Super League enters its final round with a big question unanswered - who will finish top of the table?
The prize is the league leaders’ shield, or the hubcap as it has derivatively been dubbed by some fans, usually of clubs who have done bigger and better things than finish 1st.
Fans of some other sports have a hard time understanding why, after a gruelling league season, the team finishing top of the table isn’t crowned champions, even opinion within rugby league is divided on the issue.
But the Grand Final, held at Old Trafford, and the play-offs add interest to the end of the campaign, and most importantly, revenue.
The two teams who can finish top are St Helens, for whom failure to secure it would represent an embarrassment given they’ve been the only club in real contention for it for several weeks, and Castleford, 2014’s success story.
The shield’s status in the game is perhaps best represented by these two clubs - one, in St Helens, a four-time Super League champion, who’s fans are still calling for coach Nathan Brown’s head, despite the fact they’ve been ahead of everybody else for much of the campaign; and the other in the shape of Castleford, who were being talked of as a relegation candidate in pre-season. It will undoubtedly matter more to Castleford, just as it did to Huddersfield last season, when the Giants won it for the first time.
Warrington are perhaps the best example of how a change in a club’s fortunes can determine it’s attitude to the shield. In 2011, the Wolves were in dreamland, finishing top of the tree, securing a notable trophy for many a year, and making a big deal of succeeding in what had been a see-saw battle to claim first place, ultimately sealed by a decisive victory over nearest challengers Wigan.
But Tony Smith’s side then went on to fail in the Super League play-offs, and spent the close season mulling over what was represented as a failure.
The season after, finishing first was not on the top of Smith’s agenda - instead, he wanted to get his team in a position where they could make a real push for the Grand Final. While they’ve not won it yet, they’ve reached Old Trafford in both seasons since.
Another of rugby league’s quirks, the presence of a French team in its top flight, means that the two decisive games on the final weekend take place on different days.
St Helens can secure top spot if they avoid defeat against Huddersfield away on Friday night, while Castleford will be primed and waiting to pounce when they travel to Perpignan to play Catalan Dragons on Saturday.
With the recent announcement of the World Club Series, involving three teams each from both Super League and the NRL, finishing top has the prize of being included in that groundbreaking tournament. The play-offs kick-off in the NRL this weekend, with the eventual Grand Final winners set to join Brisbane Broncos and South Sydney Rabbitohs in the tournament set to take place in the UK next February.