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And then there were six? welcome to the business end of the season. This weekend sees the opening clashes in the Superleague play-offs with four teams facing the prospect of elimination, while the two highest ranked teams (St Helens and Hull) have earned themselves a weekend of rest. The top six will soon become the final four ? game on!
Friday: Leeds Rhinos v Warrington Wolves
8pm at Headingley Stadium
Third place v sixth place, loser eliminated
This is the first season since 2002 where Leeds has not finished in the top two on the competition ladder. However they will take hope from the feats of Bradford last season, who from third position ended up Champions. By comparison the Leeds squad looks a little weaker in some places than in previous years, and they enter the finals with injured first choice fullback Richard Mathers, and regular bench forward Willie Poching.
Warrington made it through to the second week last season with the talents of Andrew Johns at their disposal, and will be looking to match that achievement with the current squad. Ten of their 20-man squad played alongside Joey in last season?s play-offs, but they too start their finals campaign without injured first choice fullback Brett Grose, hooker or loose forward Jon Clarke and prop Mark Hilton.
This should be a fast-paced game owing to the creativity of both sides, but with some good forward clashes as well. Keep an eye out for Dream Team second rower Leeds? Gareth Ellis, but the match-up that may well decide the result is in the halves where Dream Team five-eighth Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow square off against Salford?s Chris Bridge and Lee Briers. Lee Briers has had a mid-week meeting with Great Britain coach Brian Noble, and will be desperate to use this last chance to try and force his way onto the Tri-Nations tour.
Leeds Rhinos 20-man squad: Donald, Walker, Senior, Smith, McGuire, Burrow, Bailey, Diskin, Peacock, Lauitiiti, Ellis, Sinfield, Millard, Jones-Buchanan, Scruton, Kirke, Williams, Tansey, Thackray, Toopi. Coach: Tony Smith (Aus).
Warrington Wolves 20-man squad: Fa'afili, Mn. Gleeson, Kohe-Love, Reardon, Briers, Sullivan, Leikvoll, Swann, Wainwright, Mk. Gleeson, Westwood, Wood, Barnett, Parker, Rauhihi, Pickersgill, Riley, Bridge, Harrison, Penny. Coach: Paul Cullen.
Referee: R Silverwood
Leeds last five games: LWWLW
Warrington last five games: LWLWL
Round 26: Leeds 54 Warrington 16 at Headingley
Round 12: Warrington 44 Leeds 16 at Halliwell Jones
Bart?s tip: Leeds by 12.
Saturday: Bradford Bulls v Salford City Reds
6pm at Grattan Stadium
Fourth place v fifth place, loser eliminated
The reigning Champions won their way through from sudden death last season, so that prospect alone won?t be causing too much concern in the Bulls camp. And at least their topsy-turvy patches of form during the season may have been put right with a confident win last start under pressure against Huddersfield. The Bulls look to be at full strength for their finals campaign with no major injury problems.
Salford by contrast are competing in their first ever Superleague play-off, and have achieved a long held ambition under coach Karl Harrison to make the top six. However the Reds won?t want to let things stop there, and having contested a tight match at home against Bradford in June will fancy themselves every chance of winning here. The only regular players missing from the squad for the start of the finals are the injured second rower Ian Sibbit and centre Junior Langi.
The hard-working Salford side are likely to look to restrict the creative opportunities of Bradford, and in a close game are more than capable of getting a roll on their opposition. Bradford will be likely to try and dominate the ruck area and then quicken the pace of the game and the score line in their favour. Some key match ups will be hookers Terry Newton and Ian Henderson up against Salford?s Malcolm Auker, Bradford halves Iestyn Harris and Paul Deacon battling with Andrew Dunemann and Luke Robinson, and keep an eye out for danger man and Dream Team winger Salford?s David Hodgson.
Bradford Bulls 20-man squad: Johnson, Burgess, Meyers, Cook, I. Harris, Bai, Pryce, St Hilaire, B. Harris, Langley, Newton, Ferres, Deacon, Vagana, Vainikolo, Hape, McKenna, Withers, Lynch, Henderson. Coach: Steve MacNamara.
Salford City Reds 20-man squad: Fitzpatrick, Hodgson, McGuinness, Moule, Dunemann, Robinson, Coley, Alker, Rutgerson, Finnigan, Charles, Highton, Wilshere, Haggerty, Littler, Brocklehurst, Adamson, Lima, Williams, Turner. Coach: Karl Harrison.
Referee: A Klein
Bradford last five games: LWLLW
Salford last five games: WLLWL
Round 19: Salford 17 Bradford 16 at The Willows
Round 3: Bradford 34 Salford 4 at Odsal (Grattan) Stadium
Bart?s tip: Bradford by 8.
Both games shown live in the UK on Sky Sports 3.
Both games shown live in NZ on Sky Sport 2 (Sat 6:50 am) and Sky Sport 1 (Sun 4:50 am).
Both games shown delayed in Australia on Friday 29 September (TBC) on Fox Sports.
Leeds v Warrington covered live through BBC Radio Leeds: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/aod/leeds.shtml