Changes already at Leeds
The signs are certainly looking positive for Leeds. Kevin Sinfield has been in the hotseat for just over a week now and seems to be having the desired effect. He talked last week about how the cultures and attitudes of the players are one big aspect that needs improving, while he’s already looking at recruitment and transfers, sending Jordan Lilley out on a one-and-a-half-year loan to Bradford, and bringing in Paul Aiton and Dom Crosby. It was also announced today that Ryan Hall will leave at the end of the season and as gutting as that will be for Rhinos fans, they have the depth to replace him. Players like Luke Briscoe and Harry Newman will now be given chances, while there are already whispers that Wakefield flyer Tom Johnstone may be on his way to Headingley.
While it remains to be seen how much has changed in the culture department, their on-field exploits are already improving. While the Rhinos weren’t able to get the win over Wakefield on Friday, their performance was much better than in previous weeks. Their attack looked much more structured and threatening, while their defence was resilient. The one worry is they’ve been unable to shut out games all season and couldn’t again against Trinity, which is one aspect that still needs to be looked at. I don’t, however, feel like they’ll struggle should they end up in the Qualifiers.
Salford in trouble
I can’t help but think Salford are destined for the Championship. With their poor form, lack of depth and the strength of the clubs they’ll come up against, I don’t think there’s much chance the Red Devils can survive the Qualifiers. Ian Watson even admitted that he only had 17 players fit for Friday’s visit of Castleford, which is the last thing you want at this stage of the season.
They were boosted with the impressive signing of livewire halfback Jackson Hastings, while rookie hooker Joey Lussick also looks set to join them, but I’m still not convinced they’re strong enough. Widnes, Huddersfield, Leeds and Hull KR are all starting to gain momentum, while Salford are heading in the opposite direction. That’s without mentioning the likes of Toronto and Toulouse, who will both be eying up promotion after stellar seasons themselves. Of course, they could surprise everyone like they did in 2016’s Million Pound Game, but I think it’s just to big of a task this time.
Championship top four race hotting up
While Toronto have already secured their place in the Qualifiers, the other three Championship places are still up for grabs, with five teams all vying for a chance at promotion. With just two games left before the Super 8’s split, there’s just three points separating second placed Toulouse and sixth placed Leigh, with Featherstone, London and Halifax all in the mix as well.
The French side only need a win or a draw and so have all but confirmed their place, so the other four will battle it out for third and fourth. For me, the Rovers and Broncos are the strongest two. Fev have been consistent all season, while London are in superb form, with their young side surprising plenty of teams. Halifax will be unlucky to miss out, while Leigh didn’t get into their stride until round seven, which will ultimately cost them. It’s going to be an exciting couple of weeks in the Championship and in reality, anything could happen. What’s for certain, though, is that the Qualifiers is going to be the most competitive yet.
Connor will be a big miss
I was gutted to hear that Jake Connor will be out for the season, after suffering a hamstring tear against St Helens on Friday. The 23-year-old has lit up Super League all season and has gained a reputation as one of the competition’s most exciting players, even making a try-scoring international debut against New Zealand in the Denver Test.
On the subject of internationals, it’s to be hoped he’s fit enough for the three game test series in October, as that could potentially catapult his career to an even higher level. Having earned the plaudits of Wayne Bennett, Connor now has the opportunity to really nail down an England shirt and show that he can be consistent at that level. He’s probably one of the most naturally skilful players we have on offer, so if Bennett can harness those and even improve them, Connor could become a world beater.
Slater goes out on a high
While Queensland may have lost this year’s State of Origin, they gave one of their legends a perfect send off with an 18-12 win over the Blues in Game III. Billy Slater put in a man-of-the-match performance in his very last Origin game and was even awarded the Wally Lewis Medal as the series’ best player, becoming the first player on a losing side to do so.
— Watch NRL (@WatchNRL) July 11, 2018
Slater’s retirement, as with any, paves the way for a new star to come to fore, as State of Origin enters a new era. 20-year-old fullback Kalyn Ponga was one of 17 players to debut this series and looks destined to fill Slater’s boots, while there are a whole host of youngsters breaking onto the Origin scene. The likes of Nathan Cleary, Tom Trbojevic, Damien Cook and Josh Addo-Carr are just a handful of players that have impressed this year. As it stands, New South Wales are looking the stronger in terms of player ability and depth, but the experience laced within the Queensland side makes them as unpredictable as ever. So as one Origin series ends, all eyes turn to the next one, where I’m sure we will see the next batch of rep stars show what they can do.