IT IS a sign of a champion team that no challenge fazes them.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Leeds Rhinos head coach Brian McDermott is undaunted by the prospect of potentially starting their annual bid for Old Trafford from their present position of sixth.
Under his tutelage, of course, they have twice gone on to historically achieve Grand Final glory from the relative depths of fifth so what’s one more place anyway?
That said, as Leeds prepare for tonight’s penultimate regular round at champions Wigan Warriors, they could still yet finish as high as second, such is the competitive and congested nature of the current upper echelons.
So, still all to play for. Wigan, a single point in front of Leeds with a far superior points difference, will move second themselves with a win and McDermott knows they will be hurting after a surprise 24-10 loss at Widnes.
“It will be a big game,” he said, as Leeds aim to repeat their hosts’ feat of last year by completing a league and Challenge Cup double.
“They’re a very competitive team Wigan. They’ve challenged for and won honours over the last two or three years, as have Leeds, and there’ll be two teams desperate to climb the ladder to ensure a better route in the play-offs.
“There’s a fair bit riding on this game. We’re ready for it. We’re in a great frame of mind with a massive performance against St Helens the week after we won at Wembley, which is not to be underestimated.
“To win at Wembley and come up with another huge performance against Saints is testimony to the players’ mindsets.
“We’ll travel to Wigan knowing we’re going to be battling in another massive encounter.”
Leeds, admittedly, lost to leaders St Helens a week ago but only by a 13-12 scoreline having played with 12 men for an hour due to Joel Moon’s red card.
But the quality of that display suggests to McDermott that his side are ready for the play-offs despite knowing a loss tonight would be a fourth successive league defeat given they fell against relegated Bradford Bulls and London Broncos before ending their 15-year wait for Challenge Cup success versus Castleford at Wembley.
They have not finished as low as sixth since rolling in 10th in the first year of Super League back in 1996, the year chief executive Gary Hetherington and chairman Paul Caddick invested to eventually revitalise the club’s fortunes and make them the most successful of the summer era.
Asked if he is worried about that eventuality, McDermott replied: “We’re bothered about it – we’re not happy with it – but it’s pointless worrying so go do something about it.
“If we beat Wigan on Friday night and other results go our way we’re a hell of a lot further up the ladder.
“Sometimes we just have to deal with the situation at hand and we can only take charge of what we can control.
“We’ll do our best to finish as high as we can.
“Finishing sixth, while we do not want to be there, doesn’t scare us either.”
For those who finish outside of the top four, it means they immediately enter knockout football and do not have a second chance to fall back on.
But McDermott, in his fourth season at Headingley, is well versed with the machinations that this time of year yields and fully expects his squad to rise to the occasion once more.
“While we lost last week and in the last couple of league games before Wembley, I just know as soon as the intensity and nature of the play-offs (arrives), we thrive off that and our players step up,” he continued.
“I can’t wait for them to start. Bring it on. And this (Wigan) is almost like a play-off before the play-offs, given its intensity.”
He has no qualms, either, with bringing Jimmy Keinhorst in for his first Leeds game in more than a year. The centre has had an injury-ravaged season-long loan at Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, but replaces Moon.
“Jimmy’s been with us through this week,” said McDermott, who will give Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire until the “11th hour” to prove their fitness.
“He’s obviously had time at Wakefield. But we’ve never lost touch with him.”