Since their introduction in 1998 the play-offs have added drama, intensity and excitement that makes Super League one of the most entertaining competitions in sport when it comes to end of season spectacles.
With a Grand Final spot at Old Trafford at stake, one of the most nail-biting games of the season for players, coaches and fans are the semi-finals – knowing that your club is either 80 minutes away from a chance at writing its name in the history books or falling at the final hurdle.
Will Warrington, Hull, Wigan and St Helens be able to produce more epic semi-finals like the five below this weekend?
Warrington Wolves 24-26 Leeds Rhinos (2011)
After winning the League Leaders’ Shield and easing past Huddersfield in their first play-off game, Warrington selected Leeds as their ‘club call’ opponents and went into the game as favourites to reach their first Grand Final.
It was a pulsating semi-final with little to separate the two sides. With the scores level at 24 apiece both sides had tries disallowed in the final ten minutes by the video referee.
With the game heading for extra time, attention shifted to Kevin Sinfield and Lee Briers as to who would seal a late drop-goal to send their team to Old Trafford.
Three minutes were left on the clock when Sinfield made an attempt for the one-pointer which was unruly charged down by Wolves’ Richie Myler who referee Steve Ganson deemed to have been offside and awarded Leeds a penalty.
Despite the best attempts from the home crowd at the Halliwell Jones Stadium to distract Sinfield, the Leeds captain held his nerve to slot over the penalty and give Leeds a famous win.
St Helens 10-8 Leeds Rhinos (2007)
A game based on defence, League Leaders St Helens booked their place at Old Trafford with a narrow win over Leeds.
Saints led 8-6 at the break but Kevin Sinfield soon levelled the scores with a penalty after the interval.
The Rhinos enjoyed more of the possession in the second-half but couldn’t break the Saints’ defence and went behind again with 15 minutes remaining as Matty Smith converted a penalty.
St Helens held on for the win but Leeds bounced back to win the elimination semi-final the following week against Wigan and then beat Saints at Old Trafford with a 33-6 victory.
Wigan Warriors 12-13 Leeds Rhinos (2012)
A famous victory at the DW Stadium for Leeds which saw them reach Old Trafford and go on to win the competition from a fifth placed finish for the second consecutive season.
With five minutes remaining Wigan led 12-11 and looked set to reach the Grand Final.
Sinfield’s high-kick was fumbled by Wigan’s Jack Murphy giving Leeds possession on the Warriors’ try line. Two tackles later and Liam Farrell was penalised for being offside giving Sinfield the opportunity to kick for goal and put the Rhinos ahead.
Wigan’s Brett Finch then missed a last-gasp drop-goal attempt to level the scores and take the game into extra time giving Leeds a dramatic win.
Leeds Rhinos 22-23 Wigan Warriors (2003)
A Danny Tickle drop-goal three minutes from time was enough to send Wigan to Old Trafford in a pulsating semi-final.
A superb solo try from Brian Carney, converted by Andy Farrell, put Wigan 22-20 ahead before a Kevin Sinfield 35-metre penalty levelled the scores with ten minutes remaining.
Tickle’s drop-goal then nudged Wigan back in front and despite late pressure on their own try line, the Warriors held on for a dramatic win.
Wigan Warriors 16-12 Warrington Wolves (2014)
One of the most nail-biting finishes to a play-off semi-final in recent seasons took place between Wigan and Warrington at the DW Stadium in 2014.
With little to separate the sides, the scores remained level at 12 points apiece heading into the last 15 minutes and ,with both teams’ defences remaining resilient and drop-goal attempts going wayward, neither side looked like they would make the breakthrough.
With two minutes remaining Joe Burgess scrambled his way through five helpless Warrington defenders to go over in the corner and send Wigan to Old Trafford.
Winning is everything in sport.
The reason athletes train, work and push themselves so hard is to be the best, to fulfil their potential and to reap the rewards that success brings.
Another big component of sport however is defeat and the contrast in emotions between the Hull FC and Warrington players at full-time at Wembley Stadium on Saturday told the whole story.
For Hull it was the club’s first ever Challenge Cup win at Wembley and banished the memories of painful defeats in 2008 and 2013. It was also a just reward for the outstanding improvement the side has made this season and possibly the first part of a lucrative treble.
For Warrington however the players collapsed on the pitch dejected, despondent and forlorn. This was no ordinary defeat and the Wolves were, and still are, hurting.
In the most nail-biting Challenge Cup final for more than a decade, Warrington will feel they did more than enough to win the trophy. They kept Hull scoreless for an hour with some gruelling defending and were leading 10-6 with seven minutes left on the clock. Even in the dying minutes had it not been for a last-ditch, heroic tackle from Danny Houghton on Ben Currie the colours on the ribbons of the trophy would be primrose and blue.
