“They’ve set the standard and quite rightly so,” enthused Edwards about Newcastle Falcons, whose ambitious recruitment he recently quipped “would make for a strong team in next year’s Championship”.
“They’re a hugely experienced squad,” he continued when setting the scene on the game at Headingley, “with an experienced coaching staff and they’ve made significant investment in the squad. So you would have expected them to be at the top of the league, and so it’s proved.
“They’ve been everybody’s benchmark for where they’re at and that has increased the standards across the league.”
Praise indeed from the Leeds head coach, whose side go into the two-legged affair as heavy underdogs against a team who have spent all season trampling all over the Championship.
Dean Richards’s Falcons lost only once in 22 regular-season games, compared with the nine defeats Leeds suffered in a season blighted by inconsistency before they finished with a flurry of six wins.
The statistics serve only to strengthen the case for Newcastle finishing the job and returning to the Premiership. But for Edwards, the knockout format of the play-offs is a great leveller. “It comes as no surprise to me that they’re top, but the competition changes now,” said Edwards, who knows the importance of his side still being in the tie after the first leg.
“Where we finished, where they finished is irrelevant. It’s about the here and now and getting your performances right over the two games.
“We have four halves of rugby to make sure we perform and see where it leaves us.”
Those six successive wins have enhanced Leeds’ belief that an upset is within their capabilities.
“We’ve played knockout rugby for the last six games so mentally we’re in a strong place,” added Edwards.
“We’ve generated momentum and a winning mentality.
“We’re the form team going into the play-offs. It will be another step up in terms of intensity and competition and we know Newcastle are hugely desperate to win promotion, but this is a new competition and we’re ready for it.
“Newcastle are favourites to the extent that people are probably not even taking bets on them. So there’s a real expectation on their shoulders but that brings a certain pressure.
“The pressure on us is internally, making sure we play as well as we can play and make sure we really take our game to Newcastle.”
Leeds have Stevie McColl back at full-back after the Championship player-of-the-year nominee was declared fit after a shoulder injury.
Rory Clegg has gone back to Harlequins ahead of his move to Newcastle in the summer, while hooker Joe Graham is ineligible to play against his parent club.
Craig Hampson starts at scrum-half alongside Joe Ford, a playmaker Falcons chief Richards is wary of.
Richards said: “Joe Ford will be a key player at No 10 with his great kicking game but he is not the only danger man in the side.
“They have a good pack and their style of play suits the current conditions with the pitches now drying out, resulting in a faster track, so it will be a difficult challenge for us.”
Tane Tu’ipulotu and Ryan Shortland are back for Newcastle.