|Betfred Super League semi-finals|
|Dates: Thursday, 4 October-Friday 5 October Coverage: Highlights on BBC One, radio and text commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, BBC local radio and the BBC Sport website|
There are no second chances now for Super League’s elite, as St Helens, Wigan, Castleford and Warrington go into the semi-finals knowing only a win will suffice.
A trip to Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium for the Grand Final on Saturday, 13 October is the prize at stake for the victors.
BBC Sport previews the main storylines and themes for the two last-four ties.
St Helens v Warrington (Thursday, 4 October: Kick-off 19:45 BST)
Having cast a spell over Super League with 26 wins from 30 games to finish top of the regular-season table, St Helens now have to fulfil their 2018 promise at the knock-out stage.
Justin Holbrook’s side were recognised for their dominance with seven Dream Team selections, and in Ben Barba and skipper James Roby they have also supplied two of the three Steve Prescott Man of Steel nominees.
The pressure is on then for head coach Justin Holbrook and company?
“There’s pressure on everybody,” Holbrook told BBC Sport. “We know what’s at stake, we all want to play in the Grand Final and win.
“We’ve known for quite some time we’ll finish first and have a home semi, so full credit to the guys in how they’ve gone about the last few weeks.
“If there’s no pressure on then it doesn’t mean anything. I’m ok with that, there’s been pressure on us all year and we’ve handled that. It’s about playing well when it counts.”
The team tasked with overturning the form book are Warrington Wolves; Challenge Cup finalists in 2018 and the nearly men of Super League.
Three defeats in three Grand Final appearances under former boss Tony Smith are the legacy for the Wire, but head coach Steve Price has belief that the current squad can continue the progress shown in his first season in charge.
“We’ve had some good battles with Saints throughout the season,” Price said. “They’ve set the benchmark and we’ll be underdogs, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.
“All the pressure is on Saints, they’ve been the best team all season.
“I know what sort of team I have, I have the utmost confidence in my group to go there and deliver a good performance.”
- One to watch – St Helens: Luke Thompson – The prop celebrated a terrific 2018 season with an England call-up and Dream Team selection. He and his fellow forwards must lay a platform.
- One to watch – Warrington: Daryl Clark – Clark was overlooked for England but his ability at hooker can be a huge weapon for Warrington. His battle with James Roby could be exciting to watch.
Wigan v Castleford (Friday, 5 October: Kick-off: 19:45 BST)
Tears will flow at the DW Stadium regardless of the result, as Wigan prepare to say goodbye to Shaun Wane – a genuine Cherry and White legend.
From powerful prop to academy coach, to assistant boss and finally the main man; Wane has become synonymous with the Warriors, but will leave to take on a role with Scotland Rugby Union this winter.
He is not the only one bowing out, as Sam Tomkins says farewell for the second time before joining Catalans, and John Bateman and Ryan Sutton prepare to join Canberra’s ‘Pommie’ enclave in the NRL.
However, as Wane’s Wigan showed in 2013 and Leeds in 2015 and 2017, departing players can be a great motivation for success.
“I’ve been here a long long time, I’m sad to be leaving, the club means everything to me,” Wane told BBC Radio Manchester. “I’m a Wigan lad and I want to make sure we finish off with a bang.
“I was born 200 metres away from that stadium, I’ve lived in the town all my life, it’s in my blood. Wigan town is close to my heart and it would be brilliant to finish off in my last home game with a win to get us to Old Trafford.”
Castleford do not need to look far back for their own motivation. Last year, they edged a thrilling golden-point semi-final to book their first Grand Final appearance.
However, despite enjoying a Saints-esque dominance of the regular season, they lost influential full-back Zak Hardaker to a doping ban in the week of the game, and were blown away by a rampant Leeds in the soggy October air at Old Trafford.
The Tigers of 2018 have flown under the radar to some extent, as reflected in their lack of representation in the Super League Dream Team, but have been in and around the top four all season.
“Look at what we’ve done, again in the top four,” boss Daryl Powell told BBC Radio Leeds. “Some of our players have incredible seasons, Paul McShane and Adam Milner, can feel hard done by, but they can use that as motivation.
“We’ll use everything that we’ve got to make sure we show our drive and desire, it’ll bring the best out of us, that we’ve got so much to prove.
“Wigan have a few bits of motivation there with players and a coach [going], but we’ve got last year, the Dream Team, lots of bits and pieces to pull on to make sure we’re where we need to be.
“But ultimately it’s about calm heads.”
- One to watch – Wigan: John Bateman – Few players have had the talismanic impact on their club that Bateman has. He has the mongrel attitude to unsettle a very good Cas pack.
- One to watch – Castleford: Paul McShane – McShane, like Daryl Clark, was another player left out of international and awards recognition. He has the skill and the kicking game to trouble Wigan.
Source BBC News