THE FIFTH round of the Tetley’s Challenge Cup coming the weekend after Easter adds a new dimension to both Super League and the knockout competition itself.
The looming Cup tie meant coaches had to prioritise when it came to selecting their squad for last Monday’s round of matches – the second game in four or five days.
St Helens, for example, rested senior players Luke Walsh, Alex Walmsley, James Roby and Mose Masoe for their Easter Monday trip to Widnes Vikings, which they lost 40-26.
Presumably those players will return when Saints visit Leeds Rhinos in Saturday’s BBC-televised blockbuster.
Leeds took a different stance. Jamie Peacock sat out the Thursday derby at Bradford Bulls, a game Ben Jones-Bishop and Ryan Bailey both missed through injury, but the trio returned against Salford three days ago, when coach Brian McDermott took the opportunity to give a breather to Kallum Watkins and Ian Kirke.
The Leeds boss also rotated his squad during the two Easter games, taking Kevin Sinfield off when the result was beyond doubt at Odsal and removing Rob Burrow late on against Salford.
Saints’ approach may well have been they did not need to beat Widnes. The format of Super League means sides can lose games here and there without it affecting their title chances. Leeds, on the other hand, seemed determined to keep momentum and continuity going.
Though Saints may have one or two fresher bodies on Saturday, they are on the back of successive defeats, which could affect morale. By contrast, Rhinos completed an Easter double and are full of confidence having gone top of the table while maintaining their incredible defensive record – 88 points conceded in 11 competitive games.
It is the first time under McDermott Leeds have topped the table at the end of a Super League round. In recent seasons Leeds have been accused of not being particularly interested in run of the mill games in the opening two thirds of the year, so – while there’s a long way to go – pole position now probably means quite a lot to them.
While he has not made wholesale changes, McDermott has proved he is willing to give players a rest, if circumstances allow. Only three of the 24 players used by Rhinos this year – Rob Burrow, Kylie Leuluai and Carl Ablett – are ever-present. At times over the the past few years injuries have reduced Rhinos to the bare bones and anybody who has been fit has got a game. That is not the case this season and the policy of giving players a break every now and then will pay off further down the track. Doing it piecemeal also gives Leeds the best chance of maintaining their good run.
Other clubs have clearly looked at what Leeds – Grand Final winners twice from fifth spot – and Wigan Warriors, who lifted the trophy last year after finishing fourth, have done and decided a high placing in the league table isn’t necessary or particularly desirable.
Rhinos are actually taking the opposite approach and putting emphasis on form, consistency and momentum. It’s clear they would like to secure the league leaders’ shield for the first time since 2009.
It will be interesting to see which approach pays off this weekend, but Leeds are the team going into it in better shape. Often the third game in a short space of time is the toughest and it’s not ideal for that to be a huge Cup tie, but with so much at stake it’ll be a surprise if Saturday’s tie is anything other than a thriller.
Keep Easter schedule as it is
It is a little strange the RFL are apparently considering scrapping the Easter weekend double-header, when the number of games in Super League is set to rise next year.
Playing on Maunday Thursday/Good Friday and then again on Easter Monday is tough, there’s no doubt about that. And with player welfare very much in the spotlight, the affect it could have on the individuals forced to go through it has to be taken into consideration.
Yet, the usual suspects apart, many coaches and players – who would all rather play than train – actually relish the challenge. The most likely alternative is for one round to be spread out over the whole weekend, which will bring its own problems, with some teams facing a short turnaround either before or after the holiday period.
But fans seem to enjoy the opportunity of seeing their team play twice in a short space of time, clubs value the Bank Holiday gate and there’s no doubt Easter is a period when the best teams, with the deepest squads, step up.
Collisions are getting tougher, but players are fitter and better looked after – and if the Easter double-header is scrapped it could mean a return to the season starting in January, which nobody wants.