CUP-WINNING CAPTAIN Kevin Sinfield reckons Leeds Rhinos will be ready for a new challenge when they take on St Helens in tonight’s final home game of the regular First Utility Super League season.
It is just six days since Rhinos ended 15 years of hurt by beating Castleford Tigers in the Tetley’s Challenge Cup final at Wembley, but Sinfield said the time has come to move on.
“It is a huge game, we all appreciate that,” he said of tonight’s third versus first clash. “We had a celebration on Monday and our attention after that switched to St Helens.
“It had to. They have had two weeks building up to this, but for us there’s been no better preparation than going out and playing a really tough 80 minutes.
“To play against the league leaders at Headingley – and I am sure the place will be rocking – will be fantastic, but we need to perform. There’s no excuses and there’ll be no hangover from us. We will give it our best shot.”
Rhinos are four points adrift of Saints with just three games remaining in the regular season.
Successive league losses to relegated teams Bradford Bulls and London Broncos were a huge blow to Leeds’ hopes of finishing top of the table and they will be out of the hunt if they lose tonight.
“We haven’t given up hope of the league leaders’ shield yet,” Sinfield insisted.
“We understand this is going to be a really tough game and other results will have to go our way, but hopefully we can ride this bit of a wave.
“The guys are in great spirits, even those who missed out on the final. It is really nice to see players enjoying winning trophies, because it is a real squad effort. It is not just about 17 players, so last week was really pleasing for everyone.”
Sinfield, who suffered some damage to a biceps at Wembley, reckons Rhinos have the ability and mental toughness to go on and win the Grand Final.
They were Super League champions in 2011 and 2012 after losing at Wembley, but only Wigan, last year, have managed to claim both trophies since the Challenge Cup was moved to a late-season slot, just weeks before the end of the weekly rounds.
“The benchmark’s been set,” Sinfield said of Wigan’s achievement last year. “We are certainly capable of it, but we’ll see. We have got a fully-fit squad, apart from Bish (knee injury victim Ben Jones-Bishop) unfortunately.
“Besides that everybody’s still competing for places and those guys who missed out on Saturday will be desperate to get a shirt and to feature in the up-coming play-offs series, so why not?
“We will give it our best shot, I guarantee that. We all know how brilliant it is to play in Grand Finals and win them and to celebrate afterwards.
“Last Saturday has certainly whetted the appetite again and having the opportunity of maybe doing something equally special in seven or eight weeks’ time is really exciting.
“Hopefully this squad can give it everything they’ve got.”
Sinfield said there is no sense in the Rhinos camp that they can put their cue on the rack now the Challenge Cup is in the trophy cabinet.
“That’s the danger,” he conceded. “A lot has been talked about the Challenge Cup being the missing piece of the jigsaw, but that jigsaw puzzle is finished now and we need to start a new one.
“We need to start filling some pieces in. People ask what’s the next challenge and where do you go from here?
“Well, we want to try and win them all again. This club is about winning trophies and we will give it our best shot.
“We are fully determined to continue and keep this momentum going.”
Saints were among Rhinos’ Challenge Cup victims, being beaten 32-12 in a fifth round tie at Headingley Carnegie in April.
That came less than a month after they inflicted Leeds’ first defeat of the season, 14-10 at Langtree Park in Super League round seven.
They know winning tonight will be a huge step towards the league leaders’ shield and may expect Leeds to suffer the after-effects of their Cup final triumph. “We will always face that criticism,” Sinfield predicted. “Whatever happens (tonight), people will always have an opinion on whether we celebrated too hard or whether we didn’t.
“Everybody’s different and everybody does it their own way, but I am really looking forward to the game. I think it’s a huge challenge. Saints are a top side – even though they’ve got a couple of players missing at the moment – and they have had two weeks’ prep’.
“It is a big challenge for us, but one I think we are ready for.”
But has the Cup victory, Leeds’ first trophy success since the 2012 Grand Final, taken some of the pressure off?
“It has in terms of winning Challenge Cups,” Sinfield admitted. “I’ve had that rammed down my throat at pretty much every Challenge Cup press conference I’ve been to for 15 years. That’s gone now, but in terms of winning trophies and needing to improve and get better, no chance. That is innate now in this club and some of the players we’ve got that we want to get better and we want to win silverware. It is exciting that we are playing the current league leaders this week. That’s fantastic – it would have been a real worry for me if we were playing somebody a bit lower down the league.
“It may have been difficult for some of the boys to get up for it, but not Saints at home.”
Leeds Rhinos: from Hardaker, Watkins, Moon, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, Aiton, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Sinfield, Delaney, Bailey, Kirke, Achurch, Briscoe, Sutcliffe, Singleton.
St Helens: from Makinson, Turner, Jones, Swift, Hohaia, Masoe, Roby, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Soliola, Manu, Laffranchi, Flanagan, Amor, Wellens, Walmsley, Percival, Dawson, Richards, McDonnell.
Referee: Richard Silverwood (Mirfield).
Kick-off: Tonight, 8pm.