Leeds’s hunger is undiminished heading into familiar final battle

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Defiant captain Kevin Sinfield believes people continue to underestimate the quality of Grand Finalists Leeds Rhinos – and he does not mind in the slightest.

St Helens are odds-on favourites to lift the Super League trophy tonight and end their four-year losing sequence at Old Trafford.

To do that they must defeat an in-form Leeds side who stunned minor champions Warrington Wolves last weekend and who have strung together a five-match winning run since losing the Challenge Cup final at Wembley.

It should be a tight contest but Sinfield reckons most observers are expecting Saints to ease home.

“We went to Huddersfield a fortnight ago and no one expected us to win,” he said.

“No one expected us to win at Warrington either and I don’t think anyone expects us to win on Saturday.

“People keep writing this team off. We’ve turned some heads but I think people think our Cup final was last week.

“They don’t realise what’s still left in this group and how much hunger there is for this match which is great as it means we can go there with no pressure and throw everything we’ve got at Saints.”

To underestimate Leeds would be folly. While they may have finished fifth, two places below Saints, their experience in such contests is second to none.

Sinfield has lifted the trophy there four times and sets another record this evening by captaining Leeds at Old Trafford for a sixth occasion, surpassing former Bradford Bulls leader Robbie Paul’s previous best of five.

He concedes that being continuously written off this season – they were as low as eighth in July – has partly fuelled the squad’s desire to reclaim the title they lost last year.

“If I’m being really honest, we just didn’t want the season to end,” said the highly-decorated stand-off.

“We’d started to pick some form up and just felt like we were getting started.

“It’s a funny situation because a lot of the guys had played, at that time, almost 30 games yet mentally felt great.

“Now we find ourselves here at Old Trafford in the final.

“We’ll turn up with no pressure on and try and play as well as we can.”

With Sinfield surrounded by such experienced professionals as Jamie Peacock, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who all played in that trio of wins over Saints, the Rhinos’ squad is certainly well set.

People like the gifted Ali Lauitiiti, who has featured in five Grand Finals with Leeds, may even struggle to make the matchday squad given the quality and form of their current group and coach Brian McDermott is under no pressure to rush back Kallum Watkins from injury.

“We’ve got some great young lads coming through who have not had a taste of this before,” said Sinfield.

“But the core have been here and played in big games or internationals and know what it’s all about. We just need to stay relaxed now and there is no pressure on us.”

The 31-year-old’s guiding presence will be crucial to Leeds’s cause, his kicking game being particularly destructive in previous Old Trafford meetings with Saints.

As will the squad’s “integrity”, which McDermott spoke so glowingly of after their semi-final win over Warrington.

Sinfield, who has led the side since 2003 with this his 14th final during that reign, admitted humility is something he feels is central to everything they have achieved this year.

“I’m very proud to captain this side and be involved with this club but I think there’s a way to win and a way to lose,” said Sinfield.

“We’ve shown that all year. When we’ve lost we’ve been respectful of the opposition and how they’ve played – we’ve not looked for excuses – and when we’ve won we’ve been humble and credited opposition for how they’ve played and what they’ve done.

“I think there’s a lot of integrity in this group.

“We’re very respectful of St Helens and their incredible record both in Grand Finals and getting to Old Trafford.

“But, where 99 per cent of rugby league fans didn’t expect Leeds Rhinos to do so well, we’ve now got an opportunity on Saturday to go there and have another crack.

“For us to win we’ve probably got to find our best performance of the year but that’s still within this group.”

They delivered their best so far just last week to bring down Warrington in a game Sinfield likened to a full-blown international.

“I really enjoyed it and knew quite early on that the intensity was like a Grand Final or Test match,” he said.

“We all knew what was at stake and for it to be so close when we were massive underdogs made me just so proud to be out there with those guys.

“We worked and grafted and had some decisions which we felt were unjust but we just rolled our sleeves up and cracked on to fight for the cause.

“It was a great feeling and hopefully we’ll have another one on Saturday.”

Sinfield, who makes his 399th Rhinos appearance, admits the desire for success has never left the club and was only heightened after their Challenge Cup final loss to Wigan.

That proved a major factor in their recent run and the Oldham-born player said: “There was a realisation that after Wembley we only had one more crack at silverware this year.

“For me, the combination of that and of having Jamie (Peacock) and Danny (McGuire) back fully fit and having others back fighting for jerseys in training made sure the intensity was up.”

The likes of Burrow are also hitting the heights, with the electrifying scrum-half enjoying some significant impact while Danny Buderus enjoyed his finest game in Leeds colours against Warrington.

McDermott opted to leave both players on at the same time rather than have Burrow give Buderus a rest which meant all Leeds’s key ball-handlers were on the field at once.

It is something which made Rhinos remarkably potent and it is expected McDermott will do so again this evening.

As Sinfield bids for his fifth winner’s ring, the squad are desperate to send Buderus back to Newcastle Knights with his first.

“Bedsy’s performance was just unreal last week,” he said.

“It was magnificent and I’m sure he’s got another one in him.

“His skill level is just brilliant and he’s been a revelation for the club.

“He’s a great leader and I’ve loved playing alongside him and training with him. It’d be the way to send him out.

“l think Rob coming off the bench against tiring legs gives massive impact and helps the team when trying to change – or keep – momentum as well and it’s worked well.

“We know we’re going to have to deliver our finest display of the season though and that’s the aim for us all.”

dave.craven@ypn.co.uk