Super League: We analyse the eight teams left standing in the race to reach Old Trafford
After 27 rounds of weekly Super League action that time of the year has come around again, the play-offs.
By Rob Lancaster
Last Updated: 12/09/13 12:28pm
The cream of the crop battle it out over a four-week period to establish who will be crowned 2013 Super League champions.
For the past two seasons the Leeds Rhinos have shocked all by winning at Old Trafford despite finishing fifth in the table. Warrington fell at the last in 2012, while St Helens and Wigan were each-way chances that failed to pay off.
Here we run the rule over the runners and riders in the eight-team race to be crowned Grand Final winners. But what do you think? Have your say by using the comments section at the bottom of the page...
Form guide: Huddersfield have been the most consistent team all season and thoroughly deserve to lift the League Leaders' Shield.
However, finishing top is no indicator to how you will do in the play-offs. Only five times (Bulls 2003, Rhinos 2004, Saints 2006, Rhinos 2009, Wigan 2010) in the last 10 years have the minor premiers gone on to be crowned champions.
Paul Anderson's Giants are at home to Wigan on Thursday and it will be interesting to see how they respond after their youngsters were thumped at the lowly Bradford Bulls last weekend.
What they do have, though, is good form against the Warriors. They have won both regular season meetings in 2013, including an impressive 30-12 triumph at the DW Stadium last month that just about secured them top spot.
Key man: Danny Brough. Born in Dewsbury, but now the pride of Scotland (he was the only 'non-Englishman' selected in the Dream Team this week). Brough's ability to steer his side around the field will be crucial in the play-offs. Has enjoyed a superb season and a strong contender for Man of Steel.
Form guide: Warrington Wolves finished just a point behind the Giants and are serious contenders to claim their first Super League crown after falling at the final hurdle last season.
The Wolves, like Huddersfield, lost just six league games all season and Tony Smith has a vastly-experienced squad to choose from.
Lee Briers and Adrian Morley, who will be heading home to Manchester to play for Salford next season, will be among those desperate to return to Old Trafford and better last season's runners-up spot. Each year they seem to be getting closer and closer, so could 2013 finally be the season for the Wolves?
They have lost just once in their last 12 league outings and while some took the chance to rest players in the final week of the regular season, Smith took all his big guns to Perpignan to help them pip Catalan Dragons.
Key man: Lee Briers. Still going strong at 35, Warrington have carefully managed the veteran stand-off over the course of the campaign. His kicking game, particularly towards the wing of the prolific Joel Monaghan, could be the difference in tight games.
Form guide: Rule out the Rhinos at your peril. While they may not have finished in their favourite position of fifth, few will want to face the play-off specialists, particularly if they make it all the way to Old Trafford.
Twice in the last two season's they have been selected by Warrington and Wigan respectively in Club Call and twice upset the odds in the semi-final and then in the Grand Final.
The Rhinos have a fit and healthy squad who know how to perform at the business end of the season. Could Leeds be crowned champions an incredible six times in seven seasons?
But for a surprise home reverse to Hull KR, Brian McDermott's men enjoyed an excellent run-in. They finished the regular campaign with a win at Wigan and have many of their big names fit for the months of September and October.
Key man: Jamie Peacock. Kevin Sinfield and Danny McGuire are crucial in providing a creative spark, while Ryan Hall is a try-scoring machine. However Peacock - a play-off king in his career having also enjoyed plenty of success with Bradford - has been sensational up front.
Form guide: Fast out of the gate and long-time leaders, Wigan have faded badly down the stretch and their successful exploits in the Tetley's Challenge Cup leads many to wonder if the going is now getting too tough.
The Warriors' last league triumph came against Hull KR at the start of August, since when they have been beaten by play-off rivals Leeds, Hull FC, Catalan Dragons and Huddersfield, who they face in the first round of fixtures.
At least they shouldn't be too concerned about having to travel - they won 17 games in 2013, with nine of them coming away from the DW Stadium.
