TONIGHT’S game between Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos, at DW Stadium, should be a cracker.
They usually are, but there is a great deal riding on this one.
Rhinos are already three points clear of second-placed St Helens and a further one ahead of Wigan, who are third.
With two home games remaining in the regular season after tonight, against Salford Red Devils and Catalans Dragons, Leeds should go into the Super-8s as league leaders, whatever happens against Wigan.
But points gathered in the weekly rounds carry over into the Super-8s, so if Leeds win this evening they could potentially go into the new competition with at least a six-point advantage over one of their main rivals for a place at Old Trafford.
In a seven-game league that is a big gap – and Rhinos are likely to have home advantage against Wigan in the Super-8s.
That will involve the top-eight teams after 23 Super League rounds.
They will play seven more matches, with the top four after the regular season having four home games, as opposed to three.
At the end of all that, the four leading teams will go into knockout semi-finals for a place in the title decider at Old Trafford, with first at home to fourth and second facing third.
So tonight’s fixture is a big one, perhaps more so for Wigan than Leeds. They are only one point ahead of Huddersfield Giants and Castleford Tigers and aren’t yet guaranteed a top four spot.
Wigan have been inconsistent this year and are coming off the back of a defeat at Warrington Wolves, but are strong at home and have a good recent record against Rhinos at DW Stadium.
Leeds’ chances of victory tonight have been hampered by the suspension of full-back Zak Hardaker, who was banned for one game after submitting an early guilty plea to a charge of making a dangerous tackle on Travis Burns in last week’s win over St Helens.
The RFL are right to clamp down on such challenges, but the on-field referee, Richard Silverwood, felt it was only worth a yellow card. A sin-binning or a ban would have been justified, but both seems harsh. Consistency among referees and the match review panel is still lacking.
Two days before the Hardaker incident, Hull’s Mickey Paea was placed on report for a dangerous tackle on Wakefield’s Danny Washbrook, who had to leave the field. He received a Grade C charge and was banned for two games. Presumably the difference was that he escaped without a card during the game and injury was caused, but the on-report and match review system does allow referees to opt out of making a decision at the time.
The ban is a shame for Hardaker, who has been in good form, but his actions since show him in a good light.
He apologised to Burns at the time, spoke honestly in a Yorkshire Evening Post interview about the incident, which he stressed was unintentional and has opted to take his punishment.
Hardaker, who last week signed a new contract keeping him at Leeds until the end of 2019, has had on and off-field issues in the past, but has knuckled down this year and is improving as a player week on week.
It is doubtful there’s a better full-back in the competition at the moment, certainly defensively and if he continues to mature he will become a world-class talent.
Rhinos have done incredibly well to secure players of the quality of Hardaker, Tom Briscoe, Ryan Hall and Kallum Watkins on long-term deals and that is also good for the Super League competition.
Leeds boss Brian McDermott will have some thinking to do when Briscoe returns to fitness.
Ash Handley, 19, has played 17 successive games since Briscoe underwent shoulder surgery, scoring 11 tries, including two hat-tricks against Saints.
He hit a dip a few weeks ago, but showed great character to get through that. He has moved beyond under-19s rugby now, so a loan deal or dual-registration stint at Hunslet Hawks would benefit his development.