Monday Musings: What Big Four?

A few years ago people used to go on about the monotony of the Big Four. It was considered a concern that St Helens, Leeds Rhinos, Bradofrd Bulls and Wigan Warriors were basically contesting all the trophies between themselves, and the remaining sides in Super League seemed like an afterthought. From 1998 to 2004, those four sides finished in the top five every time, made the playoffs, and in four of those seasons were actuallt the top four sides in the League. From 2000 to 2004 every spot in either the Grand Final or the Challenge Cup Final was taken by one of these four sides, and in the Super League era only five spots in a final have been taken up by a side not in the Big Four. People wondered if one of the chasing pack would ever catch up and chase down the sides that continually shared out the top spots between themselves…

This last weekend, both Saints and Bradford ended up losing games to sides against which they were generally favoured. Wigan managed to scrape by against a side that they would also have been expected to beat when the season began, and that was after three straight defeats against sides who finished below them last season. On top of that there are quite a few sides who appear to have made significant strides forward this season, with Castleford, Huddersfield and Hull KR already having beaten Big Four sides this season. All of which makes one wonder: is the Big Four finally breaking down?

Of course, the Big Four has been dead for a while anyway. It’s now a Big Two, possibly even a Big One.

Firstly Wigan fell into their steepest decline for a significant length of time, and their three years straight (2005-7) outside the top five was the longest any of the Big Four have spent that low in the table. They are also the only one of the Big Four in the Grand Final era to not make the playoffs (twice, in 2005 and 2006). Although they had dragged themselves back into the playoffs in the past two seasons, and have made it to the week before the Grand Final each time, they have been well off the pace in the regular season.

Bradford haven’t been to a Grand Final since 2005, and have been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in each of the last two seasons. Not entirely coincidentally, the likes of Leon Pryce, Stuart Fielden, Lesley Vainikolo, Shontayne Hape and Brian Noble have all left the club in that time. They simply haven’t got the imtimidating prescence that led them to five consecutive Grand Finals any more, and with a draw against Hull KR and and defeat to the Giants at home already this season, you have to think there’s every possibility that they’ve fallen back into the chasing pack.

Meanwhile, for the past two seasons Leeds and St Helens have shared the trophies between them. Saints have of course won the Challenge Cup for the past three years straight and the League Leader’s Shield for the past four. In the past five seasons Leeds have contested four of the five Grand Finals, winning three of them. St Helens have contested the past three Grand Finals winning one (against Hull FC in 2006, the only time a non Big Four side have made it to Old Trafford). Both would be strong favourites at this stage to meet at Old Trafford again.

I suspect that Leeds would be favourites to win that Grand Final. After all, they have won both of the last two Finals and done so in a fairly convincing manner. A worrying narrative emerging this season is how Leeds are winning games without seemingly getting out of second gear. It’s all well and good developing a sembelance of parity in the middle of the pack, but if no one is going to challenge the top team then what’s the point? Leeds have been having it their own way far too much and they haven’t needed to improve too much or be at their best to find themselves top of the table.

It’s not good for the British game if one team dominates too much to the point that they don’t even bother. It’s important that they get challeneged to make sure that they keep playing at a high intensity. It’s not the same sort of situation as Wigan’s dominance in the late 80s / early 90s either, as they provided a proportionally higher level of professionalism that Leeds don’t provide at the minute.

If Leeds aren’t challenged then they’re just going to stagnate, and as the World Club Challenge showed a stagnant Leeds simply aren’t a top class side. At the very least, I think the champion side should have to show their class. It’s early days yet, nobody wants to see a full league season turn into a procession, which it’s in danger of turning into unless some teams start improving and challenging the Rhinos.

So, will another side fill the void and challenge Saints and Leeds? There are a lot of sides that I would group as ‘Challengers’ – they have the potential to beat any other side on their day but I’m not convinced that they can go all the way. This includes the likes of Catalan Dragons, Huddersfield, and Hull FC. Indeed, the Airlie Birds have a decent argument for being included in a Big Five – they have been in two Challenge Cup finals in the past four years, winning one, and have also made a Grand Final in that time, and have been in the top three on three occasions since 2001 (with another top four finish in 2007). Only their lack of a Grand Final victory and their abysmal showing last season really keep them out, and their performances this year would indicate that they should be amongst the pick of the challengers this year.

Crystal Ball-watch

Aha! I’ve finally broken 50% with a pretty solid showing this weekend, and if I’d placed more trust in Huddersfield I would’ve had a damn successful weekend (I never saw Hull Kr’s win coming).I was also so horrbily close to getting the scores right in both the FC-Catalans and the Quins-Wigan games (turns out I know the Quins only too well).

Results: 11/21 (52.4%)

Margins 1/21 (4.8%)

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