AUSSIE centre Brett Delaney sees tonight’s visit of Harlequins as the start of a crucial period for improving Leeds Rhinos.
A place in the Carnegie Challenge Cup quarter-finals is the prize on offer this evening – before successive games against two of the four sides above Rhinos in the Engage Super League table.
Leaders Warrington Wolves are the visitors next Friday and Leeds travel to fourth-placed St Helens seven days later.
Delaney stressed all Rhinos’ current focus is on the road to Wembley as they bid to go one better than last year and win the trophy for the first time since 1999.
But, a win tonight would also send them into the next two vital league matches in good heart.
“They are big games in the Challenge Cup,” Delaney said of tonight’s task. “Last year we went all the way to the final and the result wasn’t what we wanted, but it’ll be a big game this week. Quins are a good side, but we are at home, it’ll be a big crowd and hopefully we can get a win.”
Victory would stretch Leeds’ successful run in all competitions to six matches and – while they aren’t putting sides to the sword in the way some of their rivals are – Delaney reckons they can be happy with the way they have toughed out wins in close-fought matches.
“We have got a few top-four teams coming up,” said Delaney, who was Rhinos’ man of the match in last week’s 30-6 league win over Catalan Dragons, which came after Leeds led only 6-0 at the break.
“If we play like we did last week and we grind it out we are going to make it hard for sides. It was hard work for an hour, but we got there in the end.
“We stuck to our game plan and that paid dividends, so it was pleasing.
“We didn’t panic, we got some repeat sets and kept putting the pressure on. In the second half we went on with it.
“Since Easter we have definitely stepped up a notch training-wise and we are really working for each other. You can see how desperate we are on the pitch and all the hard training is paying off.”
The return of key players from injury has also aided Rhinos’ cause.
“Getting players back is good for the squad,” Delaney said. “It keeps everyone on their toes and having everyone fighting for spots is paying off for the team.”
Delaney – one of the players to make a recent return – is back in the centres after stints in the second-row at the start of the campaign.
“I will play where Mac (coach Brian McDermott) puts me,” he said. “We are a bit short in the backs at the moment, but I’ll just see what happens.
“If I get a chance to get back into the second-row that’ll be good, but if not I’ll keep playing my part for the team hopefully the wins will keep coming.”
Delaney has had four different wing partners in as many games, with George Elliott, Kallum Watkins, Lee Smith and Zak Hardaker filling the role
With Watkins on the long-term casualty list and Smith set to fill in again at full-back, during Brent Webb’s injury absence, Hardaker is likely to continue alongside Delaney tonight.
The 19-year-old has scored three tries in just two senior appearances for Leeds and Delaney enthused: “He is a good young talent. He is growing in confidence. Last week was only his second game and he scored a couple of good tries, so it was good to have him out there.
“He’s a young kid and he’s buzzing, so it’s good.”
Chris Clarkson is back in contention for Rhinos after missing last Friday’s game due to an ankle injury suffered in the cup win over Crusaders six days earlier. Jay Pitts makes way as part of McDermott’s “squad rotation”.
Ryan Bailey – who has missed the last three games – and Ali Lauitiiti are also included in the initial 19. Lauitiiti has been sidelined for two months due to a calf injury.
Definitely out through injury are Webb (dead leg), Danny McGuire (quad strain), Watkins (wrist) and Ben Jones-Bishop (dislocated shoulder). Ben Cross has not been selected.
Luke Dorn and David Howell have been named in Quins’ initial 19-man squad after injury and Ben Bolger and David Williams – who were left out of the side last week – are also in contention.
On-loan duo Karl Pryce and Lee Mitchell - who played in the 54-6 defeat at Wigan seven days ago - are ineligible.
Quins’ 19 includes ex-Leeds players Mark Calderwood, Luke Gale and Danny Ward, plus Luke Ambler, who is on a season-long loan in the capital from Rhinos.
Leeds Rhinos from: Smith, Hardaker, Delaney, Senior, Hall, Sinfield, Burrow, Leuluai, Buderus, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Kirke, Burgess, Hauraki, McShane, Clarkson, Bailey, Lauitiiti.
Harlequins: O’Callaghan, Melling, Howell, Clubb, Calderwood, Gale, Randall, Ward, Ellis, Ambler, Bailey, Kouparitsas, Wilkes, Temata, Krasniqi, Burnett, Dorn, Bolger, Williams.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).
Kick-off: Tonight, 8pm.