Cup Final fatigue leaves Rhinos vulnerable.
A carnival atmosphere lies in wait for newly-crowned Challenge Cup winners, the Leeds Rhinos, at Headingley on Friday but league leaders St Helens will be looking to spoil the party.
The Rhinos were back to their very best when defeating Castleford in last weekend’s Wembley showpiece but it’s asking a lot of Brian McDermott’s men to overcome the twin obstacles of a fired-up Saints side and post-Cup Final fatigue just six days later.
After all, history tells us that the euphoria of winning a Challenge Cup can invariably leave the winners emotionally and physically drained the following week.
Never was this more exemplified than by St Helens themselves in 2001 when a side featuring legendary names such as Sculthorpe, Joynt, Long and Cunningham were annihilated by 70 points in a post-Challenge Cup Final game against Leeds!
When you contrast the two side’s respective build-ups for this crunch fixture, it is perhaps surprising that we bookmakers still make the Rhinos slight 8/15 favourites, with St Helens as big as 13/10.
Whilst Leeds have had to contend with an intense Cup Final preparation, a physical battering from the game itself, the emotional high of victory and the ensuing celebrations that went with it, coach Nathan Brown and his St Helens players have had a fortnight to focus on this game alone.
The fact that Leeds are still favourites to win the game can be attributed to the fact that injury has robbed St Helens of key playmakers Luke Walsh and Johnny Lomax, not to mention back-up halfback Gary Wheeler and influential utility man John Wilkin.
The ensuing reshuffle has seen Brown change tact in recent weeks and adopt a more forward-orientated game-plan which has seen him overload with heavy-duty big men in an attempt to boss games down the middle.
This tactic proved effective in wearing down Wakefield last time out and it could just work against a fatigued Leeds side who, Jamie Peacock apart, boasts its bigger artillery in the half-backs and three-quarters.
All that said, Rhinos coach Brian McDermott is well aware that the logjam at the top of the table means the Rhinos cannot afford to drop any points in the battle for a favourable play-off perch and has named a full-strength 19-man squad as a result.
It’s simply not in the DNA of Kevin Sinfield, Rob Burrow, Peacock and the rest to roll over without a fight and, whatever happens, the Rhinos are bound to have their moments in this game.
From a betting perspective, there are too many imponderables to get heavily involved with, though the ‘fatigue factor’ may create some value in the half-time/full-time market.
Take Leeds to be winning at the break, but St Helens to wear them down and win the game at full-time – available at 13/2.
The match kicks off at 8.00pm on Friday night at Leeds’ Headingley Stadium.