FOR ALL those football fans getting bogged down by different permutations when it comes to routes to the World Cup final, it is plain and simple in comparison to what lies ahead for rugby league’s Qualifiers.
There are now just four rounds remaining before Super League and the Championship make the ‘split’ for the Super 8s, the contentious format used – currently, at least – to decide the make-up of the competitions for the following campaign.
Essentially, for the uninitiated, the bottom four of Super League and top four of the Championship start a new division.
They then play seven games on a round-robin basis with the top three earning a place in Super League for 2019 and fourth hosting fifth in the Million Pound Game for the final spot.
The loser and sixth, seventh and eighth will then be destined for the Championship. It is fascinating and intriguing on more than one front at the moment.
Firstly, after the weekend’s results the jostling for positions is only going to intensify further; anyone from Wakefield Trinity, as high as sixth, could still realistically be dragged into the bottom four.
It is fascinating and intriguing on more than one front at the moment. Firstly, after the weekend’s results the jostling for positions is only going to intensify further;Dave Craven
In contrast the only side already mathematically certain of being in there is Widnes Vikings who, though putting in an admirable display, lost a 12th successive Super League game at Hull FC on Friday.
The big mover were Catalans Dragons who, with an impressive 44-16 destruction of in-form Castleford Tigers, rose up to seventh when, just six weeks earlier, they had been bottom.
Of course, the big-spending French side should never really be in the mire to start with given the calibre of their players, but, still, it will be a real feat for Steve McNamara if he can now complete the job and keep them out of trouble.
Saturday’s trip to Wakefield is now critical for both sides; if Catalans win again, they will be confident of survival, but whoever loses suddenly could be right back in a battle.
Catalans, for instance, are still just a point above champions Leeds Rhinos in eighth and Huddersfield Giants in ninth.
Those two West Yorkshire clubs are currently in differing mindsets; Leeds, inexplicably, have lost a club record seven successive league games and were worryingly bad in Thursday’s shocking 46-8 defeat at Wigan.
They visit Castleford on Sunday, but clearly home games against Wakefield and Widnes before a final-day trip to 10th-placed Salford are the ones they truly must win to avoid being dragged into the Qualifiers for the second time in just three years.
Huddersfield had won five league games on the bounce before Friday’s woeful 37-10 defeat at 11th-placed Hull KR but, given their recent progress, will feel that was just a blip. And timely reminder work is still to be done.
Nevertheless, Thursday’s home contest with Hull will now be an acid test of just what sort of side Giants are under new coach Simon Woolford.
Three of their remaining four fixtures are at the John Smith’s Stadium, including the final weekend against Wakefield; the Giants must make that advantage pay.
Whoever loses when Hull KR host Salford, a point above Rovers in 10th, on Sunday can effectively start preparing for the Qualifiers.
KR, with Danny McGuire and Robbie Mulhern making such impressive returns from injury in Friday’s encouraging victory, will feel they have a greater chance of a late surge with games against Salford and Widnes still to come.
But in all likelihood they will be in that bottom four with Widnes and Salford – Huddersfield, Catalans and Leeds scrapping it out to avoid joining them.
And what of the Championship? Leaders Toronto Wolfpack are already sure of a spot, but just four points separate five teams – Toulouse, Featherstone, Halifax, London and Leigh – in the race for the remaining three places.
No Super League side will fancy going to Canada for myriad reasons. But that’s just something else to consider amid it all.