Warrington’s biggest challenge now is bouncing back. But amidst the disappointment and cup final heartache, how do the Wolves pick themselves up?
At the start of this year new England and Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett said it took him a month to get over the Broncos’ agonising 17-16 NRL Grand Final defeat to North Queensland last season.
But Warrington don’t have a month. They don’t have a pre-season or a whole new campaign to readjust and start afresh.
Sitting second in the table and just one point behind leaders Hull, they are still well placed to compete for the League Leaders’ Shield and Old Trafford glory next month.
Their four remaining Super 8s fixtures are daunting however with a difficult trip to Catalans this Saturday followed by a local derby against Widnes before top-of-the-table clashes against Wigan and Hull.
The Wolves’ top-four spot is assured but they will be eager not to drop-off during the business end of the season and to push for an all important home tie in the play-offs by finishing first or second.
A key positive for Warrington is that head coach Tony Smith has been in this situation before. In 2005 he saw his Leeds side suffer a demoralising 25-24 Challenge Cup final defeat to -you guessed it – Hull at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
That defeat did not deter the Rhinos that season however who finished second in the league, beat St Helens to book their Grand Final place before losing 15-6 to rivals Bradford at Old Trafford.
Winning the Grand Final after suffering Challenge Cup final misery is not unheard of however with Leeds bouncing back to lift the Super League crown in both 2011 and 2012.
Moreover, Castleford would have claimed the League Leaders’ Shield in 2014 after Wembley defeat had they not lost to Catalans in the final game of the regular season.
Last season, Hull KR responded to their 50-0 Wembley drubbing to Leeds by winning their four remaining Middle 8s games to assure their Super League spot – albeit against weaker opposition.
With key creative players Chris Sandow and Kurt Gidley now on the sidelines and Ben Westwood ruled out for the rest of the campaign, Warrington have even more hurdles to overcome if they are to finish the season on a high.
The Wolves now have to quickly put their Wembley pain behind them and channel the experience into a hunger that will drive them to their first ever Super League title.
After all, overcoming adversity is the true sign of champions.
Real men cry and that was the case at Wembley Stadium on 29 August 2009.
As the final hooter rang around London’s iconic venue to give Warrington a 25-16 win over Huddersfield, the most striking image that still remains with me from that day was not something which occurred on the pitch but of a grown man stood in front of me in floods of tears being consoled by his wife.
“Why’s he crying?” my naive 16-year-old self wondered. “We did it… we won!”
But it’s only now on reflection do I understand the significance of that Wembley win – the club’s first in 35 years.
Flash-forward to the present day and Warrington, now a leading force in Super League, are currently chasing an elusive treble, with this Saturday’s Challenge Cup final the first piece of the jigsaw.
But it wasn’t always this way. When I first began supporting the club in 2002 the side were at the foot of the Super League table battling relegation. It was only a penultimate day of the season win over Castleford which meant the Wolves narrowly avoided the drop that year. That of course came just a couple of years after the very real prospect of the club folding and ceasing to exist due to financial troubles.
When I used to watch other teams battling it out in the Challenge Cup Final and Grand Final growing up I used to sit back and think of how incredible it would be to one day see my team competing in those finals. But it always felt like an impossible dream.
To put it bluntly, Simon Moran’s investment in the club has helped turn that dream into a reality. The transformation didn’t happen overnight but the way the club has progressed and grown over the last decade from being Super League strugglers to now potentially being two months away from writing their name in the history books is extraordinary.
Head coach Tony Smith will lead Warrington out for the fourth time at Wembley on Saturday and shortly after his appointment in March 2009 made winning the competition his top priority.
The route to the final was not easy that year. A golden-point drop-goal from Lee Briers saw the Wire edge past Hull KR in the quarter-finals before the side overcame a tough test against local rivals Wigan 39-26 in a tense semi-final.
But they were there and for the first time in 19 years Warrington had a chance at lifting silverware.
Most of the pre-match talk from fans was that the result was irrelevant and simply making the final was an achievement in itself. That notion quickly changed once Richie Mathers crossed inside the opening two minutes to give the Wolves an early lead.
The game was a dogged, nail-biting affair but as Briers slotted over a drop-goal to give Warrington a nine point lead with a couple minutes remaining it began to dawn that Warrington’s name was on the trophy.
As Briers joined captain Adrian Morley to lift the cup, the 30,000 Wire fans inside Wembley soaked up the success they had been starved of for so long.
