Carnegie ready to come of age as Falcons pose daunting test

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Leeds Carnegie stand on the verge of one of the greatest achievements in their short history tomorrow, but try telling that to the players and officials at the Headingley club.

The modus operandi of Diccon Edwards and his men this week has been one of playing down their victory over promotion favourites Newcastle Falcons in the first leg of the Championship play-off semi-final.

For they know the job is only half done, and that Newcastle – a team that for an entire season have plotted a serene course back to the Premiership – will come out fighting after being stung by the humbling they received at Headingley on Monday.

Leeds have been promoted to the top flight three times in their 21-year history but doing so this season would far outweigh any of those past accomplishments.

On each of the previous occasions they were champions of the second tier. This time, they are having to beat a path back to English rugby’s elite from fourth place.

Last week, the 21 men who took to the field gave every last ounce to come away with a 24-19 victory.

Tomorrow at Kingston Park, they need to do it all again to book a two-legged final with Bedford Blues.

“It was a great achievement considering how they absolutely dominated the league season,” said Leeds captain Jacob Rowan, after Newcastle finished 31 points above Carnegie.

“We had to rein in the celebrations a bit because we’re only halfway there. This week has been about not getting carried away.”

In the past, the natural inclination after claiming such a scalp would have been to celebrate triumphantly.

When they thrashed Bristol earlier in the season, they failed to follow it up five days later at Newcastle. Then, when they pushed the Falcons all the way in February – in a performance that showed signs of their promise – Leeds again came crashing back to earth at the end of the week when they lost to Doncaster, a side who would end up being relegated.

That defeat prompted the six-match run that saw them transform mid-table mediocrity into a play-off push.

Now, with the whiff or promotion filling their nostrils, they are not having to fight as hard to remain grounded.

“The aim is to go out there and put in place the things we have worked on in training,” said Rowan, who at 23 epitomises the growing maturity of this improving squad.

“Nothing has changed in that respect really. We know we are going to have to be better than we were on Monday.

“Newcastle are a formidable team, particularly at Kingston Park. They’ll want to make amends but we’ll relish the challenge. We have put things in place which we believe will win us the match, if we execute them.

“It will be a totally different challenge to the one at Headingley, a really hostile environment.

“We know we are still up against it, because it’s only five points. Last week has given us a lot of confidence, though. We showed how we can play.

“And that will be our mindset again this week. We’ll concentrate on our own performance, just as we did on Monday. Our mindset has not changed, we just need to replicate what we did in that game.”

The message from both Rowan and Edwards is that Leeds, although in front, remain underdogs in the tie.

With such a slender margin that can be wiped out by just one try, Edwards will send his team out to win the game outright.

“It’s a very difficult place to go and we’ve got to show the same positive mindset we’ve shown for the last seven games and put Newcastle under pressure,” said the head coach. “Like any team under pressure, they can make mistakes and we’ve got to make sure our performance creates opportunities for us.

“With it only being five points, it’s too close, and it doesn’t suit us to go there and be negative.

“We’re a team that’s got a positive mentality, so we’ll go with a similar approach. We’ve got to do certain things better; our kick-chase for instance and our kick execution has to be improved because that allowed them to create opportunies.”

Since Monday’s coming-of-age win, Edwards has employed a number of tactics to try and keep his players’ feet on the ground.

One of those was to invite in Kevin Sinfield and Brian McDermott from their Leeds Rugby co-inhabitants the Rhinos to address the team. “Kevin and Brian have spoken to us about play-off rugby,” he said.

“It’s great to have those external influences and we’re trying to get as much info into the squad as possible to give us the best chance.

“We’ve been in play-off mode for seven matches, and that perhaps shocked Newcastle. That fear of losing can be inhibiting, but we’ve continued to be positive.”

Edwards has made four changes. One is enforced with Matt Smith (hip) replaced by Pierce Phillips in the second-row. James Doherty, Ben Harris and Ryan Burrows come in for Craig Hampson, Lee Imiolek and Chris Walker, respectively. Newcastle are unchanged.

If the scores are level after 80 minutes, two, 10-minute periods of extra-time will be played. If still level, the tie will be settled on try count, and then a place-kicking competition.