IT MAY be an early lunchtime kick-off today but Leeds Rhinos head coach Brian McDermott is expecting anything but a slovenly start from Castleford Tigers.
His side head over to Wheldon Road for what is always one of the most evocative and entertaining derbies in Super League.
While Leeds are the season’s early leaders, with just a solitary defeat so far, their West Yorkshire rivals have yet to fire truly as they strive to repeat last year’s heroics.
But McDermott, whose side defeated Castleford in the Challenge Cup final in their last meeting, is not being lulled into any false sense of security.
“I think they are gradually warming up,” he told The Yorkshire Post, Tigers’ 20-14 success over Hull FC a week ago the first time Daryl Powell’s side had strung together consecutive wins in 2015.
“There’s been a couple of occasions where they’ve not been where they need to be and Daryl’s assessments then have always been on the money, especially when they’ve played on Sky.
“But you can tell they are in good nick with Daryl. The games where Cas have been good are when they’ve come out of the blocks with a massive amount of energy, started really fast, thrown a lot of offence to opponents and caught a couple of teams cold.
“That’s something we’re aware of and planning for.”
Leeds are undefeated in their last five meetings with Castleford, having won four and drawn one since last losing at Wheldon Road in February 2013.
But, generally, the encounters have been competitive and McDermott – still without injured captain Kevin Sinfield and England winger Tom Briscoe – admitted: “Leeds travel to Castleford and Castleford love us going there. They host us really well and give us everything.
“Invariably in my time as coach they have always been very challenging and tough games. If you didn’t know it was Castleford v Leeds, it’s two teams playing on telly on a Friday so it’s always a big occasion anyway and both teams will be up for it.
“And we’ve talked about how fast and explosive they will be at that start.”
McDermott, meanwhile, is one of the few coaches who does not detest the infamously hectic Easter schedule.
After today’s battle, his side host Wakefield Trinity Wildcats on Monday during the holiday period when, traditionally, the league table tends to begin taking genuine shape.
“I think if you can get out of Easter with four points it’s a big one,” admitted McDermott.
“And probably with 23 rounds this year instead of 27 it adds a little bit of extra bite, too, and more focus. It is a tough period but it’s not undoable either. I’ve gone on record before saying I don’t mind it. It’s unique to our competition.
“I wouldn’t want to play two games in four days most weekends but the developments our sports scientists have now made and physios and conditioners, both in prep’ and more importantly recovery, I think we can handle Easter easy enough.”
The build-up to today’s first offering has, of course, been dominated by Sinfield’s shock announcement on Tuesday that he will quit Rhinos at the end of the season and switch to union side Yorkshire Carnegie.
The former England captain has missed Leeds’s last two games with a hamstring injury, but is included in the 19-man squad for this trip, replacing Jamie Jones-Buchanan, the second-row who suffered a hamstring injury of his own during Saturday’s win in Perpignan and could now miss up to four weeks of action.
McDermott still might not pick Sinfield – Josh Walters and Andy Yates are other options – and he said: “Kev’s getting close but we’ve just got to make sure when he does take to the field he’s 100 per cent right. It might be Monday.”
Talented Liam Sutcliffe, 20, has filled in admirably at stand-off and the Academy product will get the chance to replace the Leeds legend full-time next season.
Before that, however, has the youngster done enough to possibly keep the six-time Grand Final-winning captain out of the side even when Sinfield is fit?
“Kev’s certainly got some qualities that the team’s missing, misses and will miss when he’s gone,” said McDermott.
“We are mindful of those but then Liam Sutcliffe also adds a fair few qualities as well so they are the decisions we have to make. And make the right ones.”