With 22 of the previous 26 Super League titles between them – 21 of which have come via the Grand Final – St Helens (Champions 9 times, 8 via the Grand Final), Leeds (Champions 8 times) and Wigan (Champions 5 times) are Super League’s three most successful sides.
So, unsurprisingly the three have dominated Super League semi-final history. Remarkably, almost every set of Super League semi-finals – this is including the qualifying finals and preliminary finals from the old top five and top six play-off systems – have included at least two of these three teams whilst all have included at least one.
In the first ever play-off series, Wigan won the first semi-final against Leeds in the qualifying final to book their place at the Theatre of Dreams before Leeds joined them beating St Helens in the preliminary final setting the tone of how the next 25 years of play-off rugby would look like.
1999 is a rare example of only one of the three teams making it to the semi-finals with Bradford beating St Helens in the qualifying final before Saints beat Castleford to join them. However, in 2000, 2001 and 2002 the semi-finals featured both Saints and Wigan, who were always joined by Bradford back in the days where semi-finals would feature three teams with the loser of the first getting a second bite of the cherry.
In 2003, Leeds replaced St Helens but lost to both Bradford and Wigan as the Warriors became the first team to make the Grand Final from outside the top two. The same three led the way in 2004 with Leeds being crowned Champions before Saints replaced Wigan in the mix in 2005 – the season Bradford became the first Champions from outside the top two.
2006 is another of those where only one of the three teams made it all the way to the semi-finals. This time it was the Saints who beat Hull FC to book their place at Old Trafford prior to Hull’s win over Bradford.
In 2007 and 2008, the three semi-final spots went to the three teams in question as Leeds claimed back to back titles. In 2009, Super League introduced more natural semi-finals with four teams playing in two separate games for the two final spots and in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 all three of these teams were present and were joined by Catalans, Huddersfield and Warrington (in 2011 and 2012).
2013, St Helens missed out on the semi-finals as Leeds and Wigan did battle whilst in 2014 it was the Rhinos who missed out. 2015 saw the three all play in semi-finals before in 2016 it was Saints, Wigan, Warrington and Hull FC.
2017 Leeds and Saints were the two of the three in the semi-finals joined by Castleford and Hull FC.
Of course, in the years since then, Saints have been immovable from the semi-finals as they’ve dominated the league. In 2018, 2019 and 2020 they were joined by Wigan whilst in 2021 they beat Leeds in the final four.
Meanwhile, this season sees all three feature for the first time in seven years.
I want to give Salford some credit, they’re playing in their second semi-final after beating Wigan in 2019 when the league reverted back to the old qualifying and preliminary finals instead of traditional semis.
Equally, Bradford deserve credit despite not playing in a semi-final since 2006. Despite this, if you add them to the mix, of the four teams in question in every season at least two have been in the semi-finals.
Looking at the teams individually, Saints unsurprisingly lead the way missing out on the semi-finals just three times in 2003, 2004 and 2013 and have been an ever-present since 2014.
Wigan meanwhile have missed out on the semi-finals four times in 1999, 2005, 2006 and 2017. Leeds have missed out on the semis the most of the three doing so in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Of their 14 semi-final appearances though Leeds have won an impressive 10 only failing to make the Grand Final in 2003, 2010, 2013 and 2021.
As for Wigan they’ve also won 10 semi-finals having featured in the semi-finals on 20 occasions with a 50% success rate of reaching Old Trafford (of course not a 50% win rate due to the complications of preliminary and qualifying finals.)
St Helens meanwhile have won the most semi-finals with 13 wins but have missed out on making it to Old Trafford on nine occasions meaning that it is Leeds who have the best success rate at reaching the Grand Final from this position.
Can they do it again or will we see a Wigan-St Helens final for only the fourth time? And what could Salford have to say about this as well?