The 19th season of Super League reaches its climax this Saturday as Wigan Warriors face St Helens in the Grand Final. A huge crowd is expected at Old Trafford as the two fierce North West rivals go head to head in the end of season clash for the first time since 2010.
Keep reading for our preview of this weekend’s show piece event.
Saints looking to end Grand Final hoodoo
It’s been a terrific year for St Helens who have already secured the League Leaders’ Shield by finishing on top of the regular season table. However, their fans may have good reason to be nervous about another Grand Final appearance considering the Saints recent record in the end of season event.
Between 2007 and 2011 Saints lost five consecutive Grand Finals by a combined total of 71 points. You have to go back to 2006 for their last success in this event and so recent history doesn’t favour the league winners.
However, this could be the year when their luck changes. They had the easier semi-final, ending Catalans Dragons fairytale run 30-12, but unlike many previous winners of the League Leaders’ Shield who came unstuck at the final hurdle they finished the regular season strongly and have carried that form into the play-offs.
“Quite a few people wrote us off earlier in the year when we lost a few key players through injury,” says Saints second-row Mark Flanagan. “Rightly so – [Luke] Walsh, [Jonny] Lomax and [Jon] Wilkin are probably our three main playmakers. But credit to the coaching staff and players: people have stepped up and done different roles in the team, and we seem to be finding a way to win. There’s been a resilience when we’ve faced adversity.”
Wigan the favourites to retain their Super League title
“It’s life or death,” says Wigan coach Shaun Wane. “It’s non-negotiable. We have to get this win.”
The Wiganer knows that this is not just another match. “I played in Yorkshire derbies, and there’s nothing that compares to this,” he says. “There’s no doubt about that. This is the main one. We’re not far apart, only 15 or 20 minutes down the road, but the dislike we have for each other is pretty major.”
The Warriors are looking to defend the title they won in 2013 and had to be at their very best to defeat a spirited Warrington side in the semi-finals. Defence was key in that match when the Warriors made 309 tackles to squeeze past Warrington while St Helens only had to make 272 to see off the Catalans Dragons.
However, 21 year old Wigan star Dan Sarginson thinks that the Warriors are battle-ready, not weary. “Friday took it out of us but we’ve done all the recovery now… and we’re all fresh. We’re well up for it. If you can’t be up for a Grand Final against your local rivals at Old Trafford, you can’t be up for anything.”
St Helens v Wigan is always a special occasion and forms one of sport’s great rivalries. Just nine miles separate the two towns on opposite sides of the M6, but they have a shared heritage that stretches back to 1895, when the teams played out a 0-0 draw at Knowsley Road.
Wigan are worthy favourites – you only had to watch the last few minutes of their win over Warrington Wolves in the semi-final to understand why – although Saints are arguably the in-form team heading into the match.
With one win each this season – both beat the other way from home – it’ a tough match to call. I think it might be time for St Helens’ luck to change and the value looks in backing Saints with a six point start at 10/11.
81 teams have been whittled down to a final two in this year’s Challenge Cup and Saturday’s final pits the Leeds Rhinos against the Castleford Tigers at Wembley. It’s the first all Yorkshire final since 2005 and gives both clubs the chance to claim their first Cup success since Wembley was reopened in 2007.
Keep reading for our preview of this weekend’s show piece event.
Tigers have excellent record in Cup finals
After seven years of dominance by Wigan, St Helens and Warrington 2014 will finally see a Yorkshire side get their hands on the Challenge Cup trophy.
In many ways it is a David v Goliath affair between a major Yorkshire city and a small town twelve miles away. But, it’s worth remembering that the Castleford Tigers have a terrific record in Challenge Cup finals while the Leeds Rhinos have only won the Cup once in the last 35 years.
Malcolm Reilly starred in Castleford’s consecutive wins against Salford and Wigan in 1969 and 1970 before returning to the Tigers as coach when they beat Hull KR in 1986 – the last all-Yorkshire final at Wembley.
John Kear was Reilly’s assistant that day and was also the last coach to win the cup for Yorkshire when Hull stunned the Rhinos in Cardiff in 2005 – the third of six final defeats the Rhinos have suffered since they were last cup winners way back in 1999, in the last final at the old Wembley.
