Well the playoffs are underway now with Castleford kicking us off with a win at Warrington last Thursday.
Firstly I have to say it’s great to have a playoff series back after the Super 8s system – which I didn’t like. No way the top side should play fourth in a straight knockout semi-final. I believe any team that finishes outside the top two should have a markedly tougher task to reach Old Trafford. After losing to Warrington last year, surely St Helens form over 30 league games warranted them a second chance?
The five-team system we have now was used in the first four years of the introduction of the playoffs and was replaced by a six-team system in 2002. Back then the Grand Final was only ever played out between first and second, such was the difficulty for any side outside the top two to progress. In fact the first side to play at Old Trafford from outside the top two was Wigan in 2003, who lost to Bradford, with the first side to win it from third being the Bulls in 2005.
No side under these structures ever made the Grand Final from fourth or lower until Leeds won from 5th in 2011. That was in the eight-team system, used currently in the NRL. There is a real chance that Castleford can buck that trend this year though in the five-team format after such a good start.
They were a long way from this position only two weeks ago when they threw away a chance to make the top five with defeat at Wigan. But they were then handed a pass to the playoffs when a Saints side, with not much to play for, beat Hull FC at the KCOM Stadium. Most fans had written Daryl Powell’s side off due to inconsistent form by then anyway and thought the good fortune would only prolong their season another six days.
However, last week Cas went to Warrington as the underdogs and came away with a win in an untidy encounter at the Halliwell Jones Stadium. Both teams were struggling for form but the Tigers probably just deserved the win, largely due to some solid defence. Wire were unlucky to lose Austin during the game, but then again Cas have had to cope without their starting half all year.
The night after Salford played in one of the games of the season so far, narrowly losing a titanic struggle against Wigan at the DW Stadium. Given it wasn’t do or die for either side it was a great spectacle. That effort at the Warriors has to have taken some gas out of the tank of some of the Red Devil’s players, who are not used to playing at this stage of the season. The game at Warrington came nowhere near it for intensity and the extra days rest must be a real advantage for Castleford as they go to Salford on Thursday.
League position and current form would make this a home banker but surely now, when you add in Castleford’s experience of post-season games over the last two years, this game is 50-50 (admittedly the bookies do have Salford four-point favourites) it will take some effort from my Coach of the Year Ian Watson to get his players back up for this straight knockout tie.
If the Tigers can get through that they’ll in all likelihood be taking on a Wigan side coming off the back of a derby against St Helens. Now Wigan could go and win at Saints and the same really still applies, in fact the pressure on Saints would be massive. Castleford’s recent record at Wigan is average, they’ve scored one try in the last three visits and have lost the last four, but surely two tough, high-intensity games would have to take it’s toll on the Champions and give the Fords a real chance?
Bookies make Castleford 16/1 to win the Grand Final and whilst the challenge is tough, they certainly have a chance! How ironic should they play the team who handed them their place in the playoffs, St Helens, and thanked them by beating them at the Theatre of Dreams.
Being honest I preferred the six-team system to this one, First and second play each other with the winner going straight to Old Trafford, then team’s third to sixth play their own mini knockout with the winner playing the loser of first against second for the other Grand Final spot. This system will do though. The higher you finish, the easier the route just as it should be. Personally I do think Saints and Wigan will end up at Old Trafford on October 12th, but I have to give Cas more of a chance than possibly their form deserves. Daryl Powell and his team have unfinished business in Manchester from a couple of years ago. Could they finish it in three weeks time?