I’ve obviously not been in Leeds Rhino’s team meetings this week (the offer is always there, Richard Agar and other Super League coaches…) but I can picture the scene; the entire squad sat around, whilst the Rhinos Head Coach gestures with one of those telescopic pointer things to a flipchart that simply says 'Stop Alex Walmsley.'
The St Helens number 8 bullied the Leeds pack just a few weeks ago when these two sides last met, and I would imagine that when Hull KR upset the applecart against Warrington and it was confirmed that they would be facing Saints in the semi-finals, a few of the Rhinos forwards had sleepless nights.
That said, Leeds come into this game on the back of nilling Wigan in the Eliminators, and whilst the Warriors attack is undoubtedly blunter that it has been in years gone by, the Rhinos have every right to take huge confidence from their defensive showing at the DW.
Agar’s side have been boosted by the return of Mikolaj Oledzki in recent weeks, who alongside captain Matt Prior, will have a big role to play if the Rhinos are to come out on top of Friday.
Logic suggests that St Helens should win this game reasonably comfortably, the odds agree; Saints are 2/7 whilst Leeds are out at 13/5, but as we’ve seen time and time again, the Betfred Super League play-offs couldn’t care less about logic, or odds.
There’s no doubting that this Leeds team is packed with potential. The likes of Harry Newman and Jack Broadbent are still in the early stages of what look set to be long and successful careers, and it’s easy to forget that Ash Handley and Oledzki are only 25 and 23 respectively.
There was also going to being a rebuilding phase following the departure of the likes of Kevin Sinfield, Danny Maguire and Rob Burrow. Could Friday be the night that this next generation of Leeds players come of age? It’s possible.
They’ve got older, more experienced heads in the mix as well to guide the young bucks through this, Prior brings with him valuable experience from the NRL, and Richie Myler continues to enjoy his new lease of life at Fullback.
The reality is though, that Leeds Rhinos will have to produce their best performance of this season, and quite possible the last few years if they are stop St Helens from romping through to a third consecutive Grand Final.
Saints haven’t quite reached the heights of 2019, in which every other side finished closer to the bottom than they did St Helens, in the last two seasons, but there is absolutely no doubting their credentials as back to back champions.
I can’t imagine that Kristian Woolf has had to say too much, or even coach too much in the last week or two, play-off football is now so deeply engrained into Saint’s muscle memory, that there will be nerves, no theatrics. This is what St Helens do now. They get to semi-finals, and usually, they win them.
Theo Fages is a big miss in the halves, but Lewis Dodd hasn’t taken a backward step since being promoted into the side on a regular basis, and alongside Jack Welsby, it looks certain that St Helens have unearthed yet another pair of superstars.
At the other end of the spectrum, James Roby has just announced that next season will be his 17th and last. That means four more opportunities to win domestic silverware, and he will be desperate to take the lot.
The thing that will be at the back of everyone’s minds is that we’ve seen Leeds go the distance from 5th place before. There’s something in the water at Headingley, they just don’t quit.
The reality is that on those occasions, it was probably a case of Leeds underachieving in the regular season, so when Sinfield, Peacock, Maguire et al got it right in the play-offs it wasn’t a massive surprise. This time around 5th feels like an accurate representation of where they are.
This is the play-offs though, and Leeds will have around 2000 fans in the away end on Friday night. If they get off to a good start, make St Helens uncomfortable, and force the champions to chase the game, then who knows.
The night after Catalans made history, Leeds Rhinos might just make it repeat itself…