Kear says: “Cas is a battling town, it’s gone through some hard economic times. But you ask someone from the south about Castleford and they’ll probably say rugby league, the same as Wigan or St Helens. People in Cas are proud of that, and proud of their team, and especially of what they’ve done this year.”
The Tigers deserve their place in the final, having beaten reigning cup holders Wigan on their own patch in the quarter finals and Widnes in the semis. They have won four of their five Challenge Cup finals and should not be underestimated this year.
Leeds looking to avoid another Cup final defeat
For a club of the size of the Leeds Rhinos, it is perhaps surprising that their last Challenge Cup win was back in 1999. Since then they have lost in the final six times, including three years in succession between 2010 and 2012.
Coach Brian McDermott doesn’t believe the Rhinos have a problem with big games, however. He says: “We had a really close game against Wigan in 2011 and, while we never really got going against Warrington in 2012, we weren’t blown away. My point is that we’re not doing anything wrong.
“It’s not as if we’ve been getting there and everything has been going wrong. There’s nothing too dramatic. By nature, when you get to the Challenge Cup final, you play good teams and somebody has got to lose.
“You can put things in place beforehand to try to prevent that happening but the beauty is you just don’t know what’s going to happen when the whistle blows.”
While neutral viewers are likely to get behind Castleford on Saturday, this could finally be the year when the likes of Danny McGuire and Kevin Sinfield finally get their hands on the only major prize to elude them in their careers.
There hasn’t been a classic final since the last all-Yorkshire affair in 2005 when Hull upset the Tigers 25-24. Castleford will be competitive but I expect the Rhinos to finally get their hands on the Cup this year. Each of the finals since 2006 has been won by more than 8 points and so I’d back Leeds Rhinos to overcome the 8 point handicap at 10/11.
Scheduling a Test match just a week after the end of the English Premiership season is hardly the work of a genius. England would have found it tough to beat New Zealand with a full strength side never mind a depleted squad and so it promises to be a tough test for Stuart Lancaster’s side this Saturday.
The All Blacks haven’t lost a Test at Eden Park in almost 20 years and are coming off the back of the professional era’s first unbeaten year. Keep reading for our preview of the first Test.
The All Blacks are a fearsome team but respect England
Whichever way you look at it, the All Blacks are a fearsome team. The world champions have not lost at home in 30 matches and local expectation is for a 3-0 series whitewash. Steve Hansen’s squad is full of experienced, in-form players, with depth in almost every department. Richie McCaw, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Ma’a Nonu have nearly 50 more caps between them than England’s 31 man party for the first Test.
However, the hosts aren’t taking England lightly, considering Stuart Lancaster’s side were the last team to beat the All Blacks. Former All Black Craig Dowd told the Guardian: “The brand of rugby is different as England tends to favour a more pack-based game, whereas New Zealand like to throw it around but there’s plenty of respect.
“They’re building a strong side under Lancaster and whatever team ends up being put out it won’t be an easy task. That defeat in 2012 really hurt – the All Blacks didn’t play well, for whatever reason, but England were brilliant and deserved their win.”
And, coach Steve Hansen has called England the ‘most improved side in world rugby in the last two years’.
England fielding fourth choice players in some key positions
The scheduling of this match is a massive headache for England coming just seven days after the Saracens v Northampton Premiership final. On top of that, England also have injury problems with Billy Twelvetrees the latest player to be ruled out through injury.
Twelvetrees’ absence means that Kyle Eastmond is likely to win his third cap. The diminutive former Rugby League man shone on last summer’s tour to Argentina but has endured a tricky 2013/14, falling out of favour at Bath.
If, as expected, Eastmond and Freddie Burns – in the absence of Owen Farrell, Stephen Myler and George Ford – are to line up at fly-half and inside centre, then England will be fielding their fourth choice players in those key positions – hardly ideal for a game against the world champions.
The tourists’ problems were perhaps best summed up when All Black Brodie Retallick was asked about England’s likely line-up on Saturday…and failed to correctly name a single England player.
England may be the most improved team in world rugby but even their strongest XV would struggle to overcome this powerful and ruthless New Zealand team on home turf.
