AS SOMEONE who has appeared in a record-equalling nine Grand Finals, negotiating the numerous pitfalls of play-off football might seem as elementary as putting on a pair of football boots for Jamie Peacock.
There is something slightly peculiar when October comes around and there is no sight of the striding prop emerging through the customary fireworks into the cauldron of Old Trafford once more.
Remarkably, there are only three finals the former England captain has missed since his first appearance in Super League’s endgame with Bradford Bulls in 2001. Nobody in the sport owns more than Peacock’s seven winners’ rings.
It is possibly down to this dominant presence that some people fully expect his current side Leeds Rhinos to march there yet again, flicking aside tonight’s undoubtedly tricky preliminary semi-final assignment in Perpignan.
The West Yorkshire club, of course, have won four of the last five titles to underline their position as Super League’s most successful side.
They did so last year from the lowly position of fifth, making history in doing so, and they will have to repeat that feat if they are to retain the championship.
But because they finished in fifth again, and lost a third successive Challenge Cup final, many critics have fallen back to the old argument that this Leeds side is on the wane and have only delivered a campaign of disappointment.
Speaking exclusively to the Yorkshire Post, Peacock argues: “I think there’s a lot of crazy things written about Leeds.
“We were four points off third position, won the World Club Challenge which had not been won for three years, got ourselves to the Wembley final and played there again, and people say it’s not a successful year.
“You know, I don’t know what’s expected. There’s not much more we can do.
“We had some difficult patches in the middle of the year but that’s going to happen and also we’ve blooded a load of young guys – when you look at the likes of Ryan Hall, Kallum Watkins, Zak Hardaker, Ben Jones-Bishop, Jimmy Keinhorst, Stevie Ward... they’re all the future of Leeds.
“I think to achieve what we’ve done already, it’s been a successful year no matter what happens from hereonin. Everything from here I think is a bonus. But we want to go as far as we can in this competition.”
To do that they have to beat a Catalan side who finished just above them in the table and, consequently, earned a second chance after their chastening 46-6 defeat at minor premiers Wigan Warriors a week ago.
Everyone knows, however, the French outfit are a totally different proposition in the intimidating atmosphere of Stade Gilbert Brutus.
It will be their much-respected coach Trent Robinson’s final game in charge if they fall against Leeds – he is heading home to Australia to take Sydney Roosters by his firm grip – and, so, everyone expects a typically fulsome, fiery and fiendish Catalan performance.
With their tenacious pack, roared on by their passionate locals, it is just the sort of battlefield Peacock relishes.
He will need to be at his own dominant best especially as front-row colleague Kylie Leuluai – just who you want to fight fire with fire – is suspended for a foolish scrap with Wakefield winger Peter Fox in the dying moments of Saturday’s qualifying play-off win at Headingley.
If Leeds are to get on top and allow their gifted three-quarters to shine, Peacock’s battle with Remi Casty will be consequential.
The robust prop became the first Frenchman to ever make the Super League Dream Team last week and, for all scrum-half Scott Dureau has offered the crucial direction, he has been the Catalan’s drive.
“I’ve got a lot of time for him,” admitted Peacock, who also comes up against his ex-Bulls colleague Leon Pryce, the former England stand-off who shares his Grand Final appearance record and makes a timely return from knee surgery.
“He’s a wonderful player who’s really blossomed over the last couple of years.
“This one he’s been a stand-out for Catalan, a real leader.
“But to be a leader as a prop you’ve got to come up with inspirational plays and I’ve seen him do that a lot. He played well against Wigan and I’ve a huge amount of respect for him.”
Leeds were in Perpignan only last month when they lost their Super League tie – and effectively any chance of nicking fourth spot – 38-34 a week before that agonising Wembley defeat to Warrington.
“It’s always tough over there,” added Peacock, Leeds not having won on French soil since 2010.
“Wigan played really, really well and did a real job on them so we know we have to play to our best in Perpignan. But we’re looking forward to the trip and the game.
“The last time we played I think it was 38 degrees in the shade.
“We’re going to play 9 o’clock at night this time though so I’m doubtful it’s going to be that again which is great for us.”
With a towering performance in defeat at Wembley – the statistical analysis of Peacock’s display is staggering – some feel the unyielding forward is playing his best rugby in some time, despite being just three months shy of his 35th birthday.
But Peacock insists he is just doing what he always does.
“I’ve been playing well for a while now but you can play well as a prop, not make a line break and everyone on the outside doesn’t think you’re playing well,” he said.
“I spoke to Brian Mac about this. I feel like I’ve been playing well for quite some time now but you do a couple of things that stand-out – like line breaks and off-loads – and everyone gets on the back of it.
“It helps with me playing in this dry weather but I’m just enjoying playing. That’s a big thing.”