative "club call" formula to choose between Wigan and the Giants as their semi-final opponents on Friday.
To nobody's huge surprise, they opted for Huddersfield, who finished in fifth place, rather than the season-long league leaders and their main local rivals. Even so, the Saints managing director, Tony Colquitt, described it as a difficult decision made in consultation with the senior players and the coach, Mick Potter.
"Well, if you call getting a text message being consulted, then I was consulted," said Keiron Cunningham, whose last game at Knowsley Road this will be. "We always had a plan that whichever club came through out of Warrington and Huddersfield would be coming here. I think it's a bit of a daft system myself."
Huddersfield's captain, Brett Hodgson, was more upbeat about the innovation, which was used for the first time last season when Leeds chose – and beat – the Catalan Dragons. "I like it. It adds a lot of interest at this time of the season and I can't see any negatives in it at all," he said. "If I'd have been in St Helens' shoes, I'd have chosen Huddersfield as well. You wouldn't choose the team that has been No 1 all season."
Hodgson will not be fazed in the slightest by the 32 years since the club last went to Saints and won. They are more likely to find inspiration in beating them convincingly in the Challenge Cup semi-final last year.
As for the benefits of deciding the line-up for the play-off semi-finals in this way, they obviously include an extra slab of publicity on Sky Sports News yesterday – which did not incorporate Cunningham saying how daft the whole thing was. Also, there were fans queuing all along the front of Knowsley Road yesterday morning, perhaps drawn by the club shop's end-of-season sale.
What tension there was in the air was ratcheted up a notch when the Huddersfield and Leeds delegations were held up on the M62. Then the Wigan chairman, Ian Lenagan, did his best to suggest that something important was at stake. "Matches between St Helens and Wigan are always special, but this is one I'd rather avoid, if I'm honest," he said.
He need not have worried, as Saints were never going to risk the inflammatory gesture of selecting the league-leaders. And, as Cunningham put it: "If we are going to lose the last game at Knowsley Road, we'd rather lose it to Huddersfield than to Wigan." Spoken like a true local hero.
In any case, this might not be quite the end of the story. Colquitt emphasised that this semi-final will be the last competitive game at the old ground and rumours are rife of a Boxing Day friendly between the rivals.
In the meantime, Wigan must negotiate a visit to Leeds, who beat them by a single point in the first round of the play-offs and have made a habit of blocking their route to Old Trafford in previous years.
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