Talking RL: Will Wembley distraction help Warriors' Super League bid?
The top-four looks set, it's now a case of jostling for positions on the starting grid over the next four games before the semi-finals begin.
Sure, Catalans can theoretically still overhaul St Helens, in fourth.
Realistically, the Dragons have been in free-fall for several weeks and with no Todd Carney, and no Pat Richards, they have little chance of arresting their slide.
And so we have Hull FC (38 points), Warrington (37), Wigan (36) and St Helens (32) left in the Grand Final mix.
The glass-half-empty fans would say Wigan are in the worst run of form and, statistically, they would be right. They have lost more games in recent weeks than their rivals.
But I’m much more optimistic than that, and I think they are looking in great shape for a tilt at both the league leaders’ shield and a fourth straight Grand Final appearance.
They must be in confident mood after their 25-0 win against St Helens last Friday – Saints, remember, were on a seven-game winning streak.
To spill that much ball and still post four tries was encouraging, but the character they showed in defence was the most pleasing aspect.
And with Sean O’Loughlin and Tony Clubb to return to the frame, Shaun Wane will have the genuine, intense competition for places in the middle which he has lacked for most of the year.
Expect Liam Farrell and Anthony Gelling, who have both played twice since returning from injury lay-offs, to improve their combinations with those around them as they settle back into the side.
Of course, a team’s prospects of glory rely heavily of the quality of the opposition, and all three other sides – on their day – can play.
Hull FC have a star-studded squad, but will their inexperience at this stage hurt them?
Warrington’s halfbacks are slick and their pack is formidable, but has their backline got another firepower?
Saints, too, are lacking quality in certain areas – in my view, they have punched above their weight to climb into the top-four.
Following the increase in prize fund to £100,000, and the dramatics of last year’s race between Leeds and Wigan, there is more kudos attached to winning the League Leaders’ Shield than in recent years – even if it still isn’t as revered as much as it should be.
And in terms of finishing the season in the No.1 spot, it wouldn’t be accurate to say the Warriors’ fate is in their own hands – because even if they win all their remaining four matches, Hull FC may edge it due to their superior for-and-against.
But, perhaps crucially, Hull FC and Warrington have the distraction of this weekend’s Challenge Cup final.
And recent history has shown how tough sides have found it to back-up from Wembley.
Six days after the final, Hull FC face a trip to a wounded St Helens side, while Warrington head to Perpignan to play Catalans - they are not ‘gimmes’ by a stretch.
And remember, Hull FC and Warrington play each other on the final day of the season - to point out the bleeding obvious, only one of them can collect the two points!
So even if Wigan win three of their remaining four games, it may be enough to take the top-spot, and head into the play-offs with a home semi against, presumably, St Helens.
There is something else to consider, too.
If Saturday’s Challenge Cup final finishes as a draw, the game will be replayed.
Farcically, every round of the competition goes to golden-points, apart from the final. And if a replay is needed, it would pit the top-two against each other on Wednesday, September 7 – just TWO DAYS before Hull FC face Wigan.
Such a scenario would be ridiculous – I’m staggered the RFL hasn’t addressed this issue – but it would certainly work in Wigan’s favour.
And as I’m torn who to go for – I went to university in Hull but I know more people at Warrington – and as it would help out the Warriors massively, I’ll be hoping for a draw!
And on the topic of the Wembley weekend, good luck to the three Wigan teams taking part in the Champions Schools Finals, including St Peter’s Year Sevens in the Challenge Cup Final curtain-raiser.
Apologies in advance for dragging up the whole John Bateman saga, but I can’t help wonder if he is yet to face further punishment.
Because Bateman has been one of the best players this season, and under normal circumstances, would surely be the frontrunner for the Man of Steel. But he missed a seven-game chunk of the season because of a club-imposed suspension – will that come back to bite him?
I hope not. Because, while I could make a case for Gareth Ellis, Luke Gale and Kurt Gidley, I don’t think any of them deserve the award more than Bateman.
Sadly, Pat Richards has had to hang up his boots early because of a knee injury.
Shaun Wane called the goal-kicking winger one of Wigan’s top-three greatest overseas signings and, “as a man, he’s even higher”.
It’s hard to disagree.
He is a legend of the club who has left us all with so many great memories.
All the best to Pat on a stellar career – and in the next chapter of his life.