TRANS-TASMAN PREVIEWS | We've got a look over and made our picks for the opening night of the rep ro...
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Superleague moves into the second half of the season on what is a Bank Holiday (long) weekend here in England. The battle for top six play-off places begins in earnest, as does the battle to avoid potential relegation at the other end of the table.
Friday night?s televised game sees the Bradford Bulls host the Leeds Rhinos at Odsal. Bradford will be desperate to appease their home fans after putting in what could only be described as a poor showing in last weekend?s Challenge Cup tie against St Helens. Second rower Brett Ferres put pen to paper mid-week to remain at Bradford until the end of 2008. And Brian Smith is now on board for a short-term voluntary consultancy, so this game will show whether his presence can help the Bulls fortunes at all. Mid-week Leeds fans learned that fullback Richie Matthers is leaving the club to ply his trade for the Gold Coast, and there is also conjecture over the future of GB International Chev Walker next season. After a comfortable victory against lower division Rochdale last weekend, the Rhinos will be looking to increase the intensity in this clash to score a vital win.
Saturday night?s televised game will be coming from the JJB Stadium where Wigan host St Helens. On current form this should be the greatest of mis-matches, pitting the competition leaders against the cellar-dwellers. There is talk that St Helens may rest International half Sean Long who has been unable to train with the side, and may go into the game with teenager Scott Moore at scrum half. Centre Willie Talau agreed to terms mid-week that will see him staying a Saint until the end of 2008. This is a derby game with a longstanding rivalry between the clubs, so if Wigan are ever going to lift this season you?d think it would be for this match. But after being knocked out of the Challenge Cup by Salford last weekend, Wigan?s confidence must be at an all time low and this clash probably won?t help matters.
Also on Saturday evening, Les Catalans host Wakefield in Perpignan, in what should be Stacey Jones? comeback game for the Dragons. The French side were too good for lower division Widnes in their Challenge Cup tie last weekend, which also saw replacement halfback Michael Dobson leave the club with a Man of the Match award in his final game. It will be all systems go for Catalans with their main playmaker back on board, in front of what should be a healthy home crowd. But Wakefield will be fresh following their weekend off having already been knocked out of Cup competition, and have recent re-signed forward Duncan MacGillvray for another two seasons.
In the first of Sunday?s games Warrington host Castleford, but will be without club captain Paul Rauhihi who has been ruled out for three months with a back injury. With forward Rob Parker also yet to return from injury the Wolves could be vulnerable up front. Castleford unsuccessfully tried to secure Michael Dobson after his stint with Catalans finished, but will be left to persist with 38-year old veteran Brad Davis as their scrum half. Castleford are another team that will be fresh after a weekend off, but Warrington have the in-from Lee Briers guiding their side around the park, and following a comfortable win over lower division Whitehaven will be looking to put these competition points in the bank.
Also on Sunday, Hull host "giant-killers" Huddersfield ? the only team to beat St Helens so far this season. Hull have been slowly returning to form with six league wins on the trot, and will be fresh after not having played Challenge Cup last weekend. Huddersfield have also been more impressive of late, scoring wins over St Helens and Salford, as well as a Challenge Cup win over lower division York last start. This game should be a real tussle with the two points vital for both teams.
Finally on Holiday Monday, Salford close the round hosting Harlequins at The Willows. The Londoners will be getting nervous as they are closest to relegation danger if Wigan suddenly regain some form. Mark McLinden has re-signed for another three seasons mid-week, and may make his return from injury in this game. Last weekend Harlequins put 82 points on lower division opposition to progress in the Challenge Cup, but this week will be a different story. Salford haven?t been true to their high-flying early season form of late, with losses to Castleford and Huddersfield in the past month. Other sides are waiting for the Reds to be the team to drop out of finals contention, leaving an opportunity for them to creep into the top six. But their destiny is in their own hands and the rest of their season starts here?
Competition Table (after 14 rounds):
St Helens 26