After the 'New era of rugby league' began back in February, it is hard to believe that the regular season has come to an end so quickly with this weekend featuring the final round of games ahead of the inaugural 'Super 8's stage. Round 23 saw the mantra of 'Every minute matters' fulfil its pledge for the season with all but one team still with something to play for.
The round opened at the KC Stadium on Thursday night as Hull FC hosted Wigan Warriors with the hosts hoping to capture sixth spot while the Warriors had eyes on finishing second ahead of the split.
The Warriors poor away form saw them tipped as underdogs but they defied the odds to open the scoring inside six minutes as Joe Burgess raced clear to score with Matty Smith converting for 6-0 before a clever try from John Bateman (Smith conv) made it 12-0 on 15 minutes. FC replied with a try from Richard Whiting with Marc Sneyd converting to reduce the gap to 12-6.
Wigan restored their 12 point lead within four minutes as Sam Powell touched down for his first try of the campaign with Smith converting for 18-6 before George Williams added a fourth try for the visitors before the interval (Smith conv) for a comfortable 24-6 lead into the break.
Hull had only suffered two defeats at home this season but looked even closer to a third when Matt Bowen (Smith conv) extended Wigan's lead just five minutes after restart for 30-6 before a try from Warriors captain Sean O'Loughlin (Smith conv) left Hull in trouble at 36-6. The hosts responded with an effort from Joe Westerman with Sneyd converting for 36-12 but it proved to be in vain as Wigan posted two tries in the final nine minutes.
Matt Bowen crossed for a superb second try before Dom Crosby rounded off a stunning evening for the Warriors with Smith's seventh and eighth conversions completing a 48-12 triumph which sees Wigan end with three away wins. I took in the game as part of my Away Days feature which follows below.
Friday's action came from Langtree Park as St Helens hosted Hull Kingston Rover with the Saints keen to secure top spot while deposing their rivals into second while the Robins needed a miracle to avoid missing out on eighth spot.
A tight first ten minutes between the sides soon saw the hosts race into a 24-0 lead with four scores in a ten minute spell as Joe Greenwood, Travis Burns, Matt Dawson and Atelea Vea all crossed with Luke Walsh converting the quartet of tries.
The Robins responded with two tries in as many minutes before the interval as Kieran Dixon and John Boudebza reduced the deficit with Josh Mantellato converting both for 24-12 at the break.
The Saints shrugged off the Robins response with scores from Adam Quinlan and Mark Flanagan's first of the season (Walsh convs) for a 36-12 lead before wrapping up a comfortable victory with a second from Greenwood ahead of a brace from Adam Swift in the final minutes with Walsh adding two conversions to complete a 52-12 routing of a Robins side now confirmed to miss the top eight as the Saints move to the league's summit.
The stand-out tie of Sunday's quartet came from the Mend-A-Hose Jungle as fifth placed Castleford Tigers hosted sixth placed Warrington Wolves with the Tigers having eyes on fourth spot while the Wolves were keen to close up on their hosts in fifth.
Castleford have been hard to beat at home this season but Warrington looked to rubbish such a fact early on as captain Joel Monaghan signalled his return from injury with the opening try on seven minutes which Gareth O'Brien converted for 6-0. Ben Westwood added a second try with O'Brien converting before scoring himself for a 16-0 lead.
Gene Ormsby extended the Wolves' lead for 20-0 before a second effort from Monaghan and a try from Ben Currie completed a perfect first half for the visitors who after O'Brien's conversion led 30-0 leaving Castleford with a huge task to avoid a humiliating defeat. Warrington continued to dominate in the second half with a score from Stefan Ratchford (O'Brien conv) for 36-0 before a first senior try from Academy starlet Sam Wilde put the Wolves in control at 40-0.
The Tigers avoided a fist home nilling of the season with a consolation try from Junior Moors 0n 70 minutes with Liam Finn converting for 40-6 but Warrington had the last say on the game with Richie Myler crossing in the final minutes for a 44-6 hammering for a Tigers side who head into the split in poor form.
