We’ve now played 15 of the 30 rounds before the Super League play-offs begin. Here’s my half-term report card on how the 12 Super League teams have done so far...
Consider this - the most points Wigan have scored this year is 42. The least - least - number of points Cas have scored in a home match is 42. They’re not just winning, they’re doing it in style. Which is why they have not only been the pace-setters, but they’ve got a points difference nearly three times greater than their closest rival. Greg Eden and Zak Hardaker have proved more than adequate replacements for Denny Solomona and Luke Dorn. Cas’ have been really fortunate with injuries, and the big questions are whether they will be able to first maintain their form, and secondly perform in the crunch games.
But so far, so very, very good.
Salford have long been one of the best teams to watch. Not one of the best teams, you understand, but good on the eye. This season, Ian Watson - a classy, unassuming operator - has added a steely resolve and a thread of consistency. Todd Carney has joined but it has been the form of halfbacks Robert Lui and Michael Dobson - as well as powerhouse backrower Ben Murdoch-Masila - which has really impressed. They have a thin squad with no reserves, and time will tell whether they drop off. But so far they’ve freshened up the Super League top-four, and it’s great to see. And finally, what a great touch by owner Marwan Koukash last Friday, for opening the doors to their game in exchange for a donation to the Manchester victims fund.
Hull FC: B-
They went into the weekend third in the ladder, but I can’t get excited about Hull FC. I’m not convinced yet. Maybe it’s because of the four defeats they’ve suffered, three have been by landslides. When things don’t go their way, they seem to wilt - hence a lower rating than some of the teams below them in the table.
They get a higher grade than Hull FC because of where they have come from - a relegation scrap, an early mauling at Cas, and into the top-four. They look a solid bet to be in the trophy hunt later in the year. It’s nice to see - in a World Cup year - their right-centre Kallum Watkins hitting some good form.
No, that isn’t a typing error. They went into the weekend below Hull and Leeds, but they get a higher rating because of circumstances; the fact chairman Michael Carter joked about trying to entice Ben Barba to the club with unlimited free Costa coffee indicates they are operating on a shoestring. Chris Chester has assembled a handy side, with smart halves and pace in the backs.
Shaun Wane has already made it a memorable year, thanks to a certain World Club Challenge victory in February. They started on fire but dropped off as senior players dropped out the side - the emergence of Liam Marshall and Tom Davies have been the silver-linings to their injury misery. Still, Wane remains unbeaten on Good Friday, unbeaten at Magic, they are in the Cup, and all but one of their losses have been close. Hard not to see them kick-on from here as the big-guns are drip-fed back into the side.
St Helens: C-
Honestly, I didn’t think they were punching below weight with Keiron Cunningham in charge. Sure, I didn’t think they’d lose to Leigh, Wakefield and draw with Huddersfield - but I didn’t think they’d beat Warrington, Leeds and Catalans away, either. New coach Justin Holbrook obviously made an immediate impact at the Magic Weekend, with a 45-0 win against Hull FC, and backed that up with a derby win on Thursday. Expect them to climb.
Second-favourites before a ball had been kicked, they lurched from one loss to another in a miserable opening and they looked to be this year’s spectacular under-achievers. Their incredible World Club Series win against Brisbane was their only positive. But the return from injury of Chris Hill and Stefan Ratchford - yep, two Wiganers! - helped transform their fortunes. It’s still between the Wolves and Catalans for a top-eight spot.
Their opening wins against Hull FC and Warrington suggested a smoother run from Super League’s perennial-under-achievers. But they soon switched to their usual default mode, and last week’s sacking of Laurent Frayssinous was hardly a surprise. Even with Greg Bird back, they may struggle to sneak into the eight before the season splits for after round 23 for the Super-8s.
While their stable-mates are at Wembley today to shoot for a Premier League spot, the Giants have endured another difficult season. Far too reliant on Danny Brough, even in victory - and I’m thinking Magic here - they have been painful to watch. And it’s hard to see them climbing out the bottom-four before the season splits.
They went into the weekend behind Huddersfield, but they get the extra credit for the fact they are adjusting to Super League life. They started brightly, but have dropped off since then and seem resigned to a scrap to retain their top-flight status through the Qualifiers.
Their slump was hardly a surprise. They failed to replace Kevin Brown, or bring in another half when Joe Mellor was injured, and Rangi Chase’s recent recruitment screamed of panic. They looked good in defeat against a hungover Wigan in February, but they don’t appear to have the quality to avoid a scrap in the Qualifiers.