LEEDS Tykes must ensure that they are not distracted by the turbulent build-up to tonight’s game against Saracens as they look to pull away from the relegation zone.
Injuries and international call-ups have stripped the Tykes’ squad to its bare bones and forced them to hunt all over Europe for the two loan props they needed to fulfil this fixture.
The search yielded Tom McGee from the Borders and Ed Kalman from Newcastle, both of whom are at Headingley for just this match; yesterday, Leeds signed former London Irish, Saracens and Wasps prop Andy Kershaw, 27, from Ulster, but he has not been registered in time to face Saracens.
Little-known McGee starts at loose-head and will hardly strike fear into Saracens’ former Springbok tight-head Cobus Visagie; the 22 includes four other players who have yet to start a Premiership match, as well as a debutant stand-off in Australian Craig McMullen. Former England hooker Mark Regan is fit only for a place on the bench.
Nevertheless, Leeds need not be racked with self-doubt. Thirteen of the starting XV are hardened Premiership players, McGee is an experienced front-row and wing David Doherty is the most promising youngster to emerge from the Tykes’ academy.
With McMullen in for Gareth Wright, the side looks as good as the one that took the field against Worcester three weeks ago; as director of rugby Phil Davies has admitted, that dispiriting defeat was due to ‘mentality’ rather than the ability of the personnel.
Perhaps the adversity will galvanise the Tykes, or at least take their minds off their relegation worries. Leeds have lost seven of their last eight League matches and could be bottom by Sunday if results go against them this weekend.
Davies, though, detected signs of improvement in the 19-10 defeat at second-placed Sale last week.
“Our contact game was good, our lineout was good and we looked quite threatening when we had the ball,” he said. “We have got to keep building the players’ confidence and not let people go into a downward spiral or start thinking about other things going on around them.
“We are not talking about relegation. We understand the position we are in and we want to keep playing and performing.”
Saracens had been in good form but they were hopeless last week, losing 30-12 at home to London Irish. They allowed the Exiles side to claim their first try-scoring bonus point of the campaign, leaving Leeds as the only club yet to muster four tries in a Premiership game this season.
Like Leeds, the seventh-placed Londoners are without several senior players, including World Cup-winning back-row Richard Hill and former Tykes full-back Dan Scarbrough, who is two weeks away from a comeback having been out since November with a shoulder injury.
The Tykes won at Vicarage Road in the autumn and have lost just two of their seven League games against Saracens. No 8 Alix Popham makes his first start since November, when he damaged his neck while on Wales duty.
Dan Hyde is back in the 22 after eight weeks on the sidelines.
A pitch inspection at 9am will determine whether tonight’s game goes ahead.
Zurich Premiership: Leeds v Saracens (8.00), Worcester v Sale (8.00).
Under-21 Six Nations: France v Wales (6.00), Ireland v England (4.00), Scotland v Italy (7.00).