The joke at the time was that supporters should enjoy the moment because it would be another 35 years before we would win the trophy again. The players instantly proved that wrong a year later by comprehensively beating Leeds 30-6. By 2012, it was almost habitual as Warrington again eased past the Rhinos on the Wembley turf.
Ahead of Warrington’s fourth Wembley appearance in eight seasons on Saturday it’s important to reflect on how far the club has come in a short space of time.
“It’s always your year!” Well, personally, in 2009 it was.
While the whole of Europe will have their eyes focused on France and the start of Euro 2016 on Friday night, Super League has its own headline act at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
Warrington versus Hull FC may have represented a dead rubber fixture in recent seasons with little to write home about but now, after 17 rounds in 2016, it’s a mouth-watering top of the table clash with Hull able to go four points ahead of the Wolves at the summit with a win.
Since the advent of Super League in 1996 only four teams have lifted the trophy in the Grand Final at Old Trafford – Bradford, Leeds, St Helens and Wigan.
Bradford have been relegated. Leeds have fallen. St Helens have faltered. And although Wigan sit fourth with the same number of points as Warrington they are yet to reach the heights from previous campaigns and have scored the second fewest points in the league.
There is a very real chance that the trend is about to be broken this year and there is a possibility that Friday’s game could be a Grand Final rehearsal.
Both sides have been there before. The Airlie Birds made their solitary Old Trafford appearance back in 2006 but were beaten 26-4 by St Helens.
Warrington have made the trip twice but came off second best on both occasions – most notably surrendering a 16-6 half-time lead against Wigan in 2013 to lose 30-16.
For Super League’s two biggest underachievers, is this the year one of them finally takes the title?
‘It’s always your year’ is the chant opposition fans have for years mocked Warrington supporters with but could 2016 actually be the year the Wolves taste success?
After a poor 2015 saw Tony Smith’s side finish 6th, change was needed and a host of new additions have bolstered the side.
The experienced Kurt Gidley has been a revelation and his half-back partnership with Chris Sandow has helped the Wolves become the league’s highest points scorers.
Warrington lost four out of six league games in Sandow’s recent absence with a hamstring injury but have put together two comprehensive wins over Leeds and St Helens since his return.
The Wolves’ other defeat this season came at the hands of Hull on Easter Monday who edged a thrilling contest 26-24 at the KC Stadium.
Super League’s sleeping giants have awoken in 2016 and rightfully sit top of the table having won 11 of their last 12 league games.
They are unbeaten in their last seven and head into Friday’s game full of confidence that they can stretch their lead at the top to four points.
After an 8th place finish in 2015 the side were determined to work on their faults in pre-season and are reaping the rewards.
The majority of the team are in the form of their careers with Marc Sneyd and Jamie Shaul stand out performers so far this campaign.
Lee Radford has also praised the medical staff for keeping his team relatively injury-free but even when they have missed the likes of Frank Pritchard and Leon Pryce their strength in depth has ensured their performances don’t drop.
Perhaps it’s too soon to get carried away but either way both sides will be looking to show they can play like champions and not just contenders on Friday night.
“We didn’t even learn French in school!” Richie Myler chuckles when asked how his French lessons are going.
The former Warrington and Salford scrum-half left behind the north-west of England at the end of 2015 for a new chapter in his career living and playing in the south of France with the Catalans Dragons.
The 25-year-old scored 80 tries in 142 appearances during his six seasons with the Wolves and most notably lifted the Challenge Cup in 2012 following a 35-18 win over Leeds at Wembley.
Warrington just missed out on attaining the double that season as Leeds avenged their defeat when the sides met in the Grand Final at Old Trafford; an occasion in which Myler grabbed the first try to give Wire supporters hope of winning their first league title in 57 years.
The half-back was again on the losing side at Old Trafford 12 months later as Wigan beat the Wolves 30-16, but the experiences of playing in the grandeur occasions are what Myler says he cherishes most about his time in the Primrose and Blue.
“I had an amazing time at Warrington,” he reflected.
“I had six great years there. I’ve been fortunate to play in a Challenge Cup final and Grand Finals. We got beat in those two Grand Finals but it was still a great experience.
“I made a lot of good friends there and the club was very good to me. It will be interesting when I go back- hopefully I’ll get a good reception.
“I left on good terms and the club seems to be heading in the right direction as well which is always a good thing.”
After playing an integral role in Salford being promoted to Super League in 2009, the then 19-year-old became the most expensive teenage signing in rugby league history when Warrington parted with £200,000 for his services.
Myler spent his first five years at the Wolves playing alongside Catalans assistant coach Michael Monaghan and he claims the opportunity to work with the Australian again was one of the factors which influenced his decision to move to the south of France.
