PEOPLE may be waxing lyrical about Leeds Rhinos’ impressive style, form and finesse but captain Kevin Sinfield is too worldly to echo all those sentiments yet.
Granted, his vibrant side do sit top of Super League this morning, undoubtedly the finest team to show its colours so far in 2014.
Tonight they tackle champions Wigan Warriors in the final game of Magic Weekend’s opening day and a fixture that whets the appetite above all others.
Unsurprisingly, Leeds are being tipped by many to return to Manchester – United’s Old Trafford, of course, rather than this evening’s Etihad Stadium, home of City – to regain the crown they lost last autumn.
However, Sinfield, who has led them to six Grand Final wins, refuses to be drawn as to whether this intoxicating blend of blue and amber, who have lost just once all year and thrilled crowds aplenty, is the finest yet.
“Honestly, I think I’d like us to be judged October time,” said the England captain.
“We’re going all right. The squad is very strong and has a lot of depth and obviously we’re very happy to be sat in No 1 spot and in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup.
“We’re in decent shape, but I know how quickly that can change; I remember 2005 when it was a great year for us, but we fell short in terms of trophies.”
Despite their perceived dominance that year, they finished with an anti-climax, losing both the Grand Final and Challenge Cup finals. Although Leeds have enjoyed unrivalled success since – last season was a rare barren return – Sinfield knows better than to start celebrating in May.
That said, victory over a Wigan side that ended their 100 per cent Magic Weekend record 12 months ago would be another step in the right direction and open up a seven-point gap between themselves and their third-placed opponents.
“So far we’ve been able to ride long-term injuries to Jamie (Jones-Buchanan), Rob (Burrow) and Paul (Aiton) and as long as that can continue I think we’re in decent nick,” continued Sinfield, who helped Brian McDermott’s team defeat Wigan 28-12 at Headingley just over a fortnight ago.
“We’ll see. The style we’re playing with – and certainly our defensive stuff – has taken a couple of years to evolve, but Mac’s been brilliant and the coaching team outstanding.
“They know how to manage and train our mixture of 17- to 36- (year-olds) and to get the best out of those people every week is a huge challenge for the team.
“Within that, Mac has had a chance to rest a few and rotate a few which has been a rare thing in recent years and it’s probably brought competition for places up another notch. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
Leeds have almost effortlessly overcome the losses of both hookers Burrow and Aiton with second-row Chris Clarkson being the surprise replacement when many thought Sinfield would switch from half-back.
“Clarky’s been brilliant,” he said of the 24-year-old, who has started the last two games at nine before Sinfield takes over.
“He’s shown his versatility. He was a six originally so has certainly got decent hands, has a good engine on him and we’ve both rotated in there (hooker) at times.
“I’m really pleased for him and I think surprised is the wrong word. I don’t think he was the obvious choice, but I’d like to think we’ve unearthed a bit of a gem.
“I don’t think the pair of us are natural hookers. We’re makeshift hookers but if we can keep grinding results out and keep things ticking over until Rob or Paul get back it could be good for us.”
The decision to leave Sinfield alongside usual half-back partner Danny McGuire has limited disruption and should aid continuity when Burrow and Aiton return.
“On top of that we’ve got Sutty banging on the door with some fantastic performances,” added Sinfield, about the young half-back Liam Sutcliffe.
“I think it’s worked well with him coming off the bench – he may not agree and want a starting spot – but he’s causing teams problems and is a great kid.”
There is likely to be a lot of ‘kids’ in Wigan’s team tonight given Shaun Wane’s double winners are missing the likes of captain Sean O’Loughlin plus his fellow England internationals Liam Farrell and Tony Clubb. However, despite being depleted last week too, they showed their class with an emphatic win at Hull FC.
“They’ve a knack of bringing in great young talent; we copped the brunt of that when they turned up the other season at Headingley with a very young side and battered us,” recalled Sinfield.
“Youngsters certainly bring a great deal of enthusiasm, but quality too. They’ve a couple back from our last game, too, and I envisage another tough game.”