Super 8s: Five stories to follow in the Super League and Qualifiers
Seven games remain for the teams in Super League and the Qualifiers – and there are stories yet to be told among the 16 clubs involved.
Big prizes lie in wait, whether it is glory at Old Trafford or a place in the big time.
There will be tears, of joy and of sadness, by the time the season reaches its climax on 13 October in the Grand Final.
BBC Sport has picked out five themes to follow over the next 10 weeks.
Can Saints deliver their promise?
How good have St Helens been this season? Top of the league, 21 league wins, 713 points, 127 tries and a 10-point lead at the top. A stand-out performance.
Through the week-in, week-out grind of the Super League season, Saints have been irresistible – but their convincing Challenge Cup semi-final exit to Catalans Dragons exposed some potential flaws.
The next seven games will be against elite opponents and, with a top-four spot already secured, their response will be of interest to the rest of Super League.
“It’s going to hurt for a while,” head coach Justin Holbrook told BBC Radio Merseyside of their cup exit. “It’ll be tough both mentally and physically, it will stick with us for a while.
“The best thing for us is that we do get to play on Friday night and get back out there. The good thing is it’s not the last game of the year. If you fail at something the best thing is to go out and have a go.”
If anyone can throw a spanner in the works for St Helens, or at the very least make it a major goal, then it is Wigan Warriors head coach Shaun Wane.
Wane is a passionate Wiganer, a man who has undertaken almost every role at Warriors from player to scout, from youth coach to assistant and now the main man.
He has two Super League titles, a Challenge Cup and three World Club Challenge wins under his belt as a coach, but this is his final season in charge before moving on to work with the Scottish Rugby Union.
Adding to that tally would be a fitting exit for a man who was part of Wigan’s 1980s dominance and has nurtured the newest generation of Cherry and Whites to success.
“I can’t put into words how much I want to win something,” Wane, who will be replaced by Adrian Lam before Shaun Edwards takes over, told BBC Radio Manchester.
“If I’d have had signed a five-year contract I would have had the same attitude, I’ve won everything while I’ve been here.
“I want to win it again and no more than this season. If we did before I left it would be fantastic.”
Will the cup prove a distraction?
By quirk of the Super 8s fixture list, the two teams confirmed for the 2018 Wembley final Saturday, 25 August – Catalans Dragons and Warrington Wolves – are set for a dress rehearsal in the opening game of the Super League.
Teams contesting the Challenge Cup final, notably the winners, tend to have a slump in the aftermath as Leeds Rhinos found in 2014 and Hull FC have discovered in the past two seasons.
Can the Dragons and the Wolves maintain their focus for the Super League with the prospect of a major final looming on the horizon?
“That’s the challenge as a coaching group,” said Warrington boss Steve Price. “I’ve got a fantastic senior playing group who drive good standards and it’s important now that we flip our mindset and get back into Super League mode.
“We’ve actually been pretty good at that this season, going from Challenge Cup to Super League. That’s our main focus, to put in another strong performance against a team who have been playing some really good football of late.”
Imagine it now – Toronto and Toulouse both in the Super League along with Catalans Dragons. Truly international.
Then throw in London Broncos, the capital represented again. It could feasibly happen in 2018.
Derided by some for the uncertainty and instability it drives through to clubs, there is no denying that the Qualifiers – the bottom four teams from Super League and the top four from the Championship – is where much of the genuine tension and excitement will come from during the Super 8s.
With full-time set-ups, National Rugby League-quality players and the confidence boost of win-packed seasons, there is every reason for confidence at Toronto, Toulouse and London.
“I knew what the boys were capable of. I’m proud of the boys for what they’ve achieved this year,” said Broncos boss Danny Ward.
“They are buzzing. We’ve had some big games at the back end of the regular season and hopefully they will stand us in good stead.
“They were must-win games, every week felt like we were building up to a final. We’re coming in on the back of some intense, high-pressure games so we’re going into the Super 8s in good shape.
“It’s going to be very tough, the games are going to be even faster and more intense.”
Halifax, running on a fraction of their budget, have also shown their mettle in competing with their Championship rivals and will also pose a threat.
Some big names in peril?
Widnes, without a win in 16 Super League games, are obvious candidates for struggle – but in terms of big names no struggler comes bigger than reigning Super League champions Leeds Rhinos.
For the second time in three years, they find their end-of-season reckoning in the Qualifiers, after finishing ninth from 23 game. To add insult to injury, their cup dream was brutally ended by Warrington at Bolton last weekend.
With long-serving, highly-successful head coach Brian McDermott dismissed in July with four games to play, in came legendary half-back Kevin Sinfield as director of rugby and former hooker James Lowes as head coach.
The gamble thus far has not worked, with just one win from those five matches.
“We don’t have any momentum at this time.” Sinfield told BBC Radio Leeds after the Warrington loss.
“It’s not worrying, but it is a concern. There are some teams that are going to come after us, and rightly, so I won’t blame them.
“We start a new competition, there’s some realisation that this is where we are and we’re going to have to do something about it.”
With Toulouse up next, the pressure is on.