RUGBY LEAGUE: Grand plan is guessing game

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The Independent Online
AS NEW competitions go, the First Division play-offs, which start this weekend, have more imponderables than most. Few people yet understand how they work; even fewer know for certain where they will lead. Best of all, nobody has a clue who will win.

Although the First Division followed Super League in adopting an Australian- style play-off series, they get the privilege of being the guinea pigs by starting a month before.

Think of it as a very rough game of musical chairs, with one team dropping off the end each week between now and the final on 26 September, and you get the general idea.

Either Swinton or Featherstone will go this week. The winner plays the loser of Sunday's other match, between Hull KR and Dewsbury, and the winner of that game meets Wakefield Trinity, who have this week off, for a place in the Grand Final. Simple, isn't it?

After about 10 years, it becomes second nature, but right from the start, the Australian experience is that it virtually guarantees an exciting climax to the season.

On the face of it, Wakefield have an important advantage. They finished on top of the division, managed to force a change of policy to give them a trophy and they get a fortnight's rest.

But as their coach, Andy Kelly, points out, they have been beaten a total of seven times by the four teams immediately below them. Either Hull KR or Dewsbury could beat them next week, but then their other advantage, that of getting a second bite of the cherry, comes into play.

There is no such safety net for Featherstone and Swinton. Featherstone are the side with the momentum, coming from an apparently hopeless position to take fourth place.

Steve Simms claims that his side is the smallest in the division, but it is tough, mobile and, in Karl Pratt and Richard Chapman, has arguably the two most talented young players in the division.

Swinton are a puzzle. Coached by the former Great Britain loose forward, Les Holliday, on their good days they can play the sort of educated rugby that was his forte. What is impossible to predict with any confidence is whether Sunday will be one of those days.

Dewsbury have been perhaps the surprise team of the competition. Their coach, Andy's brother, Neil Kelly, seemed to have less depth and experience in his squad than most of his rivals, so the way it has performed is a credit to him.

Hull KR, meanwhile, still have dreams of a second Super League team on Humberside. "There's no reason why not," their coach, Dave Harrison, said. "Humberside has been the forgotten area of rugby league. If we got there alongside Hull, you would have a renaissance of rugby league."

There is the detail of getting the club out of the hands of the administrators who have run it all season, but then any of these sides would have much to prove, in areas like finance and facilities, before their big brothers in Super League would let the winner of the First Division Grand Final dine at their table.

Unpredictability has been the strength of the division all year, with a high proportion of matches - including many involving teams who have not even made the play-offs - hinging on a handful of points.

That uncertainty has made it stimulating to watch and it will continue up to and beyond Grand Final day.

FIRST DIVISION GRAND FINAL SERIES PLAY-OFFS: Sunday, 6 Sept: Featherstone v Swinton (6pm); Hull KR v Dewsbury (3pm). Sunday, 13 Sept: Second round, also featuring Wakefield. Sunday, 20 Sept: Third round. Saturday, 26 Sept: Grand Final.

FIVE TO WATCH IN THE FIRST DIVISION PLAY-OFFS

GAREN CASEY

(WAKEFIELD)

Accomplished former Penrith stand-off or centre, who is clearly too good to be outside the Super League. Salford have proved that by snapping him up for next season. He has clever hands, good vision and an outstanding kicking game.

STANLEY GENE

(HULL KR)

Papuan stand-off who is, quite simply, the most exciting player outside the Super League. His 33 tries so far this season are by far the biggest return in any division and his natural strength makes him fiendishly difficult to stop near the line.

BARRY EATON

(DEWSBURY)

A play-making scrum-half and a high-quality goalkicker, Eaton has, under the influence of his coach, Neil Kelly, expanded his repertoire to run at the opposition more. That makes him a much more complete player and a real handful.

RICHARD CHAPMAN

(FEATHERSTONE)

Live-wire hooker who has tormented opposing defences throughout the season. Although he does have a tendency to play more by instinct than his coach might want, his forays pay off so often that there have been few complains.

SEAN CASEY

(SWINTON)

Never made the grade with St Helens, but as a ball-playing loose forward in the mould of the coach, Les Holliday, he excels in the First Division. When he plays well, others around him also tend to excel themselves.

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