George Riley superleague.co.uk Blog Play-off Predictions
A strange rush of adrenalin hit me at 5am this week as I drove into the BBC's Media City studios at Salford Quays.
Stopping at the traffic lights, a glance to the right brought the sight of a huge Grand Final billboard lit up in the shadows of Old Trafford.
Eorl Crabtree and Ben Westwood were highlighted like cartoon ghosts by the streetlamps under the black early skies. Now it is very rare that the vision of big Eorl gets me going, but this brought past memories of the best month of the year flooding back.
Crabtree says it is "surreal" for his Huddersfield side to be heading into end of season streetfight as Super League's top dogs. The majority of those whose opinions I've canvassed on the likely Grand Final contenders don't give Huddersfield a hope.
This may seem remarkable for the standout team of the year, but it is in the playoffs where the Giants will be judged. With Crabtree's drive, Danny Brough's brilliance at half and the outstanding ruck play of hooker Shaunt Lunt, Huddersfield's hopes have every right to be high. Add in Wigan's wobbles, and the absence of their talisman Sean O'Loughlin, and it promises a fascinating start to the season's denouement.
It would take a bold, or foolish man to write the Warriors off. I'm perhaps a bit of both, but I do fear for the Challenge Cup winners in the race to Old Trafford.
For me Warrington, St Helens, Leeds and Huddersfield look the heavyweights. I've spent a bit of time with Jamie Peacock over the past week, and Leeds Rhinos ' double Player of the Year awards winner has that ominous look about him again. He says Leeds fear nobody, again, and don't care who they have to play again.
The Rhinos showed in their victory at Wigan in the final round of the regular season that they already have already upped their game to playoff intensity.
I put that to Brian McDermott this week and it irked him. "We've actually been playing like that for about two months now."
I like the look of St Helens who have found some real form, and having won six in seven I see no reason why that run of success shouldn't continue.
Likewise Warrington. Knowing how much the Wolves were wounded by losing to Leeds 12 months ago, I sense an even stronger assault on Old Trafford for Tony Smith’s men this time around.
With apologies to fans of Catalan and Hull KR, I don’t see enough to convince me that either can mount a serious title bid.
Hull FC can cause problems for the higher ranked teams, but only if they can reproduce the intensity of their run to Wembley. If they start the playoffs well, then it could happen.
Fortunately the BBC’s guidelines on impartiality mean I’m rarely required to stick my neck on the line with an outright prediction. But I do feel this year’s champions will come from Warrington, Leeds, Huddersfield or St Helens.