Their cause isn't helped by the absence of influential skipper Sean O'Loughlin through injury but they still have enough class in their ranks to make a serious play-off run and repeat their Grand Final victory of 2010.
Key man: Sam Tomkins. While he has been in and out of the team in the second half of the season, it should not be forgotten he still finished with 23 tries and 19 assists. Opposition teams will recognise him as the danger due to his ability to create something out of nothing. Could it end up being his Wigan swansong at Old Trafford in October?
THE LONG SHOTS...
Form guide: To say Saints were slow starters this season is an understatement - they were beaten 40-4 at home by Huddersfield on opening weekend and won just two of their opening five fixtures.
There was a worrying run of four straight defeats but while there have been some shock losses, there have also been some impressive wins. They toppled Leeds and Warrington on the road, suggesting they can still beat the best.
In their favour is the fact they finished in the 'lucky' fifth position after a storming late charge that saw them win six of their last seven, the only defeat in that run coming at home to the Wolves.
Nathan Brown has plenty of play-off experience in his squad but although they will be favourites in the first-round tie against Hull KR, the Robins have beaten them home and away so far in 2013.
Key man: James Roby. Back at the perfect time, both for club and country, after two months on the sidelines with an ankle injury. The hooker was impressive on his return against Hull FC in the final round of fixtures and is a serious danger to opponents in and around the play-the-ball area.
Form guide: Their cup exploits seemed to take it out of them at one stage (they did not record a Super League victory in June or July) but it doesn't seem the disappointment of defeat at Wembley has bothered them too badly.
They had won four straight, including pipping Wigan at the DW Stadium, before going down at home to St Helens last time out.
However, that defeat didn't prove too costly in terms of the play-off positions, with Catalan Dragons' loss to Warrington the following day condemning the French side to a trip the KC Stadium on Friday night.
Of the 13 wins recorded by Peter Gentle's squad in the regular season, eight of them came at home. They saw off the Dragons 28-8 in East Yorkshire back in April and will have high hopes of at least clearing the first play-off hurdle.
Key man: Gareth Ellis. Injury hampered the start of his debut season in charge of the Black and Whites (he didn't even make it beyond the warm-up on opening night in Leeds) but his skills, and his experience, will be crucial if Hull are to make a deep run.
Form guide: Defeat to Warrington in their final regular-season match proved costly for the Dragons, as they now have to go on the road in round one.
Considering they won nine at home this season, it is a blow to them to not have the added advantage of hosting Hull. Nonetheless, the French representatives are experienced enough when it comes to play-off rugby.
Back in 2009 they managed to upset the odds to reach the semi-finals, knocking out Wakefield and Huddersfield before losing to eventual champions Leeds at Headingley.
The only top-four team they have beaten this year, either home or away, was Wigan, and that result came a week before the Warriors played in the Challenge Cup final.
Key man: Steve Menzies. Whether it be Hull or any other Super League ground, 'Beaver' will be playing his final game during the play-offs. He will hang up his boots just shy of his 40th birthday but will look to make one lasting impact in Super League before bringing the curtain down on a stellar career.
Form guide: Put one foot in the play-offs with a stunning upset over Leeds at Headingley, though that has been the one good outing in an otherwise difficult recent run.
Hit by injuries, Rovers have won just one of their last six. That streak included a defeat to city rivals Hull FC when they surrendered a narrow half-time lead at home.
Already assured of eighth place, coach Craig Sandercock opted to rest several of his first-team squad for the season finale with London Broncos, a game they lost 34-22 at home. At least, though, they can boast home-and-away victories over first-round opponents St Helens.
Will hope for better fortunes than their last play-off appearance in 2011 - a trip to Perpignan saw them crushed 56-6 by the Dragons after they had also finished the regular season in eighth.
Key man: Michael Dobson. Missed out on the chance to play one final game at Craven Park after not being risked against the Broncos following recent injury. The half-back is dangerous with both ball in hand and his left boot.