SUCH is their strength already, Leeds Rhinos head coach Brian McDermott believes no one will fear for Super League newcomers Leigh Centurions in 2017 and their inclusion is another performance indicator that the Qualifiers work.
Leeds round off their own difficult season tomorrow when they host opponents who have finished top of the Championship for the last three years and have now secured promotion following a thrilling Middle Eights campaign.
Leigh have won all six fixtures so far, including beating Super League sides Hull KR, Salford Red Devils and Huddersfield Giants, and will look for the ultimate scalp when they visit the defending champions.
Leeds, of course, are safe from the threat of relegation but they lost their own 100 per cent Qualifiers record by losing at Huddersfield on Sunday.
When the much-maligned Middle Eights were introduced last year, many critics argued it would be almost impossible for a second-tier club to earn promotion given the size of disparities between the two competitions.
Clearly, Leigh - on a 19-match winning run - have quickly disproven that theory although, admittedly, they have invested heavily in a playing squad that includes former England internationals Gareth Hock and Mickey Higham as well as Kiwi juggernaut Fuifui Moimoi.
Asked by The Yorkshire Post if it was good for the format that a Championship side has won promotion, McDermott said: “I actually thought the format worked last year.
“There was a lot of drama. No championship team came up but the fact some Super League teams lost and one – Wakefield – had to go into that Million Pound Game v Bradford created that drama.
“Obviously, it’s gone that bit further this year with Leigh being promoted.
“It’s a process you go through where you have to make sure you are in good nick and I don’t think anyone would worry for Leigh playing in Super League next year.
“I don’t think anyone is thinking they will really struggle. It will be interesting to see how they get on week in, week out and the fact I’ve mentioned that word – interest – means it is working as people want to see how they go on.
“But I don’t think anyone fears for them.”
However, McDermott, whose squad is depleted by injuries for tomorrow’s fixture, insisted: “Even with this format you need to do something – I’m not sure if extreme is the right word but above and beyond – to beat Super League teams and Leigh have done that.
“They have a very aggressive recruitment strategy, they have brought in a lot of players and are relatively injury-free.
“It doesn’t take away from the fact that what they have done is really good and coach Neil Jukes needs a lot of credit.
“He’s managed them right from the start. They had a bit of adversity before the start with their previous coach leaving but they have certainly come together, gelled together and done a really good job.”
Due to their superior points difference, Leeds will displace Leigh from top and finish as Qualifiers victors if they win tomorrow but McDermott conceded their preparation has been minimal given the short turnaround.
“It’s not ideal (four days); it’s too much, too hard but it’s there and we have to deal with it,” he said. “Our first training session was Wednesday.We had a full week with our awards night on Monday and a fantastic event yesterday for (Leeds president) Harry Jepson’s funeral when we said ‘t’rah’ to Harry which was great and the right thing to do; that took precedent over everything yesterday.
“In an ideal world we’d have had another couple of days to prepare but we haven’t.”
Tomorrow will be the last time Headingley’s famous South Stand terrace will be in full voice for a league game before it is redeveloped. McDermott admitted: “It is iconic – everyone in the game knows about that place.
“It’s got a reputation for a few things over the years including being difficult to play in front of.
“As an opposing player it was a real challenge especially in the old days when props used to stand and catch on the 20-yard line four or five yards from them!
“But one thing they have earned a reputation for is being one of the best, if not the best, supporters in the game.
“You can’t really qualify how good supporters are until they’ve gone through everything and, holy hills, have we gone through everything this year. For us to have the biggest (average) attendance again is testimony to how good they are.
“I’ve never stood there myself but I once went and stood in amongst our fans at Saints in disguise when I was an assistant here.
“That was an experience. I’ve heard them and don’t mind admitting they can be very intimidating.”
Having gone from treble-winners in 2015 to fighting against relegation this time around, McDermott conceded it has been a “disappointing and frustrating” campaign although there has been mitigating factors.
He concluded: “We’re hoping for a good performance and to sign off a really challenging year in style but we know it will be a tough game as Leigh are a good team.”
Veteran Jamie Jones-Buchanan will captain the side in the absence of both Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow while Brett Delaney, Carl Ablett, Jordan Lilley, Mitch Garbutt, Keith Galloway and Mitch Achurch are also all absent.
England winger Ryan Hall has a chance of returning after pulling out of the Huddersfield defeat late on with a hamstring pull but McDermott says he may yet have to add another youngster to his squad along with Under 19s duo Sam Hallas and Cameron Smith.