Optimism at Leeds still high as second half starts

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A FIXTURE pitting the bottom team against the league leaders is always one that serves up the mischievous possibility of the kind of result that reminds us why sport remains so unpredictable and exciting.

Wolverhampton Wanderers achieved the feat against Manchester United in the Barclays Premier League last Saturday, and so Leeds Carnegie will hope to follow suit tomorrow, when they host Aviva Premiership pacesetters Leicester Tigers.

It is a game that signals the start of the second half of Leeds’s season, one they will hope is considerably better than the outcome of the first 11 games.

Leeds reaped just eight points from that sequence and had to wait until their 10th game to achieve victory.

However, with Newcastle only four points ahead of them and the two teams to play each other twice in the remaining months of the season, there is genuine optimism that Leeds can escape relegation for the second season running.

That view is strengthened by a string of encouraging performances and results since successive wins over Crociati Rugby in the European Challenge Cup in December, that continued last week in the LV= Cup game against Northampton Saints, who have this season been Leicester’s biggest Premiership challengers.

Leeds lost, but showed a try-scoring ability so often lacking in their Premiership performances.

They were strong at the breakdown at Franklins Gardens, an attribute director of rugby Andy Key believes they will have to replicate if they are to overcome the Premiership leaders.

“The game can be won and lost in the contact area, and we’ve been working exceptionally hard with Simon Middleton (skills coach) over that in recent weeks and it’s paying dividends,” said Key, whose side’s number of England absentees is dwarfed by the number of Tigers missing.

“We’re starting to see a team that is physical at the breakdown and smarter at what it does.

“Yes, they’re missing a lot of internationals, but it’s a competent side, they have great strength in depth.

“One side that is packed full of internationals is replaced by one with more internationals.

“It’s a huge task for us but this side is more than capable of getting a result.

“It’s about making sure we perform for 80 minutes, as you always need to do against the top sides.

“The side is mentally tough enough to cope with disappointments in a game now.”

In the corresponding fixture last year, Leeds were beaten 14-9, but the performance they put in and the resulting losing bonus point set them on their way to a three-game winning run that effectively ensured their safety.

How they would welcome that outcome now in a four-game sequence that sees them visit Saracens next week and host Newcastle and London Irish before the next break in fixtures.

“It’s a big stretch but it’s not the be-all and end-all because there are 11 games left,” said Key, who was on the coaching staff at Leicester before taking over at Leeds alongside Neil Back in 2008.

“What we do realise is that there are three home games in four.

“Newcastle clearly has to be a big game for us, and then there’s London Irish who aren’t travelling well and are vulnerable.

“When you look at it in simple terms like that, this four games could have a big say in what happens come the end of the season.

“But we’re in a stretch now of 11 Premiership games and no other distractions. It gives us a certain degree of clarity in terms of what is in front of us.

“There was disappointment that we came out of games in January into the LV= Cup and Europe, because it broke momentum after Gloucester and Bath, while earlier in the season it was the complete opposite, where the games against Crociati got us back on track.”

Marco Wentzel returns to the Leeds side to captain the team against his former employers.

In the pack, Phil Nilsen and Rhys Oakley come in for Steve Thompson and Hendre Fourie who are both away on Six Nations duty with England.

Lachlan Mackay has recovered from injury and is named on the replacements bench meaning new signing Adrian Jarvis will have to wait to make his debut after missing out on the 23 man squad.

New dates for three Leeds Carnegie Aviva Premiership games have been announced.

The game with Northampton Saints at Headingley Stadium is now to be played on Sunday, March 12 (3pm).

The away match to Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park is on Saturday, April 9, again kicking off at 3pm.

Harlequins visit Headingley Stadium on Sunday, April 24 with the kick-off being changed to 2.15pm. The game is to be broadcast live on ESPN.