“I’m good friends with Michael away from rugby,” he explained.
“When the option to come to Catalans came up there was the draw of Monas being here and he told me good stuff. It wasn’t the deciding factor but to work with him again was definitely a reason why I’ve joined here.
“The way the club is heading was a big draw and I’m excited for my time here.”
For someone who has played in England for his whole career, Myler could easily be forgiven for speaking tentatively about the challenges which face him and his family in adapting to an unfamiliar culture.
However, even through a scrambled phone connection you can hear the excitement brimming in his voice when talking about the new chapter of his career.
When it became clear he wouldn’t be playing at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in 2016, Myler and his wife, former Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton, began to assess their next move.
The half-back became a father to his son Ernie back in June last year and despite rumoured interest from NRL side Manly he says the family needed a fresh start that wasn’t a million miles from home.
“There were a couple of other options but for myself and my family Catalans was the right choice,” he said.
“We’ve just had the baby and it would probably have been too far to have gone to Australia so across the channel was the right way to go.
“We’ve settled in well. It hasn’t really been much of a culture shock just a change to the way of life. For example on Sundays everything is closed, it’s a family day which is good. Nothing opens at all- if you want to go the supermarket you go on a Saturday.
“It’s a nice place to live and is quite relaxing.”
Myler’s new club Catalans are Super League’s Jekyll and Hyde team. The side have consistently made the top-eight in the past few seasons but dismal displays on their travels have prevented Laurent Frayssinous’ men from challenging for silverware.
The Dragons won just twice away from home last season- a 40-4 drubbing away to bottom of the league Wakefield and a 28-24 dead rubber against Hull FC in the Super 8s.
On the other hand, their home form is immaculate with only Leeds and Huddersfield leaving the Stade Gilbert Brutus with the two points in 2015.
After training in 20 degree heat for the past couple of weeks, Catalans were understandably perturbed by their visit to a freezing, rain-soaked DW Stadium last Friday in their opening game of the season.
Laurent Frayssinous’ side made 12 handling errors in the opening 40 minutes as they slowly adapted to conditions but put in a stronger second-half performance to narrowly lose 12-6 to a Wigan side who remain favourites with bookmakers to lift the Super League title in October.
Whether it is preparation, mentality or failure to adapt to conditions Myler insists the side are determined to overcome their away struggles this year.
“As an away team one of the factors you have to overcome is the travel and that’s always a tough ask,” he said.
“It’s an obvious fall and one we’ve spoken about putting right this year. But on the other hand you have to look at how good the home form was last year. We’re a really consistent team at home and hopefully we can continue that.
“If we can pick up a few more away wins this season then we shouldn’t be too far off the top.”
Myler is one of seven new faces at the Dragons this year and has the difficult task of replacing Scott Dureau following the Australian’s retirement at the end of 2015.
The nucleus of every successful rugby league side is a dynamic and audacious partnership in the halves and Catalans’ supporters will be hoping that Myler and Todd Carney will link-up and be the Dragons’ creative force this season.
Carney too is looking to kick-start his career in the south of France this season after injuries restricted him to making just 12 appearances last campaign and Myler is relishing the opportunity to play alongside the former Cronulla stand-off.
“He’s a very smart player and it’s good to be able to work alongside a player like that.
“Hopefully it brings my game on. He’s a talented player and hopefully we can get the best out of each other this year and be successful.
“There’s a good feeling amongst the team and a good spirit. There is that language barrier and it could have easily been a case of the English-speaking blokes sitting in one corner and the French in another but that’s not the case. You mix, get to know each other and I think that’s helped the team bond.
“We’re aiming for the top 8 and if we’re successful in the top 8 then we’re going to be happy with how we’ve done.”
Myler has lined up on the away side six times at the Stade Gilbert Brutus during his career but will walk out in Catalonian colours for the first time in front of the home fans on Saturday when the Dragons face Hull FC.
The half-back praised the fans for the electric atmosphere they generate and is excited to make his home debut in front of them at the weekend.
“We train at the stadium everyday and some fans come down and watch us train,” he said.
“It’ll be nice to play in front of a big crowd hopefully and to play here with the crowd cheering in my favour for the first time.
“As an away player it’s not always a good experience playing here. The fans can be very vocal but now they’ll be on my side.”
2016 is an exciting year for rugby league in France due to the reintroduction of Toulouse Olympique into the English competition and Challenge Cup.
The side will join League 1 with the intention of promotion to the Championship for next year and the long-term aim of joining Catalans in Super League.
Renewed interest, support and investment in the sport has led to Toulouse’s progress and Myler agrees that passion for rugby league among the locals is evident.
