Rotherham and Leeds switch focus to pursuit of cup glory

Joel Gill.
Joel Gill.
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FOR both Leeds Carnegie and Rotherham Titans, the pursuit of the Championship title and promotion to the promised land of Premiership rugby is everything.

However, tonight, Leeds and Rotherham will each put their league campaign to one side as they attempt to nudge closer to unexpected silverware on another front.

Yorkshire’s two leading sides are fighting for a place in the British & Irish Cup semi-finals with Leeds hosting Plymouth 
Albion and Rotherham heading to Championship leaders Bristol.

It is the first time either has ventured this far in the oft-maligned competition, but the chance of glory is edging ever closer.

Neither will be at full-strength, however, with Rotherham, in particular, shorn of almost a full XV for their already difficult trip to the south-west.

That said, coach Lee Blackett – whose side are third in the league – refuses to be downbeat even with 13 players unavailable.

“It’s going to be a difficult challenge at Bristol; it always is because they have a very good team,” he said.

“Obviously with all the absentees this week our job doesn’t become any easier, but we believe we have a real chance of progressing further in the tournament and that’s testament to the quality and depth of the squad we have.

“We’ll go down there as massive underdogs, but there’ll be no pressure on us as everyone outside Clifton Lane will expect us to lose this one.

“But we don’t feel that way and our mindset is we believe we can get the result; we’ll go down there and enjoy the occasion.”

In addition to long-term absentees Laurence Pearce, Barney Maddison and Sam Heygate, Rotherham saw second-row Dan Sanderson banned for five weeks on Tuesday while Garry Law, Ben Sowrey, Dallan Murphy, Tom Holmes, Jordan Davies, Ben Morris, Ben Rath, Max Argyle and Ben Thomas are also sidelined.

But Blackett said: “It offers some other guys in the squad an opportunity to come in and stake a claim. Positions are up for grabs and it’s up to the boys coming in to show what they can do and to prove they deserve to be playing week-in and week-out.”

Eight changes are made to the side that beat Bedford Blues in the Championship last week with outside centre Joel Gill making his first start of 2014, Curtis Wilson returning on the wing after illness and scrum-half Dan White getting the nod.

Marshall Gadd and Mark Tampin return to the front-row, Josh Thomas-Brown and Ed Williamson form a new second-row combination, and there is a return at No 8 for Alfie To’oala.

Leeds, meanwhile, are hoping to go on and secure their first major trophy since the famous Powergen Cup triumph over Bath in 2005.

“We are close to it and there is an opportunity to get some silverware, which is fantastic,” said coach Jimmy Lowes.

“We’ve got a great chance to get to the semis but we know we have to deliver against Plymouth first.

“The boys are excited by it and they are looking forward to getting out there. We had a tough game against them in the Championship, though, and know we must improve on that.”

Leeds, who currently sit fourth, edged a 15-14 victory in Devon early in January and host the same side in the league again a week on Sunday.

“Plymouth are a good side, lively and not afraid of trying to play,” continued Lowes, who has had to make a raft of changes due to injuries suffered in Sunday’s 27-20 success at Nottingham.

“They don’t just resort to kicking like a lot of union sides and we had a really tough game down there. We didn’t play particularly well and had to kick our way out of that one.”

Leeds are without captain Jacob Rowan, among others, but welcome back Jonah Holmes, who last week played for London Wasps in the Premiership, and fly-half Jonny Bentley starts his first game since joining from Gloucester.

Prop Paul Hill debuts having impressed while in action with the England Under-20s’ squad recently. The Doncaster-raised 19-year-old Academy product is highly thought of and trained with Stuart Lancaster’s full England squad during the Six Nations.

Back-row Richard Beck returns while Jarad Williams, who last week played at Twickenham for Leeds Metropolitan University in the BUCS Final, earns a recall at No 8.

On the bench, ex-Rotherham hooker Dan Baines makes his first appearance for the club having joined on loan from Sale.

Lowes admits the decision whether to rest players ahead of their crucial league run-in has been taken from his hands.

“Unfortunately we’re not in that position,” he said. “With these injuries the team picked are the guys who are the fittest.

“If we’d have had a full team we’d have been scratching our heads – we want to do well in the comp and have chance to move on to the semi-finals if we do well – but this line-up is not of choice.

“We’ve been pushed a little with the injuries we have.”