As we now approach the quarter point of the 2009 season, everything starts to take shape. The problem is – what shape is it? Be it declining standards at certain clubs and increased standards at other clubs, the season so far appears to be producing a more even competition, and it’s making prediction games a real pain.
At the top, I think it’s very clear that Leeds and Saints still lead the pack by some distance. At the bottom, the new boys Salford and Celtic Crusaders appear to be off the pace (although both sides, Celtic in particular, have shown signs of catching up). That leaves ten sides in between those two pairings, all of whom seem pretty evenly matched against each other and all who can beat any of the other sides on their day.
Part of the reason for this is because of declining standards and slow starts at traditionally successful clubs. The four non-Saints-or-Leeds sides who made the playoffs last year (Wigan, Warrington, Bradford and Catalan Dragons) are the four non-Salford-or-Celtic sides currently not in a playoff spot. Even all these sides have had their moments, and I don’t feel particularly comfortable writing any of them off. The problem for all of them has been consistency, and it really wouldn’t surprise me if at least one of them embarked on a major winning streak to get themselves right back in the playoff mix. Just because these sides aren’t in playoff positions now, that’s no reason for them to give up on being there in September.
Of course, the other major reason for this logjam is the improvement seen in many other clubs. For Hull FC this is essentially a return to the norm (although they’ve started slipping), and Hull KR and Wakefield are also following natural progressions of sorts. The three real big improvers have been Harlequins, Huddersfield and Castleford, who have all at points looked like genuine challengers (and at other points looked like great pretenders). What’s also really good for the competition is that these sides all seem capable of beating each other (Harlequins have beaten Hull who have beaten Huddersfield who have beaten Wigan who have beaten Harlequins) home and away, and if this continues it should in turn produce a greater intensity in the competition.
I’m not quite going to declare this “the most exciting and open Super League season ever!!!” just yet, because I’m still pretty confident that we’re going to get a Leeds-Saints Grand Final at the minute. What the competition now needs is for one of these teams in the chasing peloton to catch up and challenge the big boys. It’s all well and good having a balanced season, but if it still produces the same result then it’s not as interesting after all. It’s good for Super League if there is a high level of competitiveness, but it’s much better for the competition if that even spread of challengers is at the top and not the middle. We’ll see in the next few months which of these pretenders will be up to the challenge…
I believe the phrase to describe my picks last week is BOOYAH! Goddamn Harlequins and their crazy rebounding ability was the only thing that stopped me getting a clean sweep (I even got the margin right for that game, but alas I picked the wrong team). After the previous week’s minor meltdown, this was a more-than-adequate recovery.
Results: 28 / 48 (58.3%)
Margins 1 / 48 (2.1%)