THEY are known as masters of last-gasp escapes, but Wakefield Trinity Wildcats have taken a more direct – and unexpected –route to Super League safety this season.
Wakefield, who have avoided relegation with wins in their final game of the year four times since joining the top flight in 1999, had achieved their initial goal this term with seven games in hand.
Coach Chris Chester’s side will go into tomorrow’s home derby against Castleford Tigers – their final game of the regular season – in sixth place and already guaranteed Super League rugby next season. The failure of defending champions Leeds Rhinos to secure a top-eight position has been the big story of the campaign so far, but Wakefield’s contrasting achievement is just as notable.
They finished the 2015 regular campaign 11 points adrift at the foot of the table and only retained their place in the competition thanks to a nerve-wracking victory over Championship team Bradford Bulls in the sudden-death ‘million pound’ match.
When Chester, sacked by Hull KR just three games into the season, took over at Easter they were bottom of the table.
Since then they have won 10 of their 16 league fixtures and have clawed their way into touching distance of the top-four semi-final positions.
“Getting into the top eight is a massive achievement for everybody at the club,” said Chester.
“I took over a squad of players who weren’t believing in themselves, but we have got a lot of belief in the group now and that has been a big factor in how we play and the results as well.”
Wakefield were tipped before the season began as the Super League team most likely to find themselves in this year’s ‘million pound’ shootout, but Chester said he always believed they could avoid that scenario.
“That’s something I talked to [chairman] Michael Carter about when I took over,” he said.
“I didn’t want to be in that ‘million pound’ game. Michael wanted a good Middle-8s run, but I thought we could get into the Super-8 and we have managed to do that.
“I am pleased for everybody, because they have been through a tough period.
“I know as a Wakefield fan the last 10 years have been tough, so it is nice people can look at us now as an improving club.
“People want to join Wakefield, which hasn’t been the case in recent years. A lot of the credit for that goes to Michael Carter, who has not just invested a lot of money, but a lot of time as well to turn things around.”
Victory tomorrow, guaranteeing they finish above their nearest neighbours at the end of the weekly rounds, would be another feather in Wakefield’s cap.
Castleford half-back Luke Gale is aware, in contrast to recent seasons, it is the home team who will go into the game with momentum behind them.
Castleford will overtake Wakefield if they win tomorrow, but Gale warned: “They are on a bit of a roll at the moment.
“They had a good win at Catalans last week, they are going well and I’m sure they’ve got a bit of confidence.”