Leeds Carnegie to use games to get ready for run-in

Leeds Carnegie's next three games may be 'dead rubbers' on one level, but for scores of players, it represents an unofficial 'trial.'

Positions are at stake ahead of the start of the real business once again, namely top-flight survival with Carnegie returning to Aviva Premiership affairs on at home to Leicester Tigers on February 13.

It's the start of a make-or-break spell in their quest to avoid the drop – and of the first four Premiership games on their return from cup duties, three are at home.

Carnegie start their three-week hiatus from league action with a home clash with Bucharest Oaks tomorrow (2pm), with nothing riding on it's outcome with the side's chance of reaching the Amlin Challenge Cup knockout stages ending following their 39-10 loss to Stade Francais last Sunday.

After Sunday, Carnegie face back-to-back LV Cup assignments with Gloucester and Northampton Saints and with qualification hopes all but over after two successive defeats in the autumn.

It's fair to say Carnegie have one eye on the return to top-flight duties, although the next three games give players a chance to stake their claims ahead of the business end of the season.

With Hendre Fourie and Steve Thompson away on Six Nations duty, opportunity knocks for players such as reserve hookers Phil Nilsen and Scott Freer, along with several others.

Director of rugby Key said: "Nobody is fixed in their position and we want people to put pressure on people who might be perceived to be number one's. We have talented players in our side and we need to keep the pressure on them and them on themselves.

"We know we are going to miss a couple of players on international duty who are big, backbone players for us. But the whole essence of the next few weeks is making sure the squad are capable of dealing with the problems we face."

He added: "We face three more games, then we go into a four or potentially five-game Premiership, which will almost certainly be the making of our season.

"We're continuing to work on our game strategy and performance, but we're also looking to give some players who have played a lot of rugby over the last few months a rest.

"We will also give some players a huge opportunity to put a stake for their shirt and we want the players and the squad to put pressure on

themselves and to make sure we come out of the next three games on a real positive note so we can take on the likes of Leicester and London

Irish on our own patch – and especially Newcastle."

On the injury front, crocked hooker Andy Titterrell is making excellent progress following knee surgery, which he underwent in November after suffering a seemingly season-ending cruciate injury in training.

Reports have suggested he could return as early as March, although Key insists the last thing in the world the coaching staff will be doing is rushing him – although he remains on course to feature before the end of the season.

One man definitely close to a return – in the next few weeks – is big lock Sean Hohneck, out since October with an ankle injury.

On Titterrell, Key added: "You can't rush it; it has to be right. The good thing is Andy was in really good shape before the injury and while he was waiting for the operation, he continued with a few bits of rehab.

"He's been ultra-professional since the operation and giving himself the best chance of getting himself back within the five-and-a-half to six-month period.

"Andy could still have a part to play in the those last few games and could make a difference.

"He's working really hard behind the scenes to contribute to the teams' success.

And on Hohneck's fitness, he said: "Our endeavours are very much to do that. It is a three-month injury, give or take a week and he is coming to the end and is training hard.

"There's no-one else behind the scenes who is closer to breaking back into the squad than Sean and we can't wait for him to be fit and on the training field at 100 per cent.

"Hopefully, over the next three games, he'll get his opportunity and we're keeping our fingers crossed on that."

Carnegie have named a strong side to take on Oaks including England internationals Thompson and Fourie as well as skipper Marco Wentzel, for the match.

Winger Michael Stephenson returns after missing last weeks game with a dead leg whilst Danny Paul returns from injury in the back row.

LEEDS CARNEGIE: Hinton, Stephenson, Tincknell, Burrell, Tadulala, Lewis-Pratt, Fury, Hardy, Thompson, Denman, Craig, Wentzel, To'oala, Paul, Fourie. Reps: Nilsen, Alonso, Gomez, Oakley, Rowan, Black, MacKay, Denton.

Aitor Karanka.

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