There are just five weeks remaining in the NRL season, and virtually every game this weekend will have finals ramifications. This is The Roar’s NRL expert tips and predictions for Round 21.
The domestic season in the southern hemisphere might be done and dusted, but we’re only just getting to the business end of what has been a bizarre season in the English Super League.
Having begun the season with the hype surrounding the Sonny Bill Williams-led Toronto Wolfpack’s inclusion, the competition has faced considerable obstacles posed by COVID-19, with Toronto and Hull KR unable to complete the season and numerous other fixtures either postponed or cancelled altogether.
Without the considerably deeper financial coffers of the NRL, the Super League hasn’t been able to keep its players inside a bubble for the season and has had to contend with various COVID outbreaks among its sides. This has seen multiple revisions to the finals series, with the COVID outbreak at Hull KR being the final straw, forcing the league’s hand to abandon its final two rounds and expand the playoffs to six teams.
With Leeds and Warrington knocked out in the elimination round, here’s a look at the four that are left.
Catalans will make their first appearance in a grand final qualifier since 2014, coincidentally against the victors on that occasion, St Helens. Catalans are perhaps the most unlikely of the final four. Their season has been kept afloat by owner Bernard Guasch digging deep into his own pockets to fund charter flights between England and France for his team.
Having played only 13 matches this season – four fewer than their rivals – and just two in the last five weeks, the Dragons have benefited considerably from the league’s decision to determine the standings on win percentages, particularly after racking up some hefty wins over stragglers Hull KR and Wakefield Trinity to see out the season.
The French side boasts a back line sprinkled with NRL experience with the likes of Israel Folau, James Maloney, David Mead and Sam Tomkins, and they field a monster forward pack headed by human wrecking ball Sam Kasiano. However, they will be sweating over judiciary hearings involving two of its players, with Michael McIlorum and Joel Tomkins both facing eight-game suspensions following incidents in their win over Leeds.
To become the first non-English side to lift the Super League trophy Steve MacNamara’s side will need to find a way to get past competition heavyweights Wigan and St Helens, both of which posted comfortable wins over Catalans during the season.
Meanwhile, Hull FC secured a semi-finals spot after surprising the more-fancied Warrington Wolves in their elimination final 27-14 off the back of a masterclass from halfback Marc Sneyd, who ended the night with three try assists. Hull FC has had a mixed season, starting the competition with high expectations which they only sporadically lived up to, eventually leading to coach Lee Radford being unceremoniously dumped minutes after a drubbing at the hands of Leeds just before the season shut down.
Hull FC continued their hot and cold run after the resumption of the competition while contending with a COVID outbreak in August that saw nine players return positive tests. However, Hull managed to string together three straight wins at the tail end of the season to squeak into an elimination playoff in sixth spot.
The Warriors will be desperate to exorcise the ghosts of their 2019 playoffs exit at the hands of Salford when they come up against Hull FC. One of the architects of that defeat, Jackson Hastings, will be lining up this time for Adrian Lam’s side in the halves, having shown some stellar form on the run into the finals. He has been well supported by fellow Australian Bevan French, whose fine form has seen him score ten tries in ten games since the resumption of the competition, along with strike options Liam Marshall, Zak Hardaker and Joe Burgess.
In case the Warriors needed any more motivation, they will be looking to help 457-game veteran Sean O’Loughlin bow out with a championship, returning for the finals after spending much of 2020 on the sidelines.
Wigan find themselves in the box seat coming into the finals after winning eight of their last ten matches to take out the minor premiership, their only major blemish being a 42-0 drubbing at the hands of St Helens, which was atoned for in the return clash last month 18-6.
The Warriors will fancy their chances against Hull FC after comfortably knocking them out of the Challenge Cup 36-4 in September.
St Helens, the 2019 champions, will be entering the playoffs aiming to be the first Saints outfit to go back to back since 2000 and will also be seeking to send favourite son James Graham out a winner following a midseason return from the NRL. Should St Helens reach the final, Graham will be desperate not to add to his horror streak in Super League deciders, having tasted defeat in the last five that he’s played in.
The Saints come into the finals in second position on the ladder. Kristian Woolf’s side resumed the competition after the COVID-enforced break by winning ten of their first 11 matches, but they were brought back to earth with consecutive losses to Wigan and Salford to see out the regular season.
Friday’s clash with Catalans will mark their first outing in three weeks, which could well leave them ripe for an ambush from a Dragons side coming off a confidence-boosting win over Leeds. Saints will be wary of this, having been shocked before by Catalans at their last elimination clash at the semi-final stage of the 2018 Challenge Cup, defeated 35-16.
History and the form guide would suggest a Wigan vs St Helens decider, but after such a disrupted and unpredictable season, another twist at the final hurdle would hardly surprise.