By Rob McHugh @mchughr @TLE_Sport
Since its inception in 1996, the English Super League has been dominated by a cartel of four clubs who remain the only winners of the trophy. Leeds Rhinos, St. Helens, Wigan Warriors and Bradford Bulls have won every single Super League title between them, but this could be the year that changes this statistic.
Excluding Bradford, who are currently competing for promotion back into Super League following years of financial turmoil, the remaining big three of Super League have suffered contrasting fortunes at the beginning of this year’s season, whereas some of the historically smaller clubs have been making real strides and threaten to end the monopoly when the play-off final is contested at Old Trafford in October.
After three weekly rounds (plus an extra round for Widnes, Salford, Hull KR and Wakefield), the Super League table is taking an unfamiliar composition. The Widnes Vikings are sitting pretty at the top of the table, who have followed their eye catching 56-12 victory over defending champions Leeds Rhinos with a defeat against Salford and victory over last year’s 2nd placed club, Huddersfield.
Warrington Wolves sit second in the table with 3 wins from 3 games, and are many people’s tips to become the first club outside of the aforementioned clubs to win the Grand Final. Wigan Warriors have had a strong start to the season, currently in 3rd place, level with Warrington with 3 wins from 3, although the loss of their influential hooker Michael McIlorum for the rest of the season could hinder their chances of lifting their 4th Super League table.
In 4th place, the Castleford Tigers have also had an excellent start to the season and look to be a very strong team going forward. Coached by the highly rated Daryl Powell, the Tigers have a strong pack, an in-form half back combination, including England’s Luke Gale, and backs who are capable of finishing difficult chances. For proof of this, watch Denny Solomona’s tries from their thrilling 24-31 victory away at Hull FC. At the same stage last season, Castleford had 0 points from 6 available and surged to finish 5th in the table. With a much improved showing from the first three games this season, they could figure heavily in the later stages of this season.
This weekend also sees one of the most surprising bottom of the table clashes in recent years in Super League. On Friday night, Leeds Rhinos face the Huddersfield Giants with the teams placed 12th and 11th respectively, with neither team having registered a victory this season. Famously, the last time these two teams met, it was the deciding fixture in the race for last season’s League Leader’s shield, and Ryan Hall scored with the last play of the game to secure the second leg of Leeds’ historic treble.
Both teams have been rocked by injuries at the start of this season, which has been reflected in their early season tribulations, but Leeds go into the game as slight favourites given the signs of improvement they showed in Saturday’s narrow defeat to the Catalan Dragons. Given the wintry conditions West Yorkshire has witnessed over the last few days, this match is guaranteed to be a tight but thrilling affair, as neither team will want to be winless from their first 4 games. Serious questions will begin to be asked at that point – when does a shaky start turn into a full blown crisis?
As this year’s Barclays Premier League has shown, the positive momentum of a strong start can easily be turned into a title challenge, and the negative environment created from a poor start can quickly descend into a crisis, the cases in point being the contrasting fortunes of Leicester City and Chelsea.
Leeds and Huddersfield both desperately need points to avoid being dragged into the dogfight of the middle 8’s, which sees the bottom 4 clubs of Super League face off against the top 4 of the Championship for Super League status the following year. Conversely, if Widnes, Castleford or one of Salford and Hull FC who have also had better starts than some of the traditional powerhouses, can convert this early momentum into something more telling, then the Super League could be in for one of the most exciting seasons ever.