Talking RL: Finishing top the biggest prize? Really?

Castleford's Luke Gale is collared by Joel Tomkins
Castleford's Luke Gale is collared by Joel Tomkins

Castleford, so says the Super League website, “only need one point to claim their first Super League title in their 91-year history.”

Not true.

Ignore, for a second, Super League only started in 1996 - they won’t win the title if they beat Wakefield tonight.

They will win the league leaders’ shield.

It will be the first time they have finished top in their 91-year history, and it will be a great achievement for them, but they will not be the champions.

That honour, the Super League title, will be decided at the Grand Final.

“Finishing top is the truest test of being consistent over a whole season,” said Tigers coach Daryl Powell.

I agree.

“Warrington were the best team last year, regardless what happened in the finals.”

I agree.

“For me, it’s the biggest prize without a doubt.”

Wow! Hold up there!

Look, that may be how Daryl thinks, and he’s entitled to put as much value on the three domestic trophies as he wants.

Certainly, the £100,000 prize money – as well as qualification for the World Club Series (whether Cas’ take it up is another issue) – have helped make it a bit more prestigious than in previous years when it was dismissed, rather harshly, as the hudcap.

But if we polled players, coaches and fans about which of three (exclude the World Club Challenge) they would want to win, I imagine the Grand Final would be No.1, Challenge Cup second, with the league leaders’ shield a distant third.

We could all argue finishing top should be the biggest of the three.

But that doesn’t mean it is.

If the Tigers win tonight, it will be a memorable night for all involved.

But if Cas’ go on to win the Grand Final, I imagine the memories of Old Trafford which will burn brighter, for longer.

That’s certainly been the case for other clubs.

In the NRL, it makes sense to decide the champions through the play-offs because teams don’t play all the other sides twice.

Super League doesn’t have that problem, but in 1998, they asked us to accept the play-offs concept as a way of deciding the title, they asked us to embrace the Grand Final, and many have.

Which is why people look back on Wigan’s 2013 league campaign as more of a success than the previous year; when they finished top, 10 points clear of eventual Grand Final winners Leeds.

And when Leeds won the title at Old Trafford in 2011, I didn’t hear any Warrington fans saying: “Who cares? It was our year, we finished 13 points clear of them – we got the prize which really mattered!!!”

No.

And I doubt Cas’ will if they come up short at the end of the season.

Castleford have had a tremendous campaign. They’ve been hugely-entertaining, dominant, and richly deserve the league leaders’ shield.

They have some great players in their side, a smart coach, and it’s been refreshing to see a new name mix it up at the top, especially a name many can recall being relegated from the top-flight not too long ago.

But whether it’s right or wrong, fair or not, the Super League campaign is like qualifying before an F1 race.

A long, drawn-out, 30-round long qualifying session to decide places on the starting grid.

And in motor sport, it doesn’t really matter whether you win qualifying by a split-second or by a minute, the reward is the same; pole-position for the subsequent race.

The spectacle many more pay attention to, many more remember, and the one the competitors really want to win.

Got your Tigers scarf ready?

Will you sit down in front of the TV tonight and cheer on Castleford?

Because Wigan have put themselves into an unusual and uncomfortable position of wanting other results to go their way.

Which is why fans will watch their game against Salford at the DW Stadium tomorrow... but keep one eye on their smart-phone, to check how St Helens are getting on at Leeds.

If other results go in their favour, and they beat the Red Devils, they will move to within a point of the top-four with four Super League games to go.

For a team which has plenty of previous when it comes to finishing strongly, that’s not a bad position to be in.

Sure, their trip to Wembley is followed by a league game at St Helens – and Ben Barba’s debut in the competition – and Saints have easier-looking fixtures in the home-straight.

But at least they would give themselves a chance.

To a certain extent, they have flown under the radar, but a run which has only two losses in their last nine matches offers them hope.

And personally, I take more encouragement from Wigan’s potential; as happy as they all seemed with their performance against Huddersfield last Friday, I still think there’s more to come.

I still think some players are punching below weight, I still think some combinations can be sharper. If they play to their potential, they will get better.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks.

Salford have been one of the best sides to watch this year.

They play an attractive style, they used to have one of my favourite players – Box Office winger Justin Carney – and they still have some eye-catching performers, including Ben Murdoch-Masila, Robert Lui and Todd Carney.

They’re not necessarily the best players in their positions, but they’re some of the best to watch.

And they’ve added to that with the capture of Kiwi cult-hero Manu Vatuvei, who made his home debut last week. Given the season they have enjoyed, I couldn’t help feel sorry for club staff – including owner Marwan Koukash – when I saw their attendance last Friday night was 2,811.

And 900 of those fans were from Castleford.

Many assumed the support would increase when they had a team to cheer, but it hasn’t.

Salford have delivered on their end of the bargain – it’s a shame they’ve received such little support back.