Warriors to wear down ‘hookerless’ Rhinos.
Leeds Rhinos and Wigan Warriors have served up so many memorable clashes in recent years and another crackerjack of a contest is in store when Super League’s ‘big two’ lock horns for the first time this season at Headingley on Friday.
Between them, the two cross-Pennine giants have won each of the last seven Super League crowns and – after both sides emphatically advertised their title credentials recently by defeating early season pacemakers St Helens – it’s easy to see why many pundits are already touting Friday’s showdown as a plausible Grand Final ‘dress rehearsal’.
Right now, most of the attention is quite rightly on Leeds as they bask in the afterglow of an impressive hatchet-job on St Helens in the Challenge Cup last weekend. As we predicted, the Rhinos simply had too much firepower for a ‘flat’ Saints side worn down by an unfavourable sequence of testing fixtures.
Once again, central to Leeds’ dominance was the performance of their electric backline which is already living up to its blue chip billing and then some.
It’s well-documented that England internationals Kallum Watkins, Ryan Hall, Tom Briscoe and Zac Hardaker boast the speed, skill and potency to score from anywhere on the field but what is currently setting them apart is their appetite to muck-in with the tough stuff too. Hall and Briscoe in particular tend to eat up the yardage with strong carries in ‘exit sets’ and this is relieving some of the burden on a forward pack which still arguably has an over-reliance on outstanding veteran Jamie Peacock and England back-rower Carl Ablett.
The Rhinos are definitely running hot right now but the one big negative is that they come into this game without a recognised hooker. Rob Burrow’s fractured collar-bone was the last thing coach Brian McDermott needed with Papua New Guinea international Paul Aiton already a long-term absentee and Leeds will doubtless miss the diminutive Burrow’s scampering darts and infectious enthusiasm.
Stand-off Kevin Sinfield is likely to cover the dummy-half role for at least part of the game and, though the England captain will no doubt make his presence felt, it’s hard to believe the Rhinos’ all-round equilibrium won’t be affected however McDermott opts to reshuffle things.
And, in a game of such potentially small margins, this could prove crucial.
True, the Warriors aren’t without injury troubles of their own – first-choice props Eddy Pettybourne and Ben Flower have joined three-quarters Josh Charnley and Iain Thornley on the treatment table – but a squad swelled by a plethora of hungry, young talent means that Shaun Wane still has all bases adequately covered.
Last season’s double winners – who are unbeaten in seven games now – even enjoyed the luxury of being able to freshen up a posse of big-guns, including Sean O’Loughlin, by letting them sit out Sunday’s cakewalk over outclassed Challenge Cup opponents Hunslet, which followed hot on the heels of an effortless rout over a woeful Bradford Bulls side.
Those games may have lacked intensity but the ensuing quotes from Wane suggesting his team might be “under-done” coming into Friday’s showdown can be dismissed as mind-games. After all, an overriding feature of Wane’s tenure in the Wigan hot-seat has always been his propensity to get his side up for the big games and this fixture definitely falls into that category.
The dramatically improved form of full-back Matt Bowen and the emergence of Joe Burgess as an England winger in-waiting has helped soften Wigan’s blow of losing superstar talisman Sam Tomkins to the NRL and a settled midfield triangle of Blake Green, Matty Smith and Mike McIlorum continue to pull the strings behind a forward pack in which Scott Taylor, Tony Clubb and Liam Farrell have been outstanding.
But – as we highlighted prior to his majestic performance against St Helens – it’s captain O’Loughlin who is key to this Wigan side. A troublesome achilles has meant that his appearances have become increasingly sporadic in recent seasons but he boasts an astonishing winning record playing for Wane and he will be unleashed once again here.
We bookmakers currently find it hard to split both these teams in the Grand Final betting and this result could easily go either way. But, it’s Wigan who come into the game the fresher side and they look a shade over-priced at odds of 6/5 on the handicap of +1.5 with Burrows’ untimely absence hitting Leeds hard.
The match kicks off tonight at 8.00pm at Headingley Stadium.