Dave Craven: Intrigue of the Qualifiers beats the ‘closed shop’ of Super 8s

Hull v Castleford: Junior Moors takes on Jordan Thompson.
Hull v Castleford: Junior Moors takes on Jordan Thompson.
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IS it just me or is it the Qualifers – and solely the Qualifiers – that has piqued interest as the next phase of the season gets underway?

The Middle Eight was always likely to create intrigue due to the fact it brings the Million Pound Match and the prospect of one Super League side being just 80 minutes away from relegation.

That comes eight weeks from now, though, and there should, first, be plenty to savour in between, most obviously at the top end of the table.

However, the Super 8s and its top four already looks like a closed shop before some sides have even started their campaign, a worrying sight for the sport’s organisers.

Certainly, the top three of Hull FC, Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors look safe.

Fourth-placed St Helens’ win over Warrington on Thursday night – a sixth straight victory that augmented their credentials as potential surprise Grand Finalists – only made the job harder still for the rest of those wanting to break in.

Wakefield Trinity and Widnes Vikings were eight points behind before a ball was kicked, Castleford Tigers just one better off, so the only side truly capable of upsetting the status quo are Catalans Dragons.

And, so, it is at the other end where most interest lies.

In the Qualifiers, of course, everyone starts on a big fat zilch.

That means the Super League quartet who face jeopardy – champions Leeds Rhinos, 2013 League Leaders Huddersfield Giants, Hull KR and Salford Red Devils – are level with their aspiring Championship opponents Leigh Centurions, London Broncos, Batley Bulldogs and Featherstone Rovers.

Instantly there is more intrigue and pressure alike.

How will Leeds, the illustrious treble-winners of 2015 who played NRL premiers North Queensland Cowboys just six months ago, fare at Featherstone’s Post Office Road today?

How will Hull KR cope with the industry and grit of another part-time team Batley Bulldogs when they start tomorrow while what of Huddersfield, who finished bottom?

Their fixture at Salford on Sunday already has a critical feel attached; both need confidence and to get up and running.

But it is the reaction of ambitious Leigh – Championship table-toppers for a third successive season – that everyone is keen to witness.

They have recruited judiciously in preparation for the Middle Eights; Travis Burns and Matty Dawson from St Helens, former England second-row Danny Tickle from Castleford Tigers and Cronulla Sharks back Mitch Brown are all high-quality signings.

Leigh infamously bombed 12 months ago; after all their hype leading into the Qualifiers, they lost six of their seven games.

However, it is hard to envisage them making the same mistakes twice; from what most people on the inside and the fringes at Leigh are saying, they are primed finally to prove their worth.

They have won their last 13 games, and start tonight at home to the side that finished second behind them – London.

They host Salford next, a tie they have targeted as that first Super League scalp, and then head to Featherstone.

You could envisage them winning all three. If they do, the Qualifiers suddenly get even more intriguing – the pressure on Super League’s clubs will become unbearable.