Written by John Davidson
The ultra-competitive 2023 Super League regular season comes to a close this Friday night with two big questions left to answer – who wins the League Leader’s Shield and who makes the semi-finals.
The climax will see all six games kick off at the same time, as the 12 clubs do battle. Relegation has already been confirmed, with Wakefield Trinity sent down to the Championship. But who finishes top, and who claims that vital sixth spot and a place in the playoffs, is still up for grabs.
Firstly, the race for the top. As it sits it’s a three-way battle between Wigan Warriors, Catalans Dragons and defending champions St Helens, all on the same amount of points with 38. Crucially, Wigan have the best points difference – 358 – compared to Catalans’ 291 and St Helens’ 221.
However, Wigan also have arguably the hardest opponent in the final round. They face their plucky neighbours Leigh away, who are sitting in fourth on the table. The Leigh Sports Village will be packed out and the Leopards will be led by ex-Wigan coach Adrian Lam and have a number of former Warriors in their side. They would love nothing more to knock off the Cherry and Whites and grab a momentous win.
Catalans go to Salford and will also have a tough test. It’s a must-win game for the Red Devils, if they want their season to continue. They are in seventh place, the same points as Warrington with 26, but the Wolves have a better points difference by 80. Salford need to defeat the Dragons and hope that Huddersfield do them a favour against Warrington. While the Giants game is out of their hands, they must first beat Catalans, who spanked Leeds in Perpigan on Saturday.
St Helens have the easiest fixture of the three sides at the top of the table. They are at home to Hull FC, a team that has only won 10 of 26 games in 2023. The Black & Whites were thrashed 52-20 by Huddersfield last weekend, beat by Castleford the week before that and Leeds before that. Hull FC are in a hole and have lost their past four games in a row.
In contrast, Saints are purring nicely as the season comes to a close. They can smell a historic fifth grand final win in a row. They are champing at the bit and are on an eight-game winning streak. St Helens’ last defeat came in the Challenge Cup semi-final against Leigh back in July. Since then they seem a team reborn.
The same can be said for Wigan. They have won seven in a row and are red-hot. Their attack is on song (no one has scored points then them) and defensively they have been strong (they have the equal best defence with St Helens). The Cup semi-final golden point loss to Hull KR in two months ago was a wake-up call, and they have heeded it and then some.
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Wigan are in the driving seat this Friday night, and they are surely favourites to finish top and win the League Leader’s Shield.
Warrington are also strongly placed to hold on to sixth spot and qualify for the semi-finals. They only have to defeat Huddersfield, a team that has been inconsistent all season. Making the playoffs has to be the minimum for a club that was brilliant in the opening rounds but has been so poor since that coach Daryl Powell was sacked.
Of course, relying on Warrington to perform since mid-season is a dangerous pursuit. They appear set to be without prop Paul Vaughan, who faces a long ban. The Wolves have been out of form, struggling to get results or to convert pressure into points during games. They have been hugely disappointing since Magic Weekend.
Wigan, Catalans or St Helens, Warrington or Salford- those are the key talking points ahead of round 27.
With the semi-finals and a trip to Old Trafford also yet to come, will it be French history made, the Warriors return to the top, a super-special Saints’ milestone or Leigh and Hull KR breaking the mold? All will be revealed over the next month.