Rugby League Play-Offs

Leeds Rhinos have won the Grand Final for the last two years without heading the Super League table at the end of the regular season. Sydney Roosters are favourites to win the equivalent in the NRL as campaigns in the major rugby league competitions in England and Australia reach a critical stage of the play-offs.

Huddersfield Giants finished top of the table at the end of the regular season, their first such finish at the top level for 81 years, but the bookmakers have them as outsiders to win the Grand Final at Old Trafford. One of the features of the play-offs is that one side is allowed to choose their semi-final opponents, depending on their position in the league and results in the play-offs to date. Warrington have named Huddersfield as their opponents at the semi-final stage.

Wolves coach Tony Smith has been a critic of the contentious ClubCall ‘gimmick’ devised by the Rugby Football League and decided not to attend the event at the club’s stadium. However he was part of the four man panel made up of key personnel at the club that decided to play Huddersfield in the next stage of the competition. Smith may disapprove of the concept but he is the main beneficiary this season.

Warrington’s win over Leeds last week earned them a home semi-final against Huddersfield who eliminated Hull FC in the first of the preliminary semi-finals. Wigan play at home in the second semi-final against Leeds, the side that the Warrington executive chose to avoid. Leeds have proven they have the mentality to be successful in the play-offs and it was no surprise that Warrington decided to swerve them in the last stage before the Grand Final.

Warrington are 6/4 to win the Grand Final for the first time following a regular season in which they were a place and point behind Huddersfield. There has been something of a reformation at the club as increased investment has led to better results on the field. Warrington lost to Leeds in last season’s Grand Final but have proven during the regular season that they are a match for any other side in the league.

The concept of a post-season play-off series and Grand Final is based on the Australian model. The sport of rugby league was transformed by the involvement of Sky, the company that introduced summer rugby and developed television referrals to decide on debatable key situations. Television money has improved stadia and funded the lucrative end of season fixture.

Leeds have won the Grand Final more times than any of their contemporaries. It took them until 2004 to first win the season decider but since then they have had another five Grand Final winning seasons. Indeed, since 2007 only Wigan in 2010 have broken the Leeds monopoly. They have the experience to play at their best in elimination matches, though this season’s play-off campaign started badly with that loss to Warrington.

In four of the last six years the Grand Final has been contested by Leeds and St Helens. The Merseyside club finished the regular season in first place from 2007 to 2011 inclusive but never pushed on to win the Grand Final over that spell. They were the second biggest priced of the six sides still in contention with only Hull quoted at greater odds.

One of the key players for Leeds over the last six years has been Danny Maguire, the record try scorer in Super League history. He played for the club’s academy and has been a regular in the first team since 2001. Maguire is also a regular for England and Great Britain. His loyalty to his home town club mirrors that of Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, the difference being that Maguire has helped his side win the Grand Final several times while Gerrard still awaits his first Premier League title with Liverpool.

Leeds are the Manchester United of rugby league and their status as the glamour side of the sport in Britain is reflected in the list of notable supporters that includes Wayne Rooney, Russell Crowe, Sue Barker, Clare Balding and Boris Becker. Leeds have won the World Club Challenge three times in their history, most recently in 2012 when they beat Manly from the NRL.

Since 2008 Leeds are the only non-Australian side to win the World Club Challenge. Over that spell they only failed to qualify in 2011 but have lost three finals, once to Manly and twice to Melbourne Storm, the side that beat them in the 2013 renewal. The decider between the best side from the Super League and NRL has been played in Leeds in every year since 2008, except two year ago when the DW Stadium in Wigan staged the match.

The annual match played between the champion clubs from Australian and Great Britain, plus Catalan Dragons, was first played in 1976 but did not became a regular fixture until the late 1980s. To date only English and Australian sides have competed in the World Club Challenge. On current form and Grand Final pedigree the next renewal in 2014 is projected to involve Leeds and Sydney Roosters.

The Sydney club finished the regular season at the head of the table in Australia, but only on point’s difference from their city rivals, South Sydney Rabbitohs. Melbourne Storm finished just three points off the pace but underachieved badly when losing to Newcastle at home in the play-off. The visitors have more players aged 30 in their squad than any other side in the NRL but that experience proved to be a key factor against Melbourne

Leeds played against perennial Grand Final rivals St Helens two weeks ago and the bookmakers made them six point favourites. St Helens finished two places and six points behind Leeds in the regular season but lost the match by just one point. Leeds looked to have a tough route to the Grand Final but on recent evidence they can qualify to play at Old Trafford where they can set up another World Club Challenge against the best side from Australia.

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