THERE are few people who feel resurgent Huddersfield Giants can produce the unthinkable and reach Super League’s top-four – yet their hand may actually be strengthened on the back of Wednesday’s fixture announcement.
Undeniably, Simon Woolford’s side are one of the in-form teams in the competition given they have won nine of their last 10 league games to storm from bottom of the 12-team table, into fifth.
It is an incredible run bettered only by prolific St Helens who, in building up a 10-point lead at the top of the table, have triumphed in their last 14 matches.
Avoiding the Qualifiers was Huddersfield’s main goal after a dire start to the campaign but now, mathematically at least, they can dream about challenging for Old Trafford.
In all reality, being six points behind fourth-placed Warrington Wolves and with a vastly inferior points difference, they will need to win all seven of their Super 8s games to stand a chance of claiming a semi-final place. Considering they must start their Super 8s actually at Saints a week Friday, many would, then, suggest that dream will be immediately dashed.
However, as tough as that opening fixture looks, it is perhaps an ideal time to face Justin Holbrook’s stellar side given they are in Challenge Cup semi-final action on Sunday so have plenty occupying both body and mind.
Huddersfield, in contrast, are resting up and will have had a full fortnight to prepare for the trip to Merseyside so, if ever there was a time to strike, this is it.
If they did succeed, Woolford’s team then have successive home fixtures against sixth-placed Hull FC and seventh-placed Wakefield Trinity, ideal opportunities to build momentum.
Next? A critical and mouth-watering contest at Warrington on Friday September 7... something all neutrals will hope can materialise to keep the Super 8s interesting a little longer.
For their part, Wolves are in Challenge Cup action, too, against Leeds Rhinos on Sunday so they may be vulnerable when an invigorated Catalans Dragons arrive at Halliwell Jones Stadium next Friday. Warrington will be desperate to win that one to make Huddersfield’s task more difficult, especially given Wolves then have a tricky tie at Castleford Tigers.
More often than not, however, it is the Qualifiers where most interest is created and that desperate battle for Super League sides to hang on to their top-flight status with promotion-chasing Championship clubs snapping at their heels.Dave Craven
Third-placed Castleford, meanwhile, have an intriguing opening round of their own as they head to Wigan knowing victory will see them usurp their rivals from second spot, the position both sides plus Warrington are craving given its reward of a home semi-final.
More often than not, however, it is the Qualifiers where most interest is created and that desperate battle for Super League sides to hang on to their top-flight status with promotion-chasing Championship clubs snapping at their heels.
With that in mind, it should be no surprise that Sky Sports have decided to broadcast more Qualifiers games this time around, indeed starting their coverage with London Broncos’ trip to Widnes Vikings next Thursday.
Defending champions Leeds will, privately at least, be delighted their first two fixtures are against Championship opposition as they bid to secure their Super League status.
For sides in the Qualifiers – Super League’s bottom four and the Championship’s top four who all start on zero points – it is crucial they get off to a positive start to build confidence.
With the top three after the seven rounds automatically gaining a place in Super League for 2019, and fourth versus fifth playing-off for the final spot via the Million Pound Game, there is little margin for error.
Leeds host Toulouse Olympique in front of the Sky cameras on Saturday week before heading to London but Hull KR – in great form themselves – do have a potentially difficult start to their campaign.
Tim Sheens’ side, who won automatic promotion via the Qualifiers last term, host Super League rivals Salford Red Devils next Friday before an unprecedented trip to Toronto Wolfpack on Saturday, August 18, is followed by a visit to Leeds Rhinos on Saturday, September 1.
Both those latter two games are televised by Sky who broadcast a Toronto game live from Canada for the first time when the Robins head over the Atlantic.
Ambitious Toronto, of course, are seeking back-to-back promotions after winning League 1 last year and flying to the Championship League Leaders’ Shield.
They start at Halifax, the lowest-ranked side, on Sunday week but the West Yorkshire side will take confidence from derby rivals Featherstone Rovers who inflicted the Wolfpack’s first loss in Canada just last week.
Meanwhile, organisers have revealed 40 applicants met a deadline to submit bids to host matches here in the 2021 World Cup.
Another 40 applications were received to provide training camps for the 16 teams and officials will now start to sift through the applications before announcing their decision next January.
A total of 28 towns and cities expressed a desire to become involved with the tournament.
Widnes’ Aaron Heremaia, the 35-year-old former Hull FC and Kiwi hooker, will retire at the end of the season while Widnes assistant coach Mick Cassidy will return to Wigan as head of youth.