8 years ago, almost to the day, there was a helicopter stationed on the top of the Pennines. Inside it, sat the Super League’s League Leaders’ Shield. There was a three-way race for the title that night, with Leeds, Huddersfield and Wigan all in contention.
Super League’s Aguero Moment
If Leeds beat Huddersfield, they won the title. If Wigan won their game and Leeds didn’t win, then Wigan would be champions. Huddersfield needed to beat Leeds and hope Wigan lost to take the title to the John Smiths Stadium. Wigan, having won their game, had done their part.
With the scores level in Huddersfield with 10 seconds to play, the helicopter took off, setting off to Lancashire. Then Danny McGuire chipped over the top for Ryan Hall to collect, racing 50 metres to win the game for Leeds Rhinos, on their way to complete a historic treble. At the time it was compared to Sergio Aguero’s title winning goal for Manchester City in 2012.
Now, the Rugby League world is holding its breath again, with another grandstand finish in store. Going into the final round of fixtures, which will all be played concurrently, Wigan, St. Helens and Catalans Dragons are all tied on 38 points. All three have the chance to win the League Leaders’ Shield.
Warriors go in as favourites.
Wigan Warriors are in pole position, thanks to their vastly superior points difference. Wigan go away to Leigh to play the holders of the Challenge Cup. Leigh have already secured their place in the play offs and will be looking to take some momentum with them by spoiling Wigan’s night.
Wigan are Super League’s form side going into the final weekend and in Bevan French and Jai Field, have two of Super League’s most exciting creative players. As things stand, they are the favourites, not only to win the League Leaders’ Shield, but also the Grand Final in October. With some eye-catching recruitment for 2024 already complete, they appear to be building another Wigan dynasty, not just a one-off success.
Will the Shield go to France?
This year, the helicopter is off the cards, as Catalans Dragons sit in second place and are aiming to clinch their first silverware since winning the Challenge Cup in 2018. Les Dracs go away to Salford Red Devils for the final game of the season. Salford are still in the hunt for play off qualification via 6th place, so have plenty to play for.
This is a swansong for several of this Catalans team. Legend of the sport, Sam Tomkins, is due to retire at the end of the season, ending a glittering career. Influential playmaker Mitchell Pearce also retires, calling time on a 22 year career.
Les Dracs will also lose several players to rivals at the end of the year. Tyrone May is leaving to join Hull KR, Matt Whitley is expected to join St. Helens and Adam Keighran will join Wigan. This is the last chance for this squad to win silverware as a group and they will be desperate to do so.
Saints Marching On
You can never rule out St. Helens. The reigning World Club Champions, on the back of four successive Super League Grand Final wins, had a sluggish start to the season. But they have found their form at the back end of the year and go into tonight in third place.
St. Helens have the friendliest fixture of the three, hosting a Hull FC side going into the game in 10th place, with nothing to play for. This has been a year of transition for Hull FC, and they have suffered several heavy defeats along the way. Saints will be hoping to inflict another on them tonight.
Realistically, with a points difference of 229, compared to Wigan’s 358, Saints are relying on other teams dropping points tonight to win the shield. But they have their eyes on the big prize at Old Trafford on the 14th of October.
The return of talismanic prop Alex Walmsley, who is fit for inclusion in the matchday squad for their final game, strengthens Saints significantly. They will also be looking to give retiring club legend Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook a winning send-off.
Great teams hit form at the right time, and this St. Helen’s team knows how to get the job done at the business end of the season. Although they go in as underdogs tonight, it would take a brave punter to bet against them in the play-offs. A Wigan – Saints Grand Final is a mouthwatering prospect.
Ground for optimism across the sport
This exciting end to the season comes at a point of optimism across the sport. The league has been a thrilling spectacle across the season, with only relegation decided going into the final game. There also is an exciting tussle for 6th spot. Warrington and Salford go into the final game level on points, with both hoping to clinch a play off place. This is one to keep an eye on, alongside the fight for top spot.
Yesterday, Super League announced that this year’s average attendance was the highest since 2012. Overall, cumulative attendances across the season could top 1.5 million. This is the the highest since the change of format in 2019, which reduced the number of games played.
In rugby league’s 2nd tier, the Championship, there is a four-way tussle for the last 2 play-off spots and 3 teams tied on points for the final relegation spot, with almost identical points difference. Competitively, this could be the most exciting in the sport’s history and is real cause for optimism.
Tonight’s Super League finale is the perfect end to a thrilling year. Whoever wins the League Leaders’ Shield tonight will take strong momentum into the play-offs. The other two will be looking to get revenge in the Grand Final in a few weeks’ time.