Talking RL: The next few weeks will be fascinating to watch
Buckle up. Brace yourselves. The next few weeks is going to be fascinating to watch.
The ascent of Castleford, Salford and Wakefield this year has left some big-names out of the top-four - and in Warrington’s case, out the eight. With the season splitting into the Super-8s after seven more rounds - and then seven more rounds after that before the semi-finals - it is going to be dramatic viewing.
Sixth-placed Wigan are both four-points outside the top-four, and away from the bottom-four. A win against Hull FC on Saturday would help keep them within touching distance, end a five-game run without a Super League victory and bring with it the confidence which accompanies a solid away win.
Lose a couple, and they’re at risk of being dragged into the battle to stay in the eight before the season splits.
Everyone has different measures of success; different gauges of what they find acceptable or not.
Me? I like the fact Super League is more competitive and less predictable. I like the fact Wigan need to be on their game if they are to win. And even when they do play well, like at St Helens, it still might not be enough. The competition is better for it.
Which is not to absolve the players of criticism for Monday’s collapse against Wakefield - call the performance for what it was; soft. Embarrassing at times. Far removed from the derby and the Magic draw with Warrington.
My faith in Wigan climbing into the top-four is based on the knowledge of which players are due to return soon, their recent history and doubts whether the current top-four - and that includes Leeds - can maintain their charge. But St Helens are looking resurgent, while Hull FC are currently above both them and the Warriors; it’s going to be fascinating to watch how it unfolds.
l Interesting statistic from Monday’s team-sheet.
If you add up the squad numbers of Wigan’s ‘first-choice’ starting backs - one to five - you get 15. The total of their five backs against Wakefield? 153!
Wigan’s inability to hang onto a lead is at risk of becoming a trend.
For three successive games they have let seemingly-comfortable leads slip from their grasp. I doubt it’s a coincidence it happens in and around when Sean O’Loughlin is spelled. For everything he can do as a player, he has a talent which you won’t find on any stats sheet or highlights reel; a presence which makes his team-mates play better.
While it’s easy to recognise the problem, I can’t see a simple solution. Because O’Loughlin, at 34 and with the injuries he has had, can not be expected to play 80 minutes every game. If he tried, I doubt it would only be a matter of time before he suffered an injury which sidelined him for several weeks.
Honestly, given the choice between playing a game - at any level - or refereeing one, I think I’d rather risk injury and embarrassing myself playing than taking the whistle.
Which is why I’m not in the habit of criticising referees.
It’s not that I don’t think they get things wrongs, or show inconsistency.
It’s that they are people who make mistakes (probably not as many as some players).
They have a thankless task. Earlier this year, Ben Thaler was dropped for not sending-off Brett Ferres for a crusher tackle on Oliver Gildart. Remember what happened when he returned? Thaler was criticised for showing Kyle Amor a red-card for a challenge which, certainly at first view, looked like it nearly removed Liam Marshall’s head!
Clubs, of course, are right to want clear communication channels between themselves and the referees’ department. And yes, I hope the RFL continue to seek improvements from officials. And fund recruitment of more referees.
But many good coaches talk about not focusing on the ‘uncontrollables’ - like officials - and I’d rather take that view.
In reflecting on the weekend, I’d rather focus on some of the positives from across Super League - Greg Eden’s fourth consecutive hat-trick, the brilliant derby, David Fifita’s powerhouse display off the bench, Greg Bird’s desperate late tackle on Albert Kelly - than wondering whether someone missed a knock-on or not.
I, too, think it was daft to have a second ‘double-round weekend’. Especially when it was brought in to accommodate an England training camp which didn’t happen!
I don’t blame players for voicing their anger – and there have been a few bemoaning the lack of player welfare – but they need to make sure they shout in the right direction.
Firstly, the clubs that pay their wages agreed to the request (to help England’s World Cup cause).
And secondly, this idea the players don’t have a voice – while true – is no-one’s fault but their own; the League 13 organisation collapsed because of a lack of support from the players themselves.
Down Under, incidentally, there is a players’ association. But they haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory this week, with a threat to boycott the World Cup – over a cash dispute with the NRL!
To be clear: the NRL doesn’t run, or profit from, the World Cup. “It’s like having an argument with your neighbour,” quipped journalist Steve Mascord, “then punching the nose of a stranger who happens to be walking past.”
l Tony Smith and Daryl Powell are well within their rights to moan that Huddersfield’s Monday game with St Helens was allowed to be postponed.
If the clubs signed up to play two rounds over the weekend, all the clubs had to do it. Otherwise, it’s a huge disadvantage for their opponents this weekend - in games which may go someway to deciding key battles at the top and bottom of the ladder.
The RFL should have considered the bigger picture.