Talking RL: Sky Sports may have done Wigan Warriors a big favour
‘Our fate is in our own hands’, says Wigan coach Adrian Lam.
It is... but they've also been helped out by circumstances out of their control.
The two sides above the Warriors in the table, St Helens and Warrington, must quickly recover from the emotional hangover of the Challenge Cup Final.
And the Wolves have been given little time to shake-off any actual hangovers of their Wembley win, with Sky Sports picking them for tonight’s televised match against in-form Salford.
It’s cruel scheduling from the broadcasters - though not without precedent, as the Wolves had the same precedent after last year's Final loss. Wigan, remember, had to play five days after their World Club Challenge victory against Cronulla, but - and I know this may be controversial for the sport - but maybe there's scope for some common-sense in future?
Either way, this could work in Wigan’s favour if the refreshed Red Devils – who have beaten Wire twice already this year – get the two points.
Lam's men, in third, are level on points with the Wire.
Saints, too, may have ‘nothing to play for’ before the play-offs after already securing the league leaders’ shield.
But they have issues to address, not least shaking a reputation as big-game bottlers, given they lost two semis last year as well.
No matter what Saints do over the next three weeks, I can’t help imagine they will have a nervousness about them as they head into the play-offs.
While St Helens are treading water until the regular season finishes, all 11 other clubs have something to play for - and it should make it a fascinating home-straight.
If Wigan lose out on second spot because Warrington win their remaining three matches, then fair enough.
But I can’t see it.
Even if the Wolves win tonight, which is hard to imagine, I can’t see them getting much joy at Leeds on the final day.
All things considered, I really do think it’s pointing to a second-placed finish for the Warriors.
It’s important not to get carried away, because the Warriors are still only two points from the team in sixth spot. A slip-up at Wakefield – never the easiest venue – and the following week’s visit of Catalans takes on a completely different complexion.
But they are in-form, with nine wins from their last 10, and they are playing well.
Their defence is tigerish, they are playing with confidence, and their run-in is far from daunting with home games against Catalans and Castleford on the horizon.
Lam will be hoping to welcome back some more players from injury during the next three weeks, driving up the level of competition within his squad.
It’s quite a turnaround from when they were floating just above the relegation dog-fight earlier this season.
The structure of the play-offs gives a heavy advantage to teams finishing in the top-three. Hull FC, in fourth with 30pts but a poorer for-and-against than Wigan, may be ready to pounce if Lam’s men slip-up.
They have a run-in which includes a home match against 10th-placed Huddersfield this weekend, and they may be favourites to beat Castleford the following week.
They complete the season against Saints.
Given the league-toppers have the following week off, I can't imagine they will be happy to go into their first play-offs match with a three week gap since their last victory – so even if Wigan lose one of their last three, they may still finish second.
If there is a dark horse to this engrossing race, it is Salford.
They are only two points behind Wigan (and Hull FC), but with a better for-and-against.
Ian Watson’s outfit are the only side to win their most recent five matches, a run which included putting Hull FC and Catalans to the sword, beating Warrington away and chalking up nearly 60 points against London.
Castleford and Catalans, in sixth and seventh respectively with 28 and 26 points, are not out of the picture yet. It doesn’t seem likely that they will shoulder their way into the play-offs spots but if this year has taught us anything, it is to come to expect the unexpected!
It should be a fascinating three weeks.