The 2018 #NRL Pre-Season is just about locked in.
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It's a Bank Holiday long weekend in England, and Super League games for this round are spread across four days. With next week's bye for the playing of the Challenge Cup knockout final at Wembley Stadium, there will only be one round of games to play after that. So Round 26 should go a long way toward sorting out placing and match-ups for the play-offs.
Which fans will be cheering? And which fans will be burying their heads and hoping for next season? Let's take a look at this weekend's action...
Friday night kicks off with Hull FC v Harlequins at KC Stadium is a game that is for pride only. Technically the London-based Harlequins can still finish equal 6th if other results go their way, but with such a poor points differential they won't be seing any play-off action. And Hull will of course be focussed on their Cup Final appearance next weekend, and are yet to beat Harlequins so far this year.
The televised game for Friday night is the much more enticing Wigan v Leeds match at JJB Stadium. Leeds need a win to keep in touch with St Helens and retain any hope of finishing on top of the table, while Wigan are wrapped in a battle with Warrington for fourth place and a home play-off. Trent Barrett is back in the Wigan squad and fullback Richard Mathers has avoided suspension, but Pat Richards and Phil Bailey are out for the Warriors. Leeds are without the injured forwards Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Ryan Bailey as well as winger Scott Donald, and have promoted youngsters Kallum Watkins and Simon Worrell to their 19 man squad.
Saturday night's game is Catalans v Wakefield from Perpignan. The French side are in third place with no chance of finishing any lower and guaranteed a home play-off, but little chance of progressing to second spot at the expense of Leeds. Like Harlequins, Wakefield can finish equal sixth if other results go their way, but their poor points differential means there will be no play-offs for the Wildcats. Catalans have a lot of injured players on the sidelines, including David Ferriol, Alex Chan, Casey Maguire, Remi Casty, Jason Croker and Cyril Gossard. The Dragons will also be without suspended Jamil Fakir, and will be resting Gregory Mounis who has played every game this season. Wakefield have now lost eight games on the trot.
Sunday afternoon's match sees Huddersfield host St Helens in a game that could guarantee Saints the title of League Winners (minor premiers) for the fourth year running. Ahead of their Challenge Cup final appearance at Wembley Stadium next weekend, this should be a good momentum builder for Daniel Anderson's team, though it remains to be seen whether he names his top available side or chooses to rest some players. On the back of last week's free entry and announcement of cheap season tickets, Huddersfield will be at least hoping for a reasonable return home crowd for this game.
Sunday night's televised match is Castleford v Warrington from the Jungle. Coming off a big loss to Leeds and With no relegation to worry about, the Tigers will be playing to try and at least draw even on the table with their nearest opponents Hull, while Warrington need a win to stay ahead of Wigan in the battle for fourth place and a home play-off. The Wolves conceded 18 points in the final eight minutes to lose at home to Hull KR last week, and badly need to bounce back here for the sack of momentum. During the week Warrington re-signed Paul Rauhihi for one year as well as taking up options to keep Chris Riley, Steve Pickersgill and Mike Cooper, while Castleford have signed Cowboy Sione Faumuina for 2009.
Finally, Round 26 comes to a close on Monday afternoon with the Bradford v Hull KR match at Grattan Stadium. Both teams are still alive in the battle for sixth place, and a win for the Bulls will see them wrap up the final play-off spot. Hull KR, fresh off that comeback win against Warrington, could put all the pressure on Bradford here with a win, forcing the Bulls to wait a fortnight and win over Castleford away to take their place in the final six. Last week Bradford put Hull FC through the wringer, and will be hoping for a good home send off for Joe Vagana who announced his impending retirement this week.