Rugby League: Hanley happy to spoil the script

Dave Hadfield says Saints have injected life into the play-off race
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The Independent Online
THE STRUGGLE for places in the Super League play-offs is in the process of taking on a new complexion this weekend. The competition really is, as its critics maintain, two divisions within one; but at least the presence of seven sides in the race for the top five should sustain interest to the end.

During the public row over the future of Ellery Hanley, St Helens' immediate future looked insecure, with the prospect of then slipping out to the fringes of the contest.

All that changed at Headingley on Friday night, as Saints beat Leeds to go into second place. They did it partly thanks to the sort of spoiling tactics that saw the Leeds coach, Graham Murray, register an instant protest with the controller of referees, Greg McCallum. But, as Hanley milked the acclaim of his adoring public, the result was the thing.

Yesterday Eric Hughes, the St Helens executive, played down speculation about his future by insisting he would stay at Knowsley Road. Hughes' future was in question following the return of Hanley after his ban for criticising the St Helens board. Relations between Hughes and Hanley have been strained in recent weeks.

But Hughes, the former Widnes, St Helens and Wigan coach, said: "No individual is bigger than a club and it's time for a fresh start. Ellery has apologised to the board and I want to carry on with my work."

Meanwhile, Bradford's quietly accumulated lead at the top of the table now stands at three points and is likely to increase when they meet Castleford this evening. The two sides have already drawn once this season, so nothing can be assumed at Odsal tonight, but Bradford will have Robbie Paul back in action after a dislocated foot and he is not a bad shock weapon to be able to re-introduce at this stage of the season.

Castleford themselves still face a struggle for fifth place with Gateshead and Warrington, but they have the best run-in of the lot and will still be arguably the favourites to qualify even if they lose to Bradford.

Gateshead have done remarkably well in their inaugural season and will almost certainly win at troubled Huddersfield today. There have already been signs, however, of their squad being stretched beyond its limits and some demanding games between now and the end of the season will see them having to improvise around their shortages.

That leaves Wigan, who, in many ways, are the most interesting case of all. They are a club in transition, already planning for next season but capable, if they can put it all together in the games that matter, of causing all sorts of problems this time.

With a new coach, an altered defensive pattern and new players still to be integrated, Wigan are the most unpredictable of the contenders.

There have been times, like their defeat at Castleford two weeks ago, when they look a mere shadow of their old selves, but there must be the lingering fear among their opponents that they are still capable of the odd big performance .

They are unlikely to be extended by Salford today and that gives Andy Goodway extra latitude and the chance to give a rest to top names Denis Betts, Tony Smith and Gary Connolly.