And so we reach the final curtain: rugby league’s domestic season in the northern hemisphere comes to a close this weekend with four immense matches – the Super League Grand Final for both the men and women, plus the promotion play-offs in the Championship and League 1.
The wheat has been separated from the chaff. With the exception of Doncaster, the finals will be played by the two top-placed sides. The old adage that the table doesn’t lie has never been more apt. What follows should be a scintillating weekend of action.
There's only one home for us in October 🔥
It's more than a game, it brings us together 💪 The 2021 #GrandFinal
— Betfred Super League (@SuperLeague) October 5, 2021
Catalans Dragons v St Helens: Super League Grand Final
This could very well end up being the best game of the season. Aside from the Grand Final paraphernalia, this match represents the two standout teams this side of the equator. Their clashes thus far have been entertaining, and their semi-final victories demonstrated their evident prowess to those still in doubt.
Whilst big games can often get ground down and become mundanely repetitive, there should be no such risks at Old Trafford. They are proof that having dominant forwards and strong defensive foundations need not come at the expensive of expansive, ‘sexy’ rugby.
So much of how this match will go depends on whether or not Sam Tomkins is fit. That’s not to diminish the talent of young Arthur Mourgue; it’s simple recognition of the latent talent and prowess of this year’s Man of Steel. He missed the match against Hull KR, and having been side-lined since the 10th September match against Wigan, he will still have a bit of rustiness should he start.
St Helens will be looking to do the ‘three-peat’, a feat matched only by Leeds. They have the experience of Grand Finals, and have already tasted silverware with a Challenge Cup triumph back in July. But Catalans also have their silverware, winning the League Leader’s Shield for the first time in their history. It underlined their regular-season dominance, including two victories over their opponents this Saturday.
— St.Helens R.F.C. (@Saints1890) October 6, 2021
It really could go either way. Man for man, they are pretty evenly matched – the half pairings of James Maloney and Josh Drinkwater are equaled only by Johnny Lomax and youth breakthrough Lewis Dodd. They possess the strongest packs in the league, with the likes of McCarthy-Scarsbrook, McMeekan, Roby, Walmsley, and Garcia walking into nearly any other Super League side.
It will prove a tight and entertaining affair, but Saints’ Grand Final experience may just see them over the line.
LWOR verdict: St Helens by 1-10
Workington Town v Doncaster: League 1 Promotion Final
This is the only fixture of the weekend involving a side that didn’t finish first or second. The differentials in promotion and relegation between the second and third tiers allowed for runaway champions Barrow to go directly up.
Doncaster have done it tough, coming from fifth and winning three consecutive life-or-death play-offs to reach this stage. After a comfortable 31-10 dispatching of Hunslet, they travelled to a rejuvenating North Wales to defeat the Crusaders 48-34.
Last Sunday they won a gripping elimination final away to Keighley at the death. They were 26-12 down with just 20 minutes to go, but mounted an unbelievable comeback to level the scores as the hooter went. Under immense pressure, Jake Sweeting converted Liam Johnson’s try right from the sticks to tick the scoreboard over to 28-26, reversing the scores of their final regular-season outing and causing absolute pandemonium amongst the travelling Doncaster fans.
😲 What a conversion!
— Rugby Football League (@TheRFL) October 3, 2021
Workington had a much easier run of things. Their higher placing provided them the luxury of a week one bye to face Keighley, subsequently pipping them 18-16. Having won more games than Workington this season (finishing lower on a points-per-game basis), the Cougars can justifiably be miffed, but look back on a productive season with some pride.
The Cumbrians had a much stronger league showing this season, but have come unstuck against their opponents twice this season. They lost to Doncaster in South Yorkshire 22-12 back in August and, noticeably, at home back in May. Doncaster also inflicted Barrow’s sole league defeat of the season.
With the hand of history and a sense of inevitability that momentum can generate, don’t bet against the Dons upsetting the league table.
LWOR verdict: Doncaster by 11-20
St Helens v Leeds Rhinos: Women’s Super League Grand Final
Following on from their last Grand Final outing at Langtree Park, Sunday’s showing is a repeat of the 2019 final, and the second time that the women’s showpiece will be televised. This time the Rhinos will have home advantage – with St Helens rampant runaways already in possession of two pieces of silverware, they’ll need all the help they can get.
It’s fantastic that the women’s game is receiving its due coverage after so many years of neglect. The ambition has to be to match, and then surpass what the NRLW has grown to become in the Antipodes.
🏆 After a busy week of ticket sales, we are delighted to confirm that this Sunday 𝐰𝐢𝐥𝐥 be a record crowd for a @Betfred Women's Super League Grand Final!
— Rugby Football League (@TheRFL) October 6, 2021
Viewers will hope for a tight spectacle, one that will depict the high standards of women’s rugby league but, it is more likely to portrays how St Helens have been rampant all season. Led by the ‘Woman of Steel’ and force of nature that is Jodie Cunningham.
They thrashed Castleford 58-0 in the semi-finals, and Leeds will need all their nous to stem the Saints tidal wave coming.
LWOR verdict: St Helens by 26-35
Toulouse Olympique v Featherstone Rovers: Championship Million Pound Game
The domestic season ends in the south of France, with the unblemished French side looking to match their 23-6 victory over Featherstone in Yorkshire back in August. Both sides are looking to make Super League for the first time in their history, and the clash has shades of the 2019 Million Pound Game.
This is one of those diametrically ‘opposites attract’ fixtures that rugby league specializes in dishing up. Two years ago, it was the new Canadian side, representing the third largest North American city and backed by a billionaire mining magnate taking on the plucky underdogs from the former mining village.
This time it’s another cosmopolitan non-English side. But Toulouse is as much rugby league territory as Featherstone, the game having been played in the south of France since the 1930s. Olympique has had the stated aim of reaching Super League since their inclusion into the RFL structures back in 2016.
They are currently the only operative full-time side in the Championship, and their performances this season match such a discrepancy. They are unbeaten in all their matches, despite having to travel to England for every fixture. In their Saturday play-off against Batley, they brushed aside the Bulldogs 51-12, playing an expansive and attractive brand of rugby that Sylvain Houles has honed to a tee.
🇫🇷 A l'image du dernier essai ici en vidéo, les Olympiens ont assuré le show hier en demi-finale ! Le résumé 👉 https://t.co/hxpG8ECNlY.
— Toulouse Olympique XIII (@TOXIII) October 3, 2021
One of Featherstone’s only two losses this year came against Toulouse (the other being in the cup against Hull FC). Their players are seasoned in big matches, and upset the odds back in 2019 by defeating Toulouse in France on their way to Toronto. Although, two years on, and with more resources and better players, Toulouse may be a step too far for Rovers.
Leaving aside the logistical and contractual issues that would arise from a part-time Featherstone promotion, Toulouse should have too much about them on the day. In a one-off game mind you, anything can happen. Yet with home advantage, a partisan crowd, and players like Mark Kheirallah, Jonathan Ford, Dominique Peyroux, and Junior Vaivai to call upon, Toulouse Olympique should just about have too much.
This weekend’s action will hold the attention of rugby league fans. A week after the NRL Grand Final, there is no distraction for the Super League Grand Final and RFL play-offs. Coverage begins on Saturday, October 9 with the Grand Final, before the women’s Cup Final on Sunday Oct 10.
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