Talking RL: The run-in, central contracts and summer reading!

Liam Marshall has scored 22 tries in 19 games this year
Liam Marshall has scored 22 tries in 19 games this year

So, I’m looking ahead, my focus is on those in front... but I can’t help check the rear-view mirror.

It’s not an exaggeration to say the next four rounds leading up to the split for the Super-8s will shape Wigan’s fate.

Best case scenario after four more games? They could be in - or on the brink of - a top-four spot.

Worse case? They could slip in the bottom-four, and then face a relegation scrap through the Super-8s Qualifiers - or ‘middle-8s’, as they are nicknamed.

Many others seem to think they will finish up somewhere in between; good enough for the top-eight, but too much ground to make up to trouble the play-offs - making the Challenge Cup semi-final date next month all that more important.

Shaun Wane has guided his side to the last four Old Trafford deciders, winning two.

If he is to stretch that remarkable run, they don’t have too much room for error from here on in.

But it isn’t alarmist to say first they need to secure their place in the top-eight.

Wigan are just one position, and three points, ahead of Warrington. Catalans are one point further back.

The Warriors play both those sides soon and, if they don’t beat Widnes on Sunday - and if Wire and the Dragons win their weekend matches - those meetings would take on greater significance.

In Wane’s favour, three of their next four matches are at home.

Three of their next four opponents are below them in the ladder.

And, of course, he has now welcomed a clutch of senior players back to his side.

Even the fiercest critic will concede Wigan are a different side with the likes of Sam Tomkins, John Bateman and Sean O’Loughlin in the picture.

Which is why, rather than draw a line after their last league win - against Catalans back in April - I prefer to pencil a line between the loss at Leigh and the win at Warrington.

I think they’ve turned the corner. I didn’t think the draw at Huddersfield was the disaster others did.

There was a point last year when the Warriors lost five of seven games and, at the end of an 8-6 defeat by Widnes, they were under-fire.

From that point on, they never lost again as they went on to lift the silverware at Old Trafford.

Whether this season pans out in a similar way is down to the players. Beat Widnes on Sunday, back it up with another win, and their position will look a lot healthier.

Lose, and it’ll be a very nervous run-in to the Super-8s.

St Helens’ press release about Jonny Lomax’s new deal was published on the Super League website.

Word-for-word.

The usual ‘delighted’ quotes from Justin Holbrook, and the player - an ex-Orrell St James junior - himself.

Not a single difference... until you reach the end of the 250 word-plus article.

The Saints press release finishes with these two sentences: “He joins a group of players that the RFL have contracted centrally to help promote the sport. Jonny will take part in rugby league marketing and commercial opportunities and will continue to be not only a face of the club but the sport as a whole going forward.”

Given that part - and only that part - was chopped off the version used on the Super League site, it’s fair to assume the game’s governing body didn’t want Saints to reveal it.

And, not surprisingly, it has sparked a debate about the practice.

I welcome sensible measures to try and keep Super League’s best players in the competition, of course I do.

But if they’re going to dish out central contracts, it needs to be transparent.

Who’s on the list? How were they chosen? How much are they getting paid?

We don’t know.

We can guess, sure, but the RFL aren’t saying. Not yet, anyway.

Please don’t mistake this as a dig at Saints, or the player. It’s not. Good luck to them. They’ve just highlighted a flaw with the current arrangement.

Just a thought: if the RFL has some extra money hanging around to strengthen the competition and the national team (all centrally-contracted players must be eligible for England), why not funnel it into the bottom-end, rather than the top?

Why not give it to clubs, ring-fenced for development purposes only?

Because the reserve league is a joke - only a handful opt in and take part - and it isn’t compulsory to have an academy.

Two Super League sides don’t even bother with Under-19s sides right now. Part of me doesn’t blame them – they’ve got to look after their own interests.

But if the RFL can’t force clubs to develop players, maybe they should try using a carrot, instead of a stick.

Do you ever get the impression contracts are sorted well-before clubs announce them?

On Tuesday, Castleford trumpeted the fact Zak Hardaker has signed a deal with the club (a great piece of business, by the way).

In the video interview which accompanied the announcement, he is wearing a vest outside in glorious sunshine.

Maybe it’s just sunnier in Yawk-shur, I thought.

Then came the give-away: “We want to achieve something this year. The Challenge Cup is a great thing to win.... it’s something we spoke about, we’d like to achieve that.”

They were knocked out nearly two weeks ago. Did he receive a DeLorean as a signing-on gift?!

I’m glad Tony Clubb is back.

For him, obviously - he’s had a nasty neck injury followed by surgery to remove a kidney. He’s due some good luck.

But for Wigan, too.

Because with Ben Flower and Taulima Tautai also missing, they’ve looked a little light upfront. There certainly hasn’t been the intense competition for places facing the wingers right now.

Step aside, Lee Child.

Because any rugby league fans looking for books to read this summer are spoilt for choice.

Leon Pryce’s autobiography, ghost-written by Aaron Bower, has recently been released, Tony Hannan’s Underdogs tracks a year in the life of Batley, and Australians Steve Mascord and Andrew Voss - both familiar faces, and voices, to fans over here - have books out.

I can vouch that all of them are very good operators, but I can’t go as far as to recommend any of those books. Not yet, anyway.

I only started Underdogs two days ago and so far, so good (best quote so far? Keegan Hirst: “I’m from Batley, for goodness sake. No one is gay in Batley...”). His book (£18.99), and Pryce’s (priced £17.99), are available now online, and from good bookshops. A few dodgy ones, too, I expect.

Steve’s Touchstones hasn’t yet been printed in the UK, but it can be pre-ordered here - http://tinyurl.com/ydasptz4 - (copy and paste the link) priced £14, ahead of a release next month.

The constantly-roaming, rock-worshipping, rugby league-loving journalist set off with the intention of covering a gig and a game every week for a year (he finishes with Wigan’s World Club Challenge win over Cronulla).

But judging by the opening line - “I was conceived in an insane asylum and don’t know for sure who my natural father is” - it seems it’s far more autobiographical than that.

Andrew’s Stuff You May Have Missed is definitely autobiographical, with thoughts, stories and characters from his career as a commentator. I’ve got a copy on its way, and if he doesn’t tackle the mystery of how big the Haddock is at Frydays in Anlaby and reveal which city has the best Akbars, Manchester or Leeds - it’s no secret he loves his food ‘up north’ - I’ll be disappointed.

His book can be ordered here http://au.newhollandpublishers.com and don’t be put off by the fact it’s an Australian publisher; shipping is the same price ($9.99), bringing the total price, if I’ve done my maths right, to around £23.

I’m looking forward to getting stuck into them over summer!