Wigan Warriors v Leeds Rhinos – Richard Agar backs Rhinos to rise to Super League play-off challenge

LEEDS RHINOS head coach Richard Agar believes his squad have learned from last year’s play-off errors and have done so in time to make the most of this season’s assault.

They head to Wigan Warriors this evening for a sudden-death tie which will make or break their campaign.

If Leeds, who finished fifth, can progress, they will stand just 80 minutes from Old Trafford and the chance of a ninth Super League title.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The West Yorkshire club has memorably won the Grand Final from fifth twice before in 2011 and 2012 so that will offer them further hope they can make a bid for glory, as will the return of four forwards to their ranks after last Friday’s victory over Hull KR.

However, they came unstuck against Catalans Dragons at the first hurdle 12 months ago, falling 18-0 down in the first period before staging a rally of sorts in a 26-14 defeat.

Agar insisted: “Confidence and desire won’t be an issue.

“If anything, something we could pull from the past, it is last year when, after we won the Challenge Cup, we went into the play-offs. We had a really poor start to that [Catalans] game and we reviewed it; we didn’t brush it under the carpet.

“We had a massively disappointed bunch of players that had a really poor start and probably not the best week leading into it.

“We had a lot of Covid disruptions around that point but we have a smoother run-in to this and the guys have talked about the disappointment they felt last year that we left it too late.

“The clock ran away from us in a game where we probably felt we had enough chances to put ourselves through to what would be the penultimate game.

“I think the guys are keen to challenge themselves now and go a little bit further than we did last time.”

The pandemic issues Agar referred to were not just around his players; both he and assistant Jamie Jones-Buchanan bizarrely had to watch the game from home in line with Covid protocols following a positive test on the coaching staff.

CONFIDENT: Leeds Rhinos' head coach Richard Agar Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

Physically being in the DW Stadium tonight, then, will be a plus for the Rhinos coach as he embarks on his second play-off campaign with the club.

“We’ve about 36 hours to go so you can’t take anything for granted in this day and age!” joked Agar. “I am looking forward to it. I feel we’re in a different place.

“Last year we’d got to that situation and had won the Cup which took a little bit out of our team.

“But I’d also say we were beat up by the calendar at that stage, too: the scheduling had done a lot of damage to our team mentally and physically.

LEADING MAN: Leeds Rhinos Rob Lui was impressive against Hull KR last week and is keen to reach the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford Picture by Will Palmer/SWpix.com

“I remember going to Wakefield at the back end of last year where we threw a team out there and just had to get through the game.

“Our preparation wasn’t as good as now and physically we’re probably in a better place now.

“Some of that is down to the fact that some of our bigger players haven’t had a 24-game season. Some have only played 12 or 14 games, some 16, so in terms of being over-played and beat up we’re not. We have some coming in who are a little bit under-done but at the same time I don’t think we’re in the same place as last year.

“We have referred to that disappointment and we’re determined not to feel that this time but in games like this it’s just who delivers on the night.

“We’ve prepared well, we have a strong side out there and we just have to deliver against a really tough, uncompromising team.”

Agar is not looking deeply at Leeds’ history of winning the title from so far down the table.

TIMELY BOOST: Zane Tetevano returns for Leeds Rhinos to face Wigan Warriors on Thursday. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

He insisted: “It’s a different group. The guys that won it from fifth are what’s termed the Golden Generation: seasoned internationals that had been there many, many times.

“We’re a side in our evolution. What you can deduce is that you can win it from fifth. And, at the moment, if you finish out of the four, it’s three games to get in there as opposed to two.

“It’s a slightly shorter route to the final but it’s all about Friday for us. We want to be here. Training’s ramped up again this week.

“But our opposition will be in exactly the same position as us.”

When Leeds won 14-0 at Wigan barely four weeks ago, it signalled a third successive defeat for Adrian Lam’s struggling side and more than two full games with them unable to even score a try.

However, since then they have won three of their four fixtures including keeping both Castleford Tigers and Hull FC scoreless as well as defeating league leaders Catalans 12-8 on Friday.

It points to them being play-off ready so tonight should produce an enthralling tie.

For once, Agar’s problem is who to leave out after England prop Mikolaj Oledzki was declared fit for the first time since suffering a foot injury on August 1.

Second-row Alex Mellor is also in contention after missing the last nine games with a knee issue, prop King Vuniyayawa is back after sitting out two fixtures with a foot problem and Kiwi Zane Tetevano returns from a ban.

Agar said: “They’re all like meerkats sticking their heads up to be selected.

“It’s a great boost.

“I’ve a dilemma now but undoubtedly, whichever way we go, it will add more size, power and experience to what we’ve got.”

SAME AGAIN PLEASE: Wigan's Jackson Hastings is tackled by Leeds Rhinos' Brad Dwyer and Tom Holroyd at the DW Stadium last month - on a night when the visitors won 14-0. Picture by Paul Currie/SWpix.com