THERE was an eerie sense of familiarity to Leeds Rhinos’ play at Wigan on Thursday night.
Everyone knows the story now; approaching the play-offs and, as if simply turning on a switch, the stylish champions suddenly look both impregnable and unplayable, seemingly offering utter conviction and control in everything they do.
All of the problems that had gone before them, including a whole raft of injuries mid-season that would have derailed most sides in Super League, are instantly forgotten and they are in cruise mode once more.
One of the most pleasing sights for the West Yorkshire club, though, if not anyone who dares get in their way as they take the first steps potentially towards an incredulous sixth Grand Final success in just seven years, was the sight of Danny McGuire arcing around Blake Green and making one of his trademark electric breaks early on in the 20-6 victory.
When the England half-back broke his leg at Hull in May, few expected him to feature again at all this season but now – in only his second game after returning – McGuire, pictured in action, is already quickly into his stride.
“The comeback’s been all right though that (Wigan) was a bit of a shock to the system,” McGuire told the Yorkshire Post, after they had battled through an epic contest to usurp their opponents from third and set up an opening play-off game at Warrington next Saturday.
“It was a really intense game and there were times when I was struggling a little bit out there.
“But I was just thinking with this team you don’t want to be the one who lets anyone down.
“I thought across the board we were brilliant. I still feel a bit rusty and I’m still finding my feet a little bit but I think these last two games – Catalan and now Wigan – will put me in good stead for the play-offs.
“I’m looking forward to it.”
As is this entire Leeds squad. Having won the last two Grand Finals from the invidious position of fifth, they have theoretically made the task a little easier this time by snaffling a top-four spot.
That gives them a second chance in the play-offs if needed but you sense, if they play again like they did against Challenge Cup victors Wigan, that Brian McDermott’s side will not require such a safety net.
They fought back from 6-4 down at the break with a second-half domination and McGuire, who has won six titles with Leeds, admitted: “I reckon that’s the best we’ve played all year, to be fair.
“That’s all round – defensively and with the ball as we definitely threw some stuff at them.
“Wigan defended well in all honesty – they are a good team – but I think we’re in a good position now.
“We’re confident and have got everybody back out there – Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Brett Delaney got some game time as well – and there’s a little bit of competition for places which keeps everybody on their toes.
“We’re in a good place at the minute but we haven’t achieved anything yet.
“We’ve got Warrington now away in the play-offs and it’s a massive game to go over there.”
The 30-year-old linked up with Kevin Sinfield at half-back once more, with Rob Burrow returning from a back strain to resume at hooker, though the trio regularly interchanged between the three roles which kept Wigan guessing.
“It’s something that Mac came up with and the good thing about us three is we always want to do the best for the team,” added McGuire.
“It’s never about one person and that’s been our big success over the years – we’ll all give our best for the team wherever we play.
“Kev, Rob and myself seemed to go pretty well on the night and hopefully it can be something else we can use.
“Obviously, Sutts (Liam Sutcliffe) coming off the bench had an impact as well.”
When it comes to impact, however, there has to be mention of peerless prop Jamie Peacock, who continually pushed Wigan back. It is staggering to think the ex-England captain is nearing his 36th birthday and McGuire conceded: “He’s just different gravy. Unbelievable.
“JP is different class and that performance puts him right up there in contention for Man of Steel. He is in my eyes, anyway, and always has been.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that but he couldn’t have played any better at Wigan.”
Ahead of the World Cup, has there been any prompting from his club colleagues for Peacock to reconsider his decision to quit the international arena?
“He just keeps going and he’s definitely got his head around that now,” said McGuire. “Probably deep down he’d like to have another bash at it but I think he’s happy with what he’s doing with Leeds and we are reaping the benefits of the great pre-season he had.”