FALLEN CHAMPIONS Leeds Rhinos can play without fear when they visit First Utility Super League leaders Hull tonight, Rob Burrow says.
Last Sunday’s 23-22 home defeat by Widnes Vikings ended Rhinos’ faint hopes of scraping into the top-eight and means they will spend the final two months of the season in a relegation battle.
The 2015 treble winners have gone from the penthouse to the basement in just nine months, but Burrow – a member of all Rhinos’ seven Super League Grand Final-winning sides – reckons they can use their final three games of the regular season to build form and confidence ahead of the looming dogfight in the Qualifiers.
Rhinos inflicted one of Hull’s five defeats this year when they won 20-18 at Headingley three months ago.
That followed four victories over Hull – three of them away – last season, but the Black and Whites are a tougher proposition this time and will be desperate to get back on track after a shock loss to Huddersfield Giants eight days ago.
“It will be tough,” Burrow said of tonight’s test. “But we have nothing to lose really, in a way.
“Obviously we want to get a win and to build form, but the pressure is off in terms of making the top-eight.
“We just need to play well for ourselves.
“We have got rid of a huge amount of pressure to keep performing every week to get into the top-eight, so now we can go there and just play some rugby and hopefully put them under a lot of threat.
“Hopefully we can do enough and we can defend well because they are a very good side.
“They have been good all year and they, like any team, love to beat Leeds.
“It is a great incentive for us.”
Based on the current league tables, Leeds’ opponents in the Qualifiers will be Salford Red Devils, Huddersfield Giants and Hull KR from Super League and Kingstone Press Championship teams Leigh Centurions, London Broncos, Batley Bulldogs and Halifax.
The top three in the Qualifiers will secure an automatic Super League place for next season, with those finishing fourth and fifth playing off for the final spot.
“Obviously the realisation is we are in the middle-eights so we have got to get used to that, but nothing changes in the fact we need to keep improving,” Burrow said.
“Whatever ‘eight’ we are in, we need to be good at the end of the year.
“We would have liked to have been involved in the play-offs and the Grand Final, but we’re not.
“Now we are playing for our Super League survival so we have got to pick up like we have been doing all year.
“Unfortunately we have got used to this, picking ourselves up after a loss and going again, but we have got to do it because all the games we’ve got remaining are tough. We’ve got the top of the league, then the team who are second and then a team in a similar position to us.
“They are really tough games and hopefully we can use them to build some momentum going into the middle-eights.
“Momentum is everything. Going in knowing we have played well for three games would help us.
“If we pick up wins against Hull, Wigan and Hull KR we will be flying, but we have got to do that.
“We have got to improve and be better for the full-80 than we have been.”
Unlike the Super-8s, teams in the Qualifiers begin on zero points, but the ninth- and 10th-placed Super League sides will get four home games, one more than those finishing 11th and 12th.
“That’s what we are playing for,” Burrow added. “We want to have more home games in front of our fantastic fans who have supported us throughout.
“There were 16,000 there on Sunday, which is amazing. They have done their part like they do every year and it’s just unfortunate we haven’t produced the goods on the pitch.”
Despite Rhinos’ fall from grace, Burrow insisted spirits in the camp have remained high. He said: “The lads have been great throughout the year, despite all the losses and the league position.
“It is pretty tough when you are not in the top-eight and not involved in the top part of the game.
“But every week we’ve said if we don’t keep winning we will be in the middle-eights. It has come now and we have got to deal with it and move on.
“We know it [the Qualifiers] isn’t going to be easy. We are going to be playing very good teams and the performance last Sunday, although we played well in patches, won’t be good enough.
“Everyone will want to beat Leeds, as they always do. Playing us will bring the best out of them so we have got to get ready for that.
“We need to keep improving and we’ve got some tough games to roll our sleeves up and get ready for it.”