The Select Security Stadium saw the battle for ninth as tenth places Widnes Vikings hosted eleventh placed Salford Red Devils with both sides knowing a win would seal ninth spot at the expense of Hull Kingston Rovers.
Salford opened the scoring with a 16th minute try from rising star Niall Evalds with Josh Griffin converting for 6-0 but the hosts replied just six minutes later with Chris Clarkson touching down with Stefan Marsh's conversion levelling at 6-6. Salford regained the lead on 27 minutes through Cory Paterson with Griffin successful with the boot for 12-6, a lead which sent them into the interval ahead.
The visitors were wary of a fightback and added to their lead with a Griffin penalty on 46 minutes for 14-6 but Widnes replied with a try from Paddy Flynn for 14-10 only for Scott Taylor (Griffin conv) to push the Red Devils into a ten point lead at 20-10. As the game entered the final 15 minutes, Stefan Marsh ran in a self-converted try for 16-20 before Aaron Heremaia drew the Vikings level at 20-20 with ten minute remaining.
Both sides pushed for what would be a vital win with potential drop-goal attempts failing but in the final minute, Danny Craven was successful and sealed a 21-20 victory which sealed ninth spot and left the Red Devils just one place off the bottom in eleventh.
The only game to feature a side with no potential of moving position saw fourth placed Huddersfield Giants host rock-bottom Wakefield Wildcats with the Giants looking to cement their top four place while the Wildcats looked for some joy in a season which has seen them win just once since their opening double triumph.
Despite their poor season, Wakefield continued their trend of starting well at home with the opening score from in-form Jacob Miller on seven minutes with Craig Hall converting for 6-0 but were pegged back by a six minute double from the Giants as Luke Robinson and Jodie Broughton crossed with a conversion from Danny Brough making it 10-6.
Micheal Lawrence extended the lead for the hosts with Brough adding the extras for 16-6 before quick reply from Scott Anderson (Hall conv) cut the gap to 16-12 before Dan Smith signalled his move from the Wildcats with a try for his new side at 20-12 with Brough converting ahead of a try from Leroy Cudjoe (Brough conv) as the Giants led 28-12 into the interval.
Matt Ashurst and Lee Smith gave the Wildcats hope at 28-20 but a self-converted try from Brough saw the Giants move to 34-20 and with 15 minutes remaining, looking on course for victory but Wakefield cut the gap with a 72nd minute effort from Reece Lyne for 34-24 but were unable to prevent a defeat that sees them end with just six points from 23 games.
Last but by no means least in this review is the meeting at Headingley between potential table toppers Leeds Rhinos and eight placed Catalans Dragons with the Rhinos knowing a win would seal first place ahead of the split while the Dragons looked for only their second away win with Hull KR's loss confirming their place in the top eight.
Leeds made a superb start with an instant impact from the returning Tom Briscoe whose comeback from injury took just four minutes with Kevin Sinfield converting for 6-0, Tony Gigot replied for the Dragons on 22 minutes with Scott Dureau levelling at 6-6 with the boot. Morgan Escaré put the visitors in front at 10-6 before a second effort from Briscoe saw the sides level at 10-10 just before the interval
Mitch Garbutt opened his account for the Rhinos in the final minute of the half with Sinfield converting for a 16-10 lead into the break before adding a penalty on 46 minutes for 18-10. Scott Dureau crossed for the Dragons on 50 minutes and converted his won score to make it 18-16 but another Sinfield penalty within two minutes made it 20-16.
Kallum Watkins extended the lead on the hour at 24-16 with Brett Delaney (Sinfield conv) pushing the Rhinos to 30 points ahead of a hat-trick try from Briscoe (Sinfield conv) for 36-16 but the Dragons ended the Rhinos' spree with a Gigot sealing his second try with Dureau converting for 36-22 which is how the game ended meaning the Rhinos moved above St Helens at the top as the Dragons ended the regular season with just a single win on their travels.