The tourists have conceded an average of 37 points in each of the three games they have played in Auckland since their win 41 years ago and another heavy defeat isn’t out of the question. England lost by 17 points at Eden Park in 2008 and I fancy this could be a bigger defeat.
Back the All Blacks to overcome the 19 point handicap and give a second-string England team a hiding at 10/11.
This year’s Premiership final marks the end of an era. It has been ten years since Leicester Tigers failed to appear in the end of season showpiece and this season’s final will feature the two best teams from the regular season: Saracens and Northampton Saints.
The sides experienced mixed fortunes in their respective European finals last weekend – Northampton won the Amlin Cup while Saracens lost out to Toulon in the Heineken Cup – and it promises to be a terrific occasion at Twickenham.
Keep reading for our betting preview.
European finalists bid for domestic title
Since Christmas, there has been one outstanding team in the league. Saracens only defeat in Aviva Premiership Rugby in their last ten games came at Leicester in round 22 and the Londoners have scored at least one try in 36 of their last 37 Premiership matches. This run included a win over their rivals in the final, Northampton, as recently as 13 April.
Northampton are bidding to become the eighth different side to become champions of England, having never win the title before. A win at Twickenham will also see Northampton become the first team since Wasps in 2003 to attain a Premiership and European Challenge Cup double.
This is the first time that the two clubs have met at Twickenham, and also the first time they have met in any final. They have clashed in eight previous quarter-finals or semi-finals in tournaments, with Saracens winning just twice.
Twickenham experience could be crucial
They have been the two best teams in the league this season but it is Saracens’ Twickenham experience that could prove crucial. The Saints have just two victories in seven previous finals played at Twickenham and the most recent of those was against Exeter in the National Trophy in 2008.
Sarries have won on five of their last seven visits to Twickenham in all tournaments including the Premiership final in 2011. In addition, fly half Owen Farrell has lots of experience of playing at HQ wand this could be critical. Twickenham is a big pitch and the best final performances are often by sides that use its wide, open spaces early on in the match.
Saying that, Saracens have lost four of their past five matches to Northampton and their last two victories against the Saints have been by narrow margins. The two Northampton second rows, Courtney Lawes and Samu Manoa, could have a huge influence on the game while Saints have plenty of pace out wide in the form of George North, Ken Pisi and Ben Foden.
Saracens centre Brad Barritt says: “We are desperate to finish the season with a trophy. If we achieve that, we will be able to reflect on a very successful campaign.
“It will take a concerted effort, but we are as hungry as ever. We were not that far off against Toulon, it was just minor things in the game. A big strength of this team is the way we bounce back and we have to show that this week.”
It promises to be a terrific match and Northampton are coming in on the back of their excellent win over Leicester Tigers in the semi-final and their Amlin Cup triumph. However, Saracens have simply been the best team in the league in 2014 and I expect them to overcome a 3 point handicap and win at 10/11.
The last time the Heineken Cup final was held in Dublin it featured two French teams. Toulouse beat Perpignan on that occasion, and with the Top 14’s two leading sides in action this weekend it could be another all-French affair this May.
The Heineken Cup has reached the quarter final stage and sees three sides from France, three from England and two from Ireland battling it out to reach the last four.
The Irish sides both face tough away trips to English opposition while two strong French sides will expect to reach the semi-finals with home advantage.
Six Nations match preview – 23/24 February 2013
The third round of Six Nations matches kick off this weekend and there are three intriguing ties to look forward to. England continue their Grand Slam challenge with a match against bottom of the table France with a leading newspaper reporting French rugby was ‘in tatters’.
The Heineken Cup has now become the competition to win in world club rugby. It’s the eighteenth season of the tournament and twenty four sides from across Europe begin their campaign in November on the long road to Dublin in May 2013.
The Roy Hodgson era begins on Saturday as the former West Brom coach takes charge of England for the first time. His first outing is a tricky away fixture in Norway who are an excellent 12/5 chance to give our boys ‘one hell of a beating’.
The Champions League final takes centre stage this Saturday as Bayern Munich face Chelsea. If Chelsea can manage to scrape a side together – remember that many of their first choice players are injured or suspended – they are 10/3 to win their first European Cup. Bayern Munich have home advantage but were humbled 5-2 by Borussia Dortmund in last week’s German Cup final.