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Superleague Round 26 Preview
Three weeks to go before the play-offs and with the Challenge Cup safely in the St Helens trophy cabinet, teams are jostling for position at the top and bottom of the table, and players are now desperate to impress and earn representative spots. As this weekend marks the 100 year anniversary of rugby league being played with 13 players instead of 15, here are six more 13-a-side matches to get your teeth into. Game on!
Friday: Wigan v Bradford at JJB Stadium ? televised There?s a lot to like about this clash. Two teams that have been in good form over the past month, and of course the intrigue that surrounds Brian Noble and Stuart Fielden?s first clash with their former club having left Bradford only a few months ago. Will the Bulls be looking to let their performance do the talking about how they felt about the mid-season shenanigans? Will Wigan be able to score the win to help ensure they stay safe from the relegation drop? Hooker Terry Newton returns to the Bradford side after injury and will be keen to display his credentials for the vacant Tri-Nations hooking spot, while Brett Dallas returns from injury for Wigan to add some extra strike power out wide in the wake of Kris Radlinski?s retirement. My tip: A draw - this game?s too close to call.
Friday: St Helens v Wakefield at Knowsley Road The newly-crowned Challenge Cup champions will be hoping to banish any thoughts of a hangover with a win here against the desperate Wildcats. Apart from the injured Willie Talau and Jon Wilkin, Saints coach Daniel Anderson has pledged to play a full strength line-up against Wakefield, with Internationals Vinnie Anderson and Nick Fozzard re-joining the squad. Wakefield desperately need the win here to try and help them out of the relegation place, and the players have performed well under coach John Kear, who has just had his contract extended. Will the Wildcats be hungry enough, or will the Saints show why they are looking set for the League-Cup double? My tip: St Helens should win well here. Friday: Leeds v Warrington at Headingley Leeds unveil their new grandstand replacing the eastern terrace at Headingley this weekend, and stand a good chance of christening it with a victory against a Warrington side who have lost their last seven away matches. The Wolves will be without fullback Brent Grose who has a knee injury and club captain Paul Rauhihi who is suspended, but need one more win to secure their place in the play-offs. Leeds will be without second rower Willie Poching, while Chev Walker and Shane Millard return to the squad. Rhinos stand-off Danny Maguire is still sidelined with a shin problem. This is a clash between two teams that could meet again in the play-offs, and both sides will be looking to get a psychological advantage. My tip: Leeds to win in a close one.
Saturday: Castleford v Harlequins at The Jungle ? televised Both teams desperate for a win here ? Harlequins to keep their faint play-off hopes alive and get out of the relegation scramble, and Castleford to try and get further ahead of relegation rivals Wakefield, who they?ll meet in the final round. Danny Sculthorpe, Richard Fletcher and Luke Dyer are all available for the Tigers, while coach Terry Matterson launched an unsurprising attack on the perils of relegation mid-week. Perhaps he would have been better served by focussing on how to get his side out of their current form slump, as Castleford have lost their last four games in a row, conceding 162 points and scoring only 24. Harlequins meanwhile have scored wins against play-off sides Hull and Bradford in the past month, and while their form can be hot and cold, the London side might fancy themselves here. My tip: Harlequins comfortably.
Sunday: Huddersfield v Salford at Galpharm Stadium Huddersfield are in the unenviable position of having to recover from Challenge Cup disappointment straight away to focus on avoiding possible relegation. Their opponents Salford need one win to secure their play-off berth, but have shown some hot and cold form themselves in recent weeks, along with some close results. If Huddersfield can re-create the effort they displayed in the first half of the Cup final, then Salford will be in for an uphill battle. Kevin Brown has recently confirmed his contract status with the Giants and returns to the squad having been ineligible to play for them in the Challenge Cup. The question is how much energy and fire do Huddersfield have left? My tip: Huddersfield in a very close one at home.
Sunday: Hull v Catalans at KC Stadium This round comes to a close by the Humber, with bottom-placed Catalans Dragons flying north to challenge second placed Hull. Fresh from a last minute win over a young St Helens side a fortnight ago, Stacey Jones will be hoping to lead his side to a similar result here. Hull will be looking to find the right backline combination for the play-offs with the retirement of Nathan Blacklock. Richard Horne was the man whose drop goal earned Hull a last-gasp win over Salford last start, and will be relishing the chance to prove himself against an international quality half-back. Catalans are exempt from the relegation mire, and so their remaining games are an opportunity for the native players to secure their place in next season?s plans. My tip: Should be a win to Hull.