Kallum Watkins is hoping former Leeds Rhinos team-mate Danny McGuire will not return tonight and spoil their World Club Challenge preparations.
The Rhinos jet off to Australia after tonight’s visit of Hull KR to Elland Road – Headingley is unavailable due to ground redevelopment – and will be hoping to depart with a 100 per cent start to the defence of their Super League title, following the opening win at Warrington Wolves.
But standing in their path is 35-year-old McGuire, who spent 22 years at Leeds and made over 450 appearances – winning eight Super League titles, three World Club Challenges and two Challenge Cups – before switching to the Robins in the winter.
McGuire’s final game in the blue and amber saw him captain Leeds to last year’s Grand Final win over Castleford Tigers, but just 124 days later he will be in the away dressing room tonight.
“It is going to be strange,” Watkins said. “He is a fantastic player. I have played with him for almost 10 years and he was phenomenal for this club.
“But he is at Hull KR now and the challenge is to play the best we can against him.
“We know the quality he has got and we are looking forward to it because he is a winner and it is always good to battle players like that.”
McGuire will be up against 14 of the players he captained to victory at Old Trafford in October, after making his Rovers debut in their opening-round defeat to Wakefield Trinity.
But any Leeds fan who saw McGuire play, will know their former half-back will not lack a competitive edge tonight.
“I will always have a soft spot for Leeds,” admitted McGuire, reinvigorated after his move. “I have always been a Leeds lad, that is built into me whatever happens.
“I still see the lads and I go for a coffee with a few of them.
“There will always be that bond there when you’ve played together and gone through things together.
“That bond will never be broken, but for 80 minutes on Thursday night we will be battling each other because everyone is competitive and everyone wants to win.
“I am a Rovers player now and I feel part of that. My aim this year is to do the shirt and the club proud. That’s what I always tried to do at Leeds.
“I feel part of the team, it’s a really good set of lads and a good club. The coaching staff have been brilliant, Tim [Sheens] is fantastic to work with and everybody behind the scenes is good as well.”
A change of venues tonight means McGuire will have to wait for his return to Headingley.
“It’s good that it’s out of the way so early and I think it’s a bit easier with it being at Elland Road rather than Headingley,” McGuire said.
“That would have been a tough one, to go into the away changing rooms, but I’m looking forward to it.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing there. It’s a fantastic venue and, being a Leeds United fan, there’s something to be excited about,” added McGuire, who will partner Chris Atkin in the halves tonight.
Leeds beat Warrington 16-12 last week, but know they must improve ahead of the showdown with Melbourne Storm in Australia next Friday.
“If we can start with two wins it will give us good confidence going into the Melbourne game,” said Leeds centre Watkins.
“It will give the guys time on the field as well and that’ll help prepare us. It is important for us to play as well as possible, though it’s early in the season and you’re not going to be at your absolute best yet.
“We need to be better this week against Hull KR, who didn’t get the result they wanted last week, but will want to put that right against us.
“They will want to react, but we want to improve every week. It was good to get the result last week, but our focus is on Hull KR now.
“Last year we were sometimes pretty poor against teams we were probably expected to beat and sometimes we didn’t get the result, but at the same time we reacted straight after a defeat.
“That shows a bit of consistency in terms of winning. For this year our focus is on taking each game as it comes. The boys have worked hard, we started with a good result and we will take confidence from that.”
Stevie Ward is set to make his first Leeds appearance since last year’s Grand Final, following shoulder surgery.
In tonight’s other game, Huddersfield Giants and Warrington will both be out to break their duck when they meet at the John Smith’s Stadium.
The Wolves lost 16-12 to Leeds in their first game under new coach Steve Price while the Giants are aiming to bounce back from a 38-12 defeat at Hull.
Huddersfield coach Rick Stone said: “Generally everyone wants to win the first one and, when they don’t, there’s a little of bounce back in week two so the two teams will be pretty desperate. You definitely don’t want to lose your first two games.”