Can the Rhinos’ cup charge continue at Saints’ expense?
Following a tumultuous workload over Easter, Super League heavyweights Leeds Rhinos and St Helens must lift themselves once again as they prepare to do battle in front of the BBC cameras on Saturday afternoon for a place in the Tetleys Challenge Cup quarter final.
Something has got to give in this Headingley humdinger which is looming up as a potential classic. Us bookmakers find it hard to split the pair and, with one of their big rivals out of the way, whoever wins this showdown will strongly fancy their chances of lifting the cup itself!
It’s one of the great anomalies of British sport that the Rhinos – who have won six Super League Grand Finals and three World Club Championships in the last 10 years – haven’t tasted Challenge Cup success since the late Graham Murray plotted them to victory at the ‘old’ Wembley in 1999…a time when Martine McCutcheon could top the singles charts, and people actually cared!
Amazingly, that success itself represents the only time the Yorkshiremen have tasted Challenge Cup glory in the last 36 years with the Rhinos fluffing their lines in the final on no fewer than eight occasions in the intervening period.
Understandably, Rhinos coach Brian McDermott and influential talisman Kevin Sinfield are both ‘beyond desperate’ to end that Challenge Cup jinx and – though they would never say it publicly – both would prioritise Wembley glory over another Grand Final success.
But, whilst we know Leeds are fully incentivised for this one, the same has to apply to St Helens too, with coach Nathan Brown determined to wipe out a trophy drought which no stretches back six years, which must seem like a veritable ‘age’ to Saints fans who gorged on a diet of silverware during through the late nineties/early noughties.
In truth, having blazed a trail during the early part of this season, St Helens haven’t looked quite the same side since a makeshift side, bereft of half-a-dozen big guns, produced a monumental effort to inflict Leeds’ only defeat of the season in an enthralling encounter at Langtree Park earlier in the month.
But, for all the kudos that dramatic victory brought, the exertions of the night clearly took an edge off Saints and, after playing a ‘get out of jail card’ in ensuing fixtures vs Huddersfield and Castleford, their veneer of invincibility was finally removed, as we predicted against bitter rivals Wigan on Good Friday.
Don’t read too much into Monday’s subsequent defeat vs Widnes – Brown rested a battery of influential players with an eye on this fixture – but the sensible consensus would still seem to suggest that St Helens aren’t quite as formidable as many experts were predicting a month ago, particularly with forwards Willie Manu and Anthony Laffranchi missing for the next month and injury niggles surrounding quite a few others.
In contrast, having displaced St Helens at the top of the Super League table over Easter courtesy of routine wins over Bradford Bulls and Salford Reds, Leeds are running at virtually full-strength and couldn’t be coming into this game in better shape
An electrifying three-quarters line featuring Kallum Watkins, Ryan Hall, Tom Biscoe, and Zak Hardaker continues to grab the headlines but arguably the most impressive aspect of Leeds’ performances this season is their all-round defensive mettle which has seen them concede just a miserly 82 points from 10 fixtures – half as many as any other Super League side.
There is no doubt that with Saints’ influential playmaking triumvirate of James Roby, Luke Walsh and Jonny Lomax freshened up by sitting out the Widnes clash, they will provide a stern examination of Leeds’ defensive credentials but most of the key portents still point to a Leeds victory, not least their tremendous home form which has seen them concede just six tries from five games at Headingly all season.
So, the scene is set for rip-roaring cup-tie between arguably the best two sides in the land and, though the possibility of inclement weather may prevent a points-fest, we at Betbright are predicting a Leeds victory and for the Rhinos to cover a –6 handicap line in the process!
The match kicks off at Check out 2.30pm on Saturday afternoon and promises to be another breathtaking encounter between these two Super League heavyweights!