Wolves to prey on play-off rivals
Jordan Fiddes and Nigel Askham analyse the sides bidding for Super League glory ahead of this season's play-offs, which get under way this week.
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The Super League play-offs get under way this week as the top eight sides from the regular season firmly fix their sights on reaching the Grand Final at Old Trafford on October 5.
Huddersfield are 7/2 with Sky Bet to be crowned champions after clinching the league leaders' shield as they prepare to host Wigan in the opening fixture on Thursday night, with both sides knowing that victory will take them straight to the semi-finals at the end of the month.
But it is Warrington who are Sky Bet's 2/1 favourites to emerge from the play-offs triumphant ahead of what promises to be a thrilling clash with 5/2 second favourites Leeds on Saturday.
Here, our Jordan Fiddes and Nigel Askham look at each club and assess their chances of going the distance at the business end of the season.
Regular season finish: 7th
The inconsistent Dragons represent the biggest challenge for the bookies in setting their odds for this year's play-offs.
Most alarming is their form away from France where they have managed just three Super League victories but they still represent a threat to the big guns.
They begin their campaign with a visit to Hull and look well capable of making progress with their array of attacking talent boosted by the return of Kiwi full-back Brett Webb who played such a big role in the Rhinos domination of the competition.
Then the true tests will come and this side has made a habit of disappointing on the big occasion and they will need to show far more steel to buck that trend.
Key Man: Scott Dureau - The Aussie scrum-half has had a disrupted season through injury but is happily restored to his pivotal role in the side. His game management skills are crucial to the Dragons chances of creating some upsets.
Prediction: One win but then au revoir for the year
Regular season finish: Winners
The Giants pulled on everyone's heart strings this year and it's a real fairy-tale that they scooped the League Leaders Shield in 2013.
After last year's horrendous slump in form, many predicted the same this year but, the Fartown club have been very well coached by Paul Anderson and played fantastic rugby throughout the 2013 campaign.
There are, of course, a few people seeing the top place finish as their ultimate achievement but coach Anderson and chairman Ken Davy are keeping their feet firmly on the ground, insisting that Grand Final glory is their decisive goal.
The Giants have maintained great form since day one - when they beat St Helens 40-4 - and clinched the Shield with a 40-0 victory over Wakefield in round 26.
If Huddersfield are to complete a historic night at Old Trafford they will need all their key men firing - especially hooker Shaun Lunt and prop Eorl Crabtree.
Key Man: Danny Brough - The front-runner for the Man of Steel award, much of the Giants' success has come from Brough's boot and tactical awareness. Whether he can continue that into the intensive play-off season is unknown but many will hope so.
Prediction: Defeat in the Grand Final
Regular season finish: 6th
Hull were tipped to be one of the big improvers this season especially after the capture of Gareth Ellis on his return from the NRL.
But he was injured in the warm-up of the first game of the season at Headingley and has had pretty limited impact overall despite their charge to the Challenge Cup final.
Their performance in a Wembley defeat by Wigan summed their season up. They showed what they are capable of with a stunning semi-final success over Grand Final favourites Warrington but when push came to shove they were well off the pace in the final.
Seasonal highlights have been the emergence of young three-quarters Ben Crooks and Tom Lineham and the consistency of Richard Whiting but too often they have appeared to lack direction from half-back where Daniel Holdsworth has had his injury problems.
They will hope that their liking for knock-out rugby this season will provide the spark to overcome a Dragons side over whom they completed a league double.
But they are sweating on the fitness of six players including skipper Eliis, key yardage man Andy Lynch and Crooks and this hurdle may prove just one too many for their weary squad.
Key Man: Danny Houghton -The 24-year hooker has been really left his mark on the campaign and is a decent shout for a World Cup call-up. Hull need him at his very best to progress past Catalans.
Prediction: Early exit
Regular season finish: 8th
The Robins will have to do it tough should they make it to Old Trafford this year and, given their late season form, it's looking even less likely.
Craig Sandercock's men lost five of their last six games to take the final spot in the play-offs.
They can take confidence from the fact that they face St Helens first and have beaten them twice throughout this year's campaign though.
The Robins have had a mixed season, but their real push for the play-offs started in June when they defeated table-toppers Huddersfield, Catalans and the Saints to name but a few.
While they do remain huge outsiders with Sky Bet to lift the trophy in the Grand Final, they can boast that they have beaten seven of the remaining eight clubs during the 2013 campaign, all against the odds.
Key Man: Michael Dobson - Leaving at the end of the season, the Robins playmaker will want to go out on a high and improve on their last play-off appearance when they lost 56-6 to Catalan.
