Leeds Rhinos v Salford Red Devils - Kruise Leeming eager to win Challenge Cup for his father

THERE is a pre-match routine Leeds Rhinos hooker Kruise Leeming follows in memory of his late father before every game and it will be no different today as he prepares for the biggest fixture of his career.

Kruise Leeming in action (Picture: SWPix.com)
Kruise Leeming in action (Picture: SWPix.com)

In his first season since making the bold decision to leave Huddersfield Giants for their West Yorkshire rivals, the England Knights international plays in a Coral Challenge Cup final against Salford Red Devils.

Given Covid’s wretched reach, there will be no fans there, nor any family or friends aside from his own Rhinos colleagues.

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However, some things remain constant.

“I wear my dad’s wedding ring when I play and I just give it a little kiss before I go out,” Leeming explained to The Yorkshire Post, his father Martin having died from throat cancer when Kruise was just eight.

“I wouldn’t say I’d think about him too much on Saturday but I know he’s there.

“I don’t get too lost in stuff like that before a game; I try to take the emotion out.

“It’ll be tough to do in a final – I’ve never done it before as I’ve never played one – but that’s what I try to do: think about the game, my job and what it is the team needs me to do.

Kallum Watkins lines up against his former employers (Picture: SWPix.com)

“If you get caught up in the emotion it can vary your performance. Some days you’ll be pumped up as something’s happened during the week or you’ve heard something an opponent’s said about you.

“But I feel like you should just play like that all the time.”

Getting to this point has been an interesting journey for Leeming, who was born in Swaziland, the landlocked country within South Africa which is now known as Eswatini.

His father, who had left the British army, met his mother Khabo on a cruise ship – hence the name – when working as croupiers and then moved to her homeland when she fell pregnant.

Richard Agar v Ian Watson

Leeming was three when they relocated to the UK and settled in his dad’s hometown of Halifax where he first started playing for amateurs Siddal.

Khabo cannot be there to see her son play in one of the sport’s biggest occasions but Leeming added: “She’s very proud. My mum always makes sure that I know that I’ve made her proud.

“She doesn’t really know enough about rugby or watch it so it’ll be just another game to her on TV. Hopefully we’ll get the win and I’ll be able to bring her the medal, show her why I play the game that means so much to me: this little medal we play for.

“It is an object she can see and relate to so she knows what all the hours and training’s for; to bring that to her will be nice.”

Admittedly, there is some significant work to be done first; Leeds are favourites but only marginally.

Salford made waves by reaching last year’s Grand Final and they have proved that was no fluke by navigating their way past the Challenge Cup victors of the last two years – Catalans Dragons and Warrington Wolves – to secure their first Wembley appearance in 51 years.

Now they are here, they know they have all the requisite tools to go on and complete the job.

Kevin Brown was England’s stand-off as recently as the 2017 World Cup final and, even approaching his 37th birthday, remains one of the game’s most creative talents. Having lost Challenge Cup finals for three different sides – Wigan (2004), Huddersfield (2009) and Warrington (2018) – he will be desperate to make sure he does not become the first player to lose for four different teams.

Alongside him is the gifted Samoa half-back Tui Lolohea, who was ruthlessly let go by Leeds last June, just six months into a three-year deal.

Then, of course, Ian Watson’s side have England centre Kallum Watkins, who won two Challenge Cups with Rhinos before being allowed to leave for the NRL around the same time as Lolohea departed.

Leeds, constantly improving under Richard Agar and intent on gunning for Old Trafford as well, have beaten them twice already this season in Super League. But Leeming, 25, insisted: “I think it will be a very, very tough game.

“We’re getting ready for probably the toughest game of the year. If you’re one per cent off against Salford you’ll lose.

“There’s a lot of hype about their players being outcasts from other teams but they have experience with Super League and NRL Grand Final-winning players and plenty of experience.

“I definitely won’t be falling for that trick when we go to play.”

Leeming’s start to life at Rhinos after his transfer from Huddersfield was difficult.

He suffered a knee injury in training before Christmas that needed surgery and – with the sport then shutdown from March to August – had to wait an eternity before finally playing.

Nevertheless, Leeming is now showing all the traits that made him such a man in demand; crisp dummy-half service, pace around the ruck, an eye for a gap and an excellent work-rate.

“The injury wasn’t the fairytale I’d have wished for but it did give me a chance to look at the game in a different way,” he explained.

“And even though I wasn’t on the field I feel my game developed and improved.

“Mentally I felt I grew and matured as a player by watching the game, learning more and studying a bit more so I saw it as a bit of a benefit.”

And now he is just 80 minutes away from a first major trophy.

Leeming said: “In your first year you just want to get your head down, play well and make your team-mates appreciate what you do for the team, so what a start this is. I can’t wait.”

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James Mitchinson