Few games have epitomised where Super League, not just Wigan Warriors and Huddersfield Giants, finds itself right now better than this one. The very fact both these sides were scrambling to keep their seasons alive and arrest drastically poor form here was symptomatic of the competition’s wider situation.
With more than 20 first-team players – countless internationals among them – missing across both sides here because of injuries, suspensions and Covid-related issues, no game summed up Super League’s problems better as rugby league’s premiere competition fights not only to keep the integrity of the season intact but to get the campaign through to any sort of finish whatsoever this year.
A dozen games have either been cancelled or postponed this season. Huddersfield were barely able to field a team here, with a string of teenagers, some of whom were making their senior debuts, added to last-minute loan signings to enable them to field a side to compete against a Wigan team on their worst run of form since 2006.
Huddersfield battled bravely, leading for almost an hour. But their play-off hopes now appear over after Wigan ended a run of five consecutive defeats thanks to Harry Smith’s late try. “It was another clunky game, but I’m proud of their resilience,” Wigan’s coach, Adrian Lam said.
There is a feeling from the Rugby Football League that things may get worse before they get better. Super League made the decision to determine the league table on win percentage, rather than points, but clubs have to play 18 of their scheduled 25 games to qualify for the play-offs. Some clubs may struggle to fulfil that quota.
With a backlog of fixtures to be rearranged, there will be players putting their bodies on the line two, or even three, times a week this summer. Here, there were countless stoppages as visibly fatigued players toiled not only for the good of their clubs, but the good of the competition.
Super League not completing its season would be financially disastrous for the sport, due to the reliance it has on its broadcast deal with Sky Sports. The RFL admitted in a briefing on Sunday that the fact fully vaccinated individuals will not have to isolate from 16 August could have a “significant and helpful impact” on rugby league’s ability to complete matches.
But that is still a month away – and there are undoubtedly more postponements to come before then. However, Wigan were at least able to reflect on a victory at long last here, though once again, they did it the hard way. They fell 12-0 behind after early tries from Chris McQueen and Leroy Cudjoe moved Huddersfield into an early lead.
However, after several near-misses, Liam Marshall’s try on the stroke of half-time halved the deficit, before Mitch Clark reduced the gap further with his first try of the season after the restart. For most of the second half, the pressure was incessant on Huddersfield’s line, and you felt that their spirited defensive effort would eventually crumble. That finally materialised when Smith capitalised to score Wigan’s third and while the visitors had their chances in the final moments, Wigan held on for a potentially season-defining victory.
Elsewhere, the RFL’s immediate challenge is making sure St Helens and Castleford come through Monday’s weekly round of testing unscathed, with their meeting at Wembley in the Challenge Cup final on the horizon. Castleford’s final league match before that saw them lose at home to Salford, with the Red Devils comfortably beating an understrength Tigers side 70-18.