Rugby League: High five collide in a grand finale

Super League's play-off rules baffle but they ensure a compelling climax to the season.
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The Independent Online
There is something vaguely exciting and conspiratorial about the Super League play-offs, which begin tonight. Exotic strangers sidle up in the darkness and whisper: "Listen carefully. I shall say this only once. Second plays third. The loser plays the winner of third and fourth..."

The arcane ground rules of this way of determining the season's champion side were a mystery to most British supporters last year, but the success of the Grand Final at Old Trafford suddenly made sense of it all.

The principle is simple enough. The higher the finish in the top five, the more straightforward the route to that Grand Final. Bradford must win just one home match to reach Old Trafford; Castleford, to become champions, must knock over all four teams above them, without ever playing at Wheldon Road.

It is a system proven by long experience in Australia to be the fairest - they now play to a subtly different pattern, but that is a different story - and it is also a virtual guarantee of a stirring climax to the season.

Consider the alternative. Under the old, first-past-the-post system, Bradford would have been champions a month ago and we would now be preparing for a Premiership play-off that never truly caught the popular imagination.

Instead, the code now offers four weekends of games with built-in drama and passion. Not all change, even in rugby league, is for the worse.

Of course, it only works if those games are unpredictable. This year, far more than last, they are. There has been a levelling-up in the top echelon of Super League clubs and at least one other team, Gateshead, would not have been out of place in the play-offs.

"The whole of Great Britain is in for a real treat," said the Bradford captain, Robbie Paul, at a launch held, appropriately given the knock- 'em-down-drag-'em-out nature of the competition, in a bowling alley.

"It has been the best Super League season so far, but nothing compared to what this top five is going to be like."

Paul and Bradford sit out the first weekend as part of their reward for finishing as league leaders, but there is enough going on elsewhere.

Take Wigan versus Castleford on Sunday, for instance; sudden death for one side at the new JJB Stadium. Those with a passing interest in the game might assume a Wigan win, especially given the imperative of making a good start in a new home. Cas, however, have beaten them twice this season and might almost be said to have had their measure.

Wigan out at the first hurdle? It could happen - and just that thought is enough to confirm that Super League, under this format, has become a much more compelling competition.

Connoisseurs of a good scrap will be at Knowsley Road tonight, where recent experience suggests that St Helens and Leeds will again be on a collision course. Their meeting at Headingley in July was the most bitter of the season so far and even this might not be the end of the story; it is possible that they could knock lumps off each other tonight and both still make it to the Grand Final.

So the permutations are intriguing; all the indications are that the attendances will be healthy and that the standards will be high.

All is not well with Super League, however. There are too many sick men down at the bottom of the table for anyone to make that claim. But, up at the top, among the leading clubs, the scene is vibrant and the outcome up in the air. So much so that shadowy figures predicting a Bradford-Leeds Grand Final whisper it only once and melt back into the dark.

CLUB-BY-CLUB GUIDE TO SUPER LEAGUE PLAY-OFFS

BRADFORD BULLS

Position: First.

Coach: Matthew Elliott.

First game: Winner of St Helens v Leeds, Odsal, 26 September.

Strengths: More players of proven first-team standard than anyone else, including some exceptional new faces who have freshened the mix.

Weaknesses: Doubts persist about their ability to win the really big games.

Odds: 13-8 favourites.

ST HELENS

Position: Second.

Coach: Ellery Hanley.

First game: Leeds, Knowsley Road, tonight.

Weaknesses: A tendency to concede too many points which Hanley has not eradicated.

Strengths: The ability to score tries from anywhere, something else that Hanley, despite worrying signs of an innate conservatism, has not affected.

Odds: 11-4.

LEEDS RHINOS

Position: Third.

Coach: Graham Murray.

First match: At St Helens, tonight.

Strengths: Fearsome approach in the pack and an overall look that suggests they might be the best big game team of the lot.

Weaknesses: An excessive reliance on Iestyn Harris and lapses of discipline by other key players.

Odds: 11-4.

WIGAN WARRIORS

Position: Fourth.

Coach: Andy Goodway.

First match: Castleford, JJB Stadium, Sunday.

Strengths:World-class players in Andy Farrell and Jason Robinson, with plenty of others who are used to winning on big occasions.

Weaknesses: Too much in a state of flux, with new players and new systems still bedding in.

Odds: 4-1.

CASTLEFORD TIGERS

Position: Fifth.

Coach: Stuart Raper.

First match: At Wigan, Sunday.

Strengths: Terrific team spirit and sense of purpose. Fortunate all season with injuries.

Weaknesses: Their squad does not have the depth to see them through an assault on the trophy from fifth place.

Odds: 16-1.

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