Leeds Rhinos v Wigan Warriors: Wounded Rhinos on a mission to restore final pride

LEEDS RHINOS’ simple desire to make their supporters proud once more is driving their quest to win today’s final against odds-on favourites Wigan Warriors.

It seems absurd that a side which completed an unprecedented three consecutive Super League titles less than two years ago should be in such a position.

But such was the utter embarrassment at their woeful performance in losing against Warrington Wolves at Wembley last year, that it is their over-riding emotion ahead of this afternoon’s showpiece.

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Determined captain Kevin Sinfield, still seeking the trophy that eludes him after three final defeats in Leeds colours, returned to the scene of their disappointment yesterday for the traditional eve-of-final walkabout admitting he did not know how he would react.

“I wasn’t sure what it’d be like walking back out here again,” said the 30-year-old stand-off.

“But you only have to look at the place don’t you? It’s asking for you to go and perform on that field. Hopefully we can do that.

“It’s great to be back.”

Sinfield, who reacted with surprise when told head coach Brian McDermott had said injury doubts Kallum Watkins and Carl Ablett had been passed fit, said: “The big disappointment for me last year was turning up and not playing like we can.

“I’m not for one minute trying to dilute how Warrington played – they were by far the best team on the day.

“But if we’d have played to 100 per cent of our potential and got beat 30-6 then it would have been hands up, well done.

“You could have still got some satisfaction from that – people would have been proud of how we performed – but we did not do that.

“For me, it (the final) is about this side being the best it can be, putting in our best performance of the year and trying to get people to be proud of us again.”

Leeds will certainly need to deliver their finest if they are to overcome the reigning Super League champions and current leaders, who have not lost since June 4 in Perpignan, which makes McDermott’s decision on Watkins, in particular, a bold one.

The talented young centre who injured a knee at Harlequins last Saturday, had been rated only 50-50 during the week but his coach insists he will play despite admitting it is a gamble.

“I think it is a risk but I don’t think he’s at the level that Keith (Senior) was,” said McDermott, referring to the Leeds centre who limped out at half-time of their 2005 final defeat against Hull FC after being stretchered off with an ankle injury just a week earlier against Bradford.

“He’s up and about and running but if you’re asking now is he 100 per cent he’s not. I’m not going to tell you a lie.”

Ablett was always likely to shake off his knock but Watkins certainly still seemed to have a slight limp as he tested out the Wembley turf.

Wigan, deliberately or not, tried creating their own intrigue yesterday by asking all media to head inside the stadium for “three to four minutes” while they assembled privately.

Apparently, there was no last-minute training deployed, rather the players simply huddled together for a brief team meeting in the centre of the pitch.

“They are a very tight bunch,” said coach Michael Maguire, who was banished himself to the touchline, if not indoors with the waiting press.

“The guys just had a chat about what (today’s) about.

“I wasn’t there. It’s all about the players so I’ve no idea what they said either.”

The Australian invited Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson to speak to those players earlier this week as Wigan, who have not visited Wembley since Sheffield Eagles created the biggest shock of the competition’s 114-year history in 1998, seek to go a major step towards a potential double.

Leeds have suffered four defeats since beating London Broncos in the last final at the old stadium the following year.

For Sinfield, in particular, the desire to end that run is as strong as ever and he believes their inconsistent Super League form – Leeds are sixth – could actually aid their bid for success this afternoon.

“Because our form was so scratchy in the league I suppose it (the cup) was almost a welcome distraction,” said the England international.

“We never thought ‘let’s really focus on the cup this year’. We did that last season and we came up short.

“We’ve had a completely different approach and now found ourselves in a Challenge Cup final.

“We’ve troubled Wigan at times this season, drawing and losing by a couple of points, but not got that vital win

“But we’ve been written off quite a bit and this group has always performed pretty well when we’ve had some adversity. Hopefully, that’s another good omen.”