“There’s a massive draw for rugby league in this part of the world,” he says.
“When you meet the fans and you meet the locals in Perpignan you see their passion for the sport and Catalans. People come from far and wide to watch the team.
“If there ends up being another French team in the competition one day it’ll only make the fan base here even stronger.”
Kevin Brown believes the new signings Widnes have made are capable of helping the club clinch a play-off spot in 2016.
The Vikings have recruited Chris Houston and Corey Thompson from the NRL as well as bringing in Chris Bridge from Warrington, Setaimata Sa from Hull FC and Connor Farrell on loan from Wigan.
Despite performing well last season, Widnes failed to pick up enough wins to qualify for the Super 8s and Brown says improving their defence is key to securing more wins this campaign.
“We’ve done a lot of work defensively to improve,” said the Widnes skipper.
“We lost a lot of games last year in which we worked really hard and played well but fell just short and it was hard for me to hold my hands up and admit we weren’t quite good enough.
“That in some ways more demoralising than getting stuffed because at least if you get beaten badly you know you’ve got it in you to perform better.
“This year we’ve got genuine talent across the team- we haven’t just added squad players. The new guys have jumped straight into the first-team and are capable of winning us games on their own. With players like Chris Bridge and Setaimata Sa, you pass them the ball and they do things off their own back, make breaks and create opportunities for us to get over that line.
“A top-eight finish is a minimum for us this year. We don’t just want to finish in the top-eight and say “job done”. Our aim is to finish there and then hopefully shake the Super 8s up.”
After finishing the regular rounds in 9th place the Vikings dropped into the Middle 8s where five wins from seven games guaranteed their Super League spot for 2016.
Widnes conceded just 70 points across those seven matches and Brown says he was pleased with how the side performed in the Middle 8s.
“I think as a spectacle it worked really well,” said the former Wigan and Huddersfield player.
“You don’t want to be involved in the Million Pound Game but I’m sure a lot of people tuned in to watch it. The attendances and atmospheres were good in the Middle 8s and everyone got behind it.
“Once we got over the anxiety and the fear of “what happens if?” we just approached it the same as we would approach a Super League game.
“Nobody wanted to drop out of Super League again after all the club has done in recent years so full credit to our boys for coming through it and performing in a spectacular fashion.”
In an innovative move by the club for 2016, Brown will be involved in a ‘Captain’s Call’ decision each week in which the half-back will choose which kit the Vikings line-up in.
The skipper will choose from either an all-black or an all-white strip but insists it will have little bearing on how the side performs.
“I’m looking forward to getting the stick when I pick the wrong kit!
“The weather will come into it- if it’s going to be red hot I’ll pick the white kit. It’s a bit of fun but at the end of the day it’s not going to have a bearing on how we play.”
Danny Kirmond believes the nerve-wracking experience of playing in the Million Pound Game last season will motivate him and his Wakefield teammates to improve in 2016.
The Wildcats finished 4th in the Middle 8s and as a result faced 5th placed Bradford in the inaugural Million Pound Game for a place in Super League this season.
Kirmond led his team to a 24-16 victory but with the threat of the club having to go part-time and players losing their jobs if they had lost, the Wakefield captain admits it was a very tense time for the club.
“The million pound game isn’t where we want to be,” Kirmond told NothingButLeague.
“The excitement it created was great for the game and the spectators but as a player it was a nerve-wracking experience. If we’d have lost our contracts would have been voided and it was a very tense time.
“After the game it was a huge relief. I felt sorry for the Bradford guys but at the same time it was a huge relief for us to stay in Super League.”
Despite winning their opening two games in 2015, Wakefield went on to record just one further victory and finished the regular rounds bottom of the table.
Brian Smith took over from James Webster as head coach midway through last season and Kirmond says he is relishing the opportunity to work under the experienced Australian coach.
“He keeps you on your toes,” said the Wakefield skipper.
“He gets the best out of his players all the time and is challenging you to do better.
“As you get older and coming into your 30s sometimes you feel neglected and forgotten about and often the coaches overlook you and don’t expect you to improve too much but Brian is always challenging me and helping me improve my game.”
Wakefield get their 2016 campaign underway at home to Widnes on Sunday and Kirmond claims there is an excitement around the club which he hasn’t felt for a while.
“I’m excited for the start of the season like I haven’t felt for a number of years.
“We’ve added a great blend of youth and experience into the team and there’s a great sense of camaraderie in the squad this year.
“We believe we’ve got a great squad and are confident we can do really well. The top-eight is a realistic ambition but first of all it’s to improve on last year and not be involved in that million pound game.”