TO the untrained eye, the League Leaders’ Shield is as good as in the trophy cabinet for Hull FC, already sat gleaming next to the Challenge Cup.
Current frontrunners Warrington Wolves who face second-placed Airlie Birds in tonight’s winner-takes-all decider, are devoid of arguably their three finest players when this season’s best two sides in Super League meet in their final Super 8s fixture.
Maverick Australian scrum-half Chris Sandow has not played since injuring a knee when his side lost to Hull in the Challenge Cup final last month but Tony Smith endured more bad news this week ahead of such a crucial encounter.
Fellow Australian Kurt Gidley, the veteran half-back who has brought such much-needed guidance to Warrington in 2016, is out with a slight hamstring strain. Furthermore, Ben Currie, the dynamic second-row who caused Hull so many problems at Wembley, is cruelly out for up to nine months after rupturing a cruciate ligament in last Friday’s loss to Wigan.
No one wants to see players, especially such gifted ones, sidelined for any reason but, privately, Lee Radford surely must have been attempting cartwheels all the way down Anlaby Road.
However, Hull’s head coach is not of that feeling; he maintains his side must still be at their best to prise top spot away from Warrington.
“It’s going to be hard whatever, no matter which team they put out,” insisted the 37-year-old.
“It will be a really tough game and I can guarantee Tommy Lineham will probably score one try.
“It’s the time of year where any opponent will be difficult.
“Look at last week with Wakefield. We knew how tough it was going to be but it surprised everyone else how hard it was for us to win there.
“So it doesn’t matter who’s in or out of Warrington’s 17; we’re both vying for the League Leaders’ Shield and I’m expecting nothing other than a fierce battle.”
Lineham, of course, is the winger who made his name at Hull, earning Dream Team selection in 2013, but who Radford then allowed to be sold to Warrington at the end of last season.
He has scored 13 tries in 19 games for them, including two when Warrington fell 26-24 late at Hull on Easter Monday, but has fallen out of favour in recent months.
Indeed, Lineham hasn’t played for Warrington since the win at Castleford on July 17 and his last first-team game was a defeat for part-timers Rochdale Hornets in a League 1 fixture at Barrow a week later.
However, with Matty Russell switching to full-back and No1 Stefan Ratchford moving up to stand-off in place of Gidley, the 25-year-old linked with another move away in 2017, gets a rare chance.
“Hopefully he’ll have sobered up from the last time I spoke to him at Wembley!” smiled Radford.
“It’s sod’s law he’ll come up with something and as an ex-player, like Joe (Westerman), he’ll be wanting a big match.
“He’ll have thought his chances of playing this time of year will have passed him by so he’ll want a performance but, as much as I like the kid, hopefully he doesn’t get it.”
For all Warrington will miss the influence of Gidley and Sandow in the middle, Hull’s coach feels their hookers, England’s livewire Daryl Clark and youngster Brad Dwyer, are arguably just as key in Warrington’s side.
“The way they play around the ruck and the speed they have around there, it means it’s not really left on the half-backs to get them around the field or engage defenders as much as Wigan may do, for example,” he said.
“With Daryl Clark, Brad Dwyer, Stefan Ratchford – he’s dangerous at full-back or half – and now Matty Russell sat right behind it all, what is their threat is that pace down the middle. That’s 100 per cent clear and something we must be ready for.”
Hull edged another tight affair 19-12 at Warrington in June so, with Wembley as well, have won all three contests between the two this year.
But Radford accepts they have not been crisp since lifting the Challenge Cup and they will require their best performance of the season to deny Wolves the Shield.
Hull lost at St Helens and against Wigan to give Warrington a sniff before returning to winning ways in an ugly win at struggling Wakefield.
“We didn’t hit our straps against Saints when fatigue was probably an issue,” said Radford. “But Wigan was probably the best we’d played in the Super 8s, we just missed our opportunities with a couple of silly errors.
“Last week was a real dogfight, though. Although it wasn’t raining, it was dewy and reminiscent of what it’s normally like at this time of year. We had to scrap our way out and I think it shows there isn’t a great deal between any two sides that take to the field this time of year.”