Bentley sees rise in belief at Leeds Carnegie following Cup brace

LEEDS Carnegie's journey home from Italy earlier this week neatly summed up their season so far; long, frustrating and offering very few rays of hope.

The squad arrived at Liverpool's John Lennon Airport at around 4pm on Monday, considerably later than they had planned because of the freezing weather not only in England but also in Parma, where 24 hours earlier they had earned a second successive win over Italian minnows Crociati Rugby.

It was not the ideal start to their week-long preparation for a trip to Newcastle Falcons on Boxing Day, that is shorter in distance but far greater in significance.

For if they achieve their long-overdue first domestic win of the season at Kingston Park on Sunday then the great escape part two is on.

Lose, however, and Leeds could find themselves 12 points adrift at the foot of the Aviva Premiership table and staring relegation in the face.

Defeat is therefore unthinkable.

Such is the importance of the match, it has got even the most optimistic and buoyant of characters around the club's Kirkstall training base nervous and wary.

John Bentley is the club's community marketing manager and, as a legendary British Lion, a Yorkshire rugby stalwart of both codes and a public speaker of infinite confidence, he is the man to turn to for some positive vibes in a time of need.

"I'm sensing an upturn in mood," he said yesterday.

"The players and coaching staff have had a few heart-to-hearts, people have been accountable and there's been a lot of honesty about the place.

"They've just won their last two games for the first time since that run in February and March when they got out of the hole last time.

"That showed it can be done. I'm sensing that we're on the brink of an upturn."

But it is there that positivity stops, and the dread takes over.

"A defeat and you're looking at maybe being 11 points behind which is effectively three wins," he continued.

"Newcastle have got their own struggles, their own issues and it will be tough. But we have got to beat them. Yes, there will still be 12 games to play, but Sunday is huge."

So what, for Bentley, has gone wrong? Why have Leeds gone from the form of a top-four team in the second half of last season to one that has lost its opening nine games and picked up just three losing bonus points along the way?

"Last year we caught teams on the hop when the fixtures came round a second time," he began. "The width of the pitch helped us and we'd worked out what our strengths and weaknesses were.

"Like everyone I was optimistic about the season ahead, especially after the form we had shown in the latter half and the number of decent signings we made.

"But sides have come to Headingley purely to get their four points and there's not been a lot of rugby played.

"At the end of the day the coaches get too much praise when a team wins and too much stick when they lose. It is ultimately down to the players individually to stand up and be counted.

"One thing I would never question is the commitment. I have never seen Leeds players not give 100 per cent.

"It's just at the minute they are in the losing habit. I've been in teams where you're stuck in a losing run and everyone is tetchy and tempers are flaring. Fortunately I had a job to go to in the day, I could go and separate myself from it in the police force, whereas these boys are with each other every day, living and breathing everything together.

"There are still positives: the lineout is very good and the scrum is competitive, although not to the standard of last season.

"We have struggled, though, with international call-ups – Steve Thompson and Hendre Fourie are massive players and Thompson's international duty coincided with Andy Titterrell's injury and he's also been a massive loss.

"Those internationals who are at the club now have bought into the culture, have bought into what the club is all about.

"Not all big-name signings have done that down the years and it strengthens the belief for me that people like Thompson and Fourie are putting everything into getting Leeds moving in the right direction."

And it is that commitment, allied with a more fundamental game plan, that heartens Bentley in Leeds's survival fight.

"Rugby is a simple game – it's about keeping possession and taking opportunities," he said.

"I don't care if Leeds play the most boring rugby in the world, so long as they get the wins that matter. They've got to take each game as a cup final.

"Everybody at the club – from the marketing team to the fans to the Leeds Rhinos – wants them to be successful."