Prediction: Falling at the first hurdle
Regular season finish: 3rd
The current Super League Champions managed their highest league finish since 2009 (when they won the League Leaders Shield) this year and there is a sense of optimism coming from the Headingley club.
Not only did they finish the season with seven wins in their last eight fixtures but they have welcomed back key men to their starting line-up over the final few months.
Danny McGuire returned from a broken leg in the victory over fellow play-off entrants Catalans - scoring a try - and had a huge influence in the impressive victory at Wigan in the final league game.
Also returning last week were forwards Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Brett Delaney who have been out since June and July respectively.
With all the experience of winning five of the last six Grand Finals, expect the Rhinos to take some scalps in the play-offs, however, their results against Huddersfield - losing to them three times this year - are a worry and they could meet in the semi-finals.
Key Man: Jamie Peacock - The 35 year-old prop has made more metres than anyone else in Super League this season and has the experience of winning five Grand Final rings with the Rhinos.
Prediction: Charge halted in the semi-finals
Regular season finish: 5th
Saints under new coach Nathan Brown have had a very poor season by their standards but can still threaten those heading the betting.
Injuries have played havoc with their season and they just haven't enough continuity especially in the key roles of half-back and hooker.
The return of James Roby after a lengthy absence with ankle trouble is potentially a massive one but he will need to get up to speed pretty quickly.
Brown's men should still have too much for a Hull KR on Saturday but beyond that they will need to really raise their game in terms of fluency to get the best from potential match winners Jonny Lomax, Willie Manu and Sia Soliola.
Key Man: James Roby - It's virtually impossible to overstate his importance to the Saints side.. At his best he's probably the most influential player in Super League but fitness must be a concern after so long on the sidelines.
Prediction: First round success but then disappointment
Regular season finish: 2nd
Even coach Tony Smith would probably admit they haven't hit the heights of last season but that might work in their favour as they could have more left in the tank.
Their Challenge Cup final success over Leeds last term left them drained of energy this time last year and, although they had enough to reach their first Old Trafford final, they were below par against the Rhinos.
They clash again with Leeds on Saturday at the Halliwell Jones and will be going all out to take the shortest possible route to the Theatre of Dreams.
The Wolves look well equipped to go one better this year especially if they have learned from last season's experience when their desire to entertain sometimes got the better of them.
An extra motivation comes too with Adrian Morley and Brett Hodgson looking to go out on a high after agreeing to join Salford next season while 35-year-old Lee Briers is also running out of chances to land the ultimate domestic prize.
Key Man: Lee Briers - The Wolves have plenty of match winners but the glue that binds it all together is the veteran half-back. Watch out for his measured kicking, especially for towering winger Joel Monaghan.
Prediction: Wolves to bite back after last season's final disappointment and lift the Super League trophy.
Regular season finish: 4th
Although winning the Challenge Cup last month was a huge achievement, the Warriors have suffered a form-slump in Super League befitting that of Huddersfield's last year.
Lying top of the tree at the end of May, Shaun Wane's men were sitting pretty and earning plaudits from all directions.
Since then, however, they have lost seven of their last nine games and drifted from 13/8 into 7/2 in only a matter of months.
Key personnel have missed large amounts of the season and they were comprehensively beaten by Leeds in the final round.
You can never write off Wigan and, with a fourth place finish, they'll get another chance at the final if they lose at Huddersfield.
In saying that, the loss of skipper Sean O'Loughlin for the play-offs may be costly and expect them to suffer in the semi-finals.
Key Man: Matty Smith - It's hard to ignore Sam Tomkins' influence on Wigan but, with O'Loughlin missing, the Cherry and Whites will need someone to lead them around the park. Smith did that in the Challenge Cup Final and could do the same in the play-offs.
Prediction: No double for the Warriors
Full Play-Off Schedule:
(Regular season finishing position in brackets)
Winners through to week three, losers into week two
Thursday September 12
Huddersfield (1) v Wigan (4)
Saturday September 14
Warrington (2) v Leeds (3)
Winners through to week two, losers eliminated
Friday September 13
St Helens (5) v Hull RK (8)
Saturday September 14
Hull FC (6) v Catalan Dragons (7)
Thursday/Friday September 19/20
Winners through to week three and ClubCall, losers eliminated
Preliminary Semi-Final 1
Highest-ranked QPO loser v Lowest-ranked EPO winner
Preliminary Semi-Final 2
Lowest-ranked QPO loser v Highest-ranked EPO winner
Thursday/Friday September 26/27
Winners through to Grand Final, losers eliminated
Qualifying Semi-Final 1
Highest-ranked QPO winner v ClubCall selected team
Qualifying Semi-Final 2
Second-ranked QPO winner v non-ClubCall selected team
Saturday October 5
Winner QSF 1 v Winner QSF 2