Whatever happens in this week’s Super League play-off semi-finals, we are guaranteed a meeting of old versus new under the bright lights of Old Trafford in the Grand Final on 9 October. But how we get to that point could be just as fascinating as the season showpiece itself, with a whole host of subplots and stories to sift through in the days ahead.
Friday’s second semi-final has a much more familiar feel to it, as the two clubs who have won more Grand Finals than any others square off for a spot at Old Trafford when St Helens host Leeds. Only five finals in Super League history have been held with neither side in attendance, underlining the dominance of the Saints and the Rhinos in the modern era. But 24 hours earlier, there is a much more peculiar semi-final taking place across the Channel.
The league leaders, Catalans Dragons, host Hull Kingston Rovers in Perpignan, with the winner progressing to their maiden Grand Final. The journey of both sides to this point is remarkable enough, but it is difficult to ignore the script the Robins have been writing this season in particular. In 2019 and 2020, they finished 11th in Super League, only saved from relegation last season by Toronto’s ill-fated withdrawal from the competition.
Many tipped Rovers to struggle again this season, yet with a mix of recognisable senior players and a crop of talented young British starlets – led by the familiar face of the former Leeds and Warrington coach Tony Smith – they are now within one victory of Old Trafford. “The players would tell you they were targeting the play-offs but privately, my target was a little bit lower than that,” their chief executive, Paul Lakin, admits.
Rovers claimed the final play-off place in the last weekend of the season, with many assuming that would be the biggest surprise they would spring. However, their 19-0 victory at third-placed Warrington last Friday was not only impressive, it was done in a manner that suggests they still have one – or even two – shocks left in the tank. But this season is about much more than on-field success for Lakin and Hull KR.
At a time when many clubs are holding their breath over the impact of a reduced broadcast contract with Sky Sports, Rovers are planning effusively for the future. “The plan over the next couple of years is that the money the owner [Neil Hudgell] puts in goes down and down, to an extent where we’re financially sustainable in our own right,” Lakin says. “Nothing that’s happened since the pandemic began has changed our view on that.”
With a homegrown half-back pairing of Jordan Abdull and Mikey Lewis – plus another local product in Jez Litten at hooker – leading this renaissance in east Hull, there is also quiet optimism that this may not be a one-off. “There’s a lot more to come from this team,” Smith said recently. “We’re by no means a flash in the pan. I think this group will improve significantly again next year, and it’s going to keep growing.”
Victory in Perpignan against a mightily impressive Catalans side would be a shock on a whole other level, though. The Dragons are undoubtedly favourites, much like St Helens are against Leeds, and anything other than a meeting of the teams who finished first and second in the regular season would be a major surprise. However, as Hull KR have shown so many times already this year – and the Rhinos themselves have proved in the past – you really can’t take anything for granted when it comes to Super League in 2021.