THE principle objectives for Leeds Rhinos tomorrow night are two-fold – show they won’t be “flaky” when it comes to the title run-in and ensure life is, for once, made hard for Super League leaders Castleford Tigers.
That is the opinion of Leeds head coach Brian McDermott as he prepares his side for arguably the highlight of Magic Weekend.
For all Castleford are excelling currently, winning plaudits galore for their thrilling style of rugby league, he feels they have had life too easy so far in 2017.
McDermott is not arguing Daryl Powell’s team do not deserve their place at the top of the table – “they’re the form team and we’re all scrambling about trying to catch them up” – but merely that they have not often been put under intense scrutiny.
Admittedly, doing that is easier said than done against a side so full of confidence and armed with so many different weapons, illustrated once more when vanquishing St Helens 53-10 in the Challenge Cup last Saturday.
Furthermore, Leeds themselves were on the end of a similar hiding when losing 66-10 at Wheldon Road in March.
However, Rhinos have won five of their last six games and will draw level with their rivals if they win in Newcastle.
When asked what is different about his own side now ahead of this latest meeting, McDermott answered that the Rhinos’ game is in far better condition, which should give them a greater chance of reversing that last outcome.
He said: “There are some obvious things. We can defend and we’ve been defending some tough periods. You look at that Saints game and it was a carbon copy of our game at Cas; they threw away silly passes when they should’ve been looking at field position.
“They got themselves into a position where they could have applied pressure to Castleford.
Our aim will be to get Castleford involved in a far tougher game than what they had last time against us.Leeds Rhinos’ head coach, Brian McDermott
“I think what Castleford do really well is they handle the pressure of being down their end and they get out of it.
“But they don’t do that much of it. Any pundit, coach, player will tell you that if you don’t spend that much time digging out from your deep end of the field, you’re going to be alright.
“Cas have had a great run this year, part to do with how good they are as well. But they don’t go through that many tough periods in a game. That’s no secret, I’m not letting any secrets out there.
“I’m sure Daryl’s aware of that and will be thinking well ‘you try and put my team in a tough position and we’ll see if we can get out of it’. There’s the challenge that’s out there, and our aim will be to get Castleford involved in a far tougher game than what they had last time against us.”
That task may be difficult, though, given Leeds have lost two Australian props Keith Galloway and Mitch Garbutt to injury.
Their rivals’ pack is formidable enough with its ability to not only bust through opponents but play through them as well with their off-load quality.
That said, Castleford have problems going in given the influential Benny Roberts has pulled out with a groin strain at the end of the same week where their other stand-off Rangi Chase has been allowed join Widnes Vikings after his latest disciplinary issues.
There will be plenty of pressure, then, on the shoulders of 21-year-old Tom Holmes whether he starts at No 6 or comes off the bench, although he handled that well enough against Saints.
Three weeks ago Rhinos had the chance to displace Powell’s side in pole position only to suffer a shock 31-12 home loss to bottom-placed Huddersfield Giants.
McDermott recalled: “The last time we had chance to ‘touch top’ – if we’d have beaten Huddersfield we’d have touched top spot for 24 or 48 hours – we weren’t ready for it.
“We didn’t take it. We messed about and that’s with respect to Huddersfield. That tells me we weren’t ready for top spot, so let’s hope we’re good enough now.
“We don’t have to be and we don’t have to be good enough mid-season. But you need to have touched top, or threatened top or handled those moments so you know you’ve got that steel come the back end of the year.
“If every time you get near top spot you flake out, I don’t know what that does to you at the end of the year. This gives us an indication of where we’re at.”