The next six matches will determine whether Wigan finish 1st or, theoretically, as low as 6th. With only four places in the mix for the play-offs, here are the six fixtures which will shape Wigan’s fate...
1: Castleford, away (tomorrow)
Trips to Cas Vegas are rarely smooth, and their pulsating 33-26 win in May was their first at the fabulously-named Mend A Hose Jungle in three years. The Tigers have an eye-catching attack - but they also have a leaky defence - and Wigan’s confidence-boosting 60-12 destruction of Wakefield will make the visitors favourites for victory. The Tigers, though, gave themselves a play-offs lifeline with a win at Hull FC last Friday. And if FC lose at Widnes tonight, which seems unlikely, Wigan will have a chance to move two points clear at the top of the table with victory.
2: St Helens, home (Fri, Aug 19)
Wigan are already heavily-marketing this game as ‘the rematch’. It is a real derby quirk that Wigan have done really well in their Good Friday meetings in recent years but not in meetings later in the year at the DW Stadium, and Shaun Wane was devastated after their 23-4 loss a month ago. Saints have flown under the radar to a certain extent, clawing their way into the top-four on the back of a six-game winning streak - and Catalans’ alarming drop of form. And this should have some extra needle, too, following the clash between Frank-Paul Nuuausala and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook which saw them both sinbinned.
3: Widnes, home (Thus, Sep 1)
Something strange has happened this year - Wigan won at Widnes and Widnes won at Wigan! In recent seasons the Vikings have often found themselves on the wrong-side of hammerings at the DW, while the Warriors find the artificial pitch tough-going. Admittedly, their 7-0 win there this year wasn’t pleasing to the eye - it produced a yawn, rather than a yell, from the mouth of watching England coach Wayne Bennett - and fans from both sides will be hoping for a much more entertaining contest. Widnes have some decent players, but they have nothing left to play for, and it is hard seeing them claiming a win to go with their 18-12 triumph at the DW back in March.
4: Hull FC, away (Fri, Sep 9)
This. Should. Be. Epic. Both sides won their ‘away’ game during the regular Super League campaign but Hull, of course, won the one which really mattered - the Challenge Cup semi-final last month. And that has left Wigan ‘angry’ (Shaun Wane’s words). FC will have played at Wembley by the time this fixture comes around, which should only fuel the Warriors’ anger. And if these two sides are still jostling for the league leaders’ shield by then, the intensity should be dialled up even further. Of course, the play-offs offer little incentive to finishing top - both 1st and 2nd-placed sides get home semi-finals, against teams ranked 4th and 3rd respectively. But a cash prize, as well as Leeds’ treble-winning exploits last year, has helped the ‘hubcap’ gain more Kudos, even if it isn’t as revered as it should be.
5: Warrington, away (Fri, Sep 16)
Here’s one solid prediction - Warrington won’t market the game with a video of Chris Sandow vowing to ‘smash the pies’. Wigan players admitted after their 28-0 win a year ago that they had been motivated by the “disrespectful” promo. Warrington were the only team to record a home and away ‘double’ over Wigan this season - bizarrely, both fixtures were held in April - and if both sides are still battling at the top of the ladder by next month, this should be another derby cracker. With the Four Nations on the horizon, the Ben Currie-John Bateman duel should provide an intriguing sideshow.
6: Catalans, home (Fri, Sep 23)
Sacre Bleu! Could Catalans miss out on the play-offs? The debate used to be about their contrasting form home and away - now it’s just about their form altogether, with their 26-10 win against Widnes their first victory in nearly two months. With frontline players returning from injury, they should pick up. And the battle between themselves and St Helens for a place in the top-four (presuming none of the current top-three suffer a catastrophic dive) will provide a lot of the drama for neutrals watching the Super League: Super-8s unfold. Unless these sides meet in the play-offs - and presuming he is fit - this will be Pat Richards’ last game against the club where he built a legacy by breaking points-scoring records over eight years in the Cherry and White. Even the hardest men may have a tear in their eye...