Across all three games this weekend, those involved with be playing for their lives - some more literally than others. For the first time, this new format has thrown two bottom four Super League teams together in the dreaded Million Pound Game, with only one space left remaining in the top flight next season.
With the money available to Super League sides far and away more than that's earned by Championship clubs, the side who loses and faces relegation faces an uncertain financial future, with cutbacks likely to be made across the organisation.
The threat of going part-time is very real, so wages will be cut, players let go and staff made redundant almost overnight. Hull KR fullback Ben Cockayne is one of many who've spoken out about the pressure of having such a play-off, and the negative mental state it can enforce on those involved, knowing that it's not only their own contracts, but the livelihoods of those working at the club in a non-playing capacity that are on the line.
Controversy and pressure did result in a memorable encounter between Wakefield and Bradford last season, however, so two Super League sides fighting for survival could create one of the tensest atmosphere's of the season.
The two play-off matches will be tense in their own regard, with all four teams showing the type of ability required of a champion side at various points this season, all staking a claim to be the favourite going in to the semi-final stages. Perhaps the healthiest batch of teams to ever come together for a place in the Grandfinal, we could be in for two bonafide classics.
- Warrington Wolves vs St Helens
Thursday 29th September, 20:00
Live on SkySports
Warrington overcame Hull away last week to exercise their Challenge Cup demons and claim the League Leaders' Shield, which - having scored more and conceded less than every other side in the competition - seemed more than deserved on the night. Saints, meanwhile, have shaped up over the past couple of months to look like the most in-form side in Super League despite only finishing fourth, and coach Kieron Cunningham will want to avoid falling one hurdle short of Old Trafford for a second season on the bounce.
Much like in boxing, styles can make matches, and Warrington and Saints approach the game in very different ways. Wire all about flair, unpredictability and style, while St Helens concentrate on getting the basics perfect, working hard as a unit, and converting from high percentage areas of the field. If what Kieron Cunningham coaches his side to do is rugby league's answer to Tetris, it's nothing but all-action Call Of Duty warfare from Tony Smith and his men.
Saints have been a bogie side for Wire down the years, and that will certainly be playing on their minds going in to this one. There is a definite temptation to back the away side to spring a surprise given their high price, but having come through that test against Hull, the wind will be in Warrington's sails too. No matter who wins, this one will be awfully close, but backing Wire to snatch it at home feels like the most likely outcome.
Recommended Bet: Warrington Wolves to beat St Helens by 1-10pts @ 7/4
- Wigan Warriors vs Hull FC
Friday 30th September, 20:00
Live on SkySports
These two have had some thrilling encounters this season, with Hull coming on top in the cup semi-final, and Wigan going to Hull away and winning to cost them top spot and an almost certain run at the League Leader's Shield. Worthy of a Grandfinal, the ability Wigan have shown in the past few weeks to get themselves in to second and secure a home play-off is indicative of the passions Shaun Wane sends his side out on to the field with week after week. Desperate to deliver some silverware and avoid another trophy-less season, the Warriors will be at their intense best from minute one.
Hull, however, have shown a remarkable ability to come back when doubted this season, and it wasn't so long ago some were tipping them to follow in the footsteps of Leeds and sweep the lot for a domestic treble. Before losing to Warrington at home last week, Hull had been pretty faultless in pressure situations so far this season, and Lee Radford will be hoping to get his side back to their confident best this weekend if possible. Both teams can put points on the board and defend with power for long stretches, so this could boil down to something far more primal than just skill and ability.
There will be a hefty crowd in to see this encounter tomorrow night, and whoever plays the occasion better is likely to come away with the win. When writing about their semi-final, I backed Wigan to win with the more experienced squad and coach, and I'm going to do so again for a similar reason. This is a Warriors side who can play with skill and speed, but with spite, anger and aggression as well - depending on how much of a fire remains in the Hull belly, this might prove to be one arm-wrestle too many.
Recommended Bet: Wigan Warriors to beat Hull FC by 11-20pts @ 3/1
- Hull Kingston Rovers vs Salford Red Devils
Saturday 1st October, 15:00
Live on SkySports
Neither side are looking forward to this game, and both have their reasons for feeling somewhat aggrieved for having to play it, too. Salford, banished to the bottom four for another season after having points deducted for salary cap irregularities could argue that they shouldn't have been in this side of the split at all, with owner Marwan Koukash launching his offensive against the RFL for yet again punishing the financial behaviour of his club.
Hull KR, on the other hand, lost against Huddersfield by a contentious Danny Brough drop goal - one that prop and rugby manager Jamie Peacock claims to have watched miss from his position on the field of play. Had that match ended in a draw, Huddersfield would have to play this game, while Rovers could celebrate safety.
Played at Craven Park, this game really could go either way. On paper, Salford have the better team to chose from, the bigger names and the more exciting brand of rugby, while KR have a temporary coach, their most effective attacking player suspended by the club themselves for ill-discipline off the field and an injury crisis so deep that the aforementioned Peacock had to bring himself out of retirement to lend a hand. On the field, however, KR play with more unity and consistency, with Salford's worst enemy more often than themselves.
Home advantage could prove crucial, and while likely to be tight, there's more about Hull KR as a team and organisation to get through an emotional test like this than may be available to Salford, who've been known to wilt on pressure occasions. That said, however, with both teams playing for their contracts, careers and jobs of those inside the club they give everything to represent, this really is the type of game where the form books can be thrown out of the window.
Recommended Bet: Hull Kingston Rovers to beat Salford Red Devils by 1-10pts @ 2/1