St Helens v Leeds Rhinos: Richard Agar plotting play-off upset
There was a time when Leeds Rhinos versus St Helens was a Super League Grand Final staple.
Between 2007 and 2011, the fierce rivals faced each other four times at Old Trafford and Leeds, with their metronomic reliability, won on every occasion.
It is not without good reason why that Rhinos vintage became known as the Golden Generation.
However, now it is Saints who are threatening to become the competition’s dominant force as they aim for a third successive title and evolving Leeds are in a transitional period of finding their own new identity.
Moreover, ahead of tonight’s latest encounter between the famous clubs, another difference is that, rather than at the showpiece, it is at the semi-final stage where they lock horns once more.
Regardless, the stakes are all just as high; it is a pivotal 80 minutes ahead for both.
It is understandable why Saints are favourites to reach next Saturday’s Grand Final; they finished second – three places above Rhinos – have won the last eight meetings between the sides and are almost at full-strength, missing only France half-back Theo Fages and Leeds-bound second-row James Bentley.
Nevertheless, of late, Richard Agar’s Rhinos squad have demonstrated many of the requisite characteristics needed to out-manoeuvere Saints, not least possession of a steely defence that kept Wigan Warriors scoreless in last week’s eliminator at DW Stadium and in a recent league meeting.
Maximising their attacking quality will be key if they are to reach a first Grand Final since last winning the title in 2017 but Agar is rightly confident that his improving squad have the potential to cause an upset.
Having guided them to a Challenge Cup final victory last year, most of the squad have had a taste of what it takes to win such significant games and the former Wakefield Trinity and Hull FC chief insists his players do not need reminding these chances can be so few and far between.
“They know that,” said Agar, who has named the same 21-man squad as at Wigan but has the option of bringing in fit-again second-row Alex Mellor and in-form teenager Morgan Gannon if he decides to make changes.
“You don’t have to sit down and tell a player where the intensity level needs to be or that we can’t leave anything out there.
“Or that our ability to execute both in attack and defence needs to be of exceptionally high standard. They know that.
“These are actually the easier parts of the season to coach; we had a training session on Tuesday where I could have put a line through it after 15 minutes.
“I thought ‘we’re on, our intensity is good, we know what we’re on with.’ It’s almost, then, managing the week just to make sure we don’t play our game too early.
“We’ve got through it pretty well. I don’t need to press any emotional buttons. We’ve got a plan. We have to go out and execute it to an extremely high level.
“But we will enjoy it. Whatever happens, we’ve battled adversity all year to give ourselves a shot at it and that’s testament to them.
“I’m really proud of them and confident in them.”
Saints annihilated Leeds 40-6 at TW Stadium just three weeks ago when they scored five tries inside the opening half-hour.
However, with England prop Mikolaj Oledzki and Kiwi loose forward Zane Tetevano restored to the side since, Rhinos will be in a far better place to prevent such events occurring again.
Agar said: “Our defence has got to be bang on. The key against Saints is their opening 20-25 minutes is usually very good. Meeting fire with fire in those opening minutes is going to be really important for us.
“(Last time) We got some real close up, first-hand lessons from it about how Saints start and where they are strong.
“(But) As a coach, I am disregarding plenty of our performance that night. We’re coming into this game with a little more momentum and with some highly experienced, quality players who are going to start for us in the middle of the field. We had a fair amount of inexperience in the team that night and it’s going to be different [tonight].”
It needs to be for Leeds but they undoubtedly have the tools.