TOP PUNDIT Mike Stephenson is predicting an end to Leeds Rhinos’ unbeaten run at St Helens tomorrow.
The Sky TV commentator, known as Stevo, reckons Leeds will suffer their first defeat of the year in the top of the table clash with Super League’s only other unbeaten team.
Saints have a 100 per cent record after six games and are a point clear of second-placed Rhinos and Stephenson feels home advantage will swing the biggest match of the season so far their way.
“It’s going to be brilliant excitement for a big crowd and everyone watching on Sky TV,” Stephenson predicted.
“But I would have to say I still favour Saints, even though they have got some injuries. Leeds will arrive there and all the bookies will say they are odds-on, but that will irritate the Saints players.
“Luke Walsh, who has been a sensational player for them, is out, but they will be up for it because of the mere fact they are playing Leeds and it is a top of the table clash.
“The defence of Leeds is superb and St Helens are a bit wobbly in that department, but they always gear up when the big guns come to town.
“Saints are going to start as underdogs on their own ground – that is fire and brimstone.”
The excitement tomorrow could be generated in the backs, but Stephenson – a Championship winning hooker with his hometown club Dewsbury in 1973 – believes the game itself will be won up front.
“The thing I am excited about more than anything is that you will see two of the best three-quarter lines we’ve had in this country for a long, long time – and they are British,” he said. “That should be a real pleasure to watch. Just look at the way Ryan Hall is playing at the moment – absolutely superb.
“But this won’t be won in the opening 15 minutes by the three-quarters, it will be won in the forwards – it will be like turning the clock back to my day.
“It will be crunch time for the packs and the key factor is going to be James Roby (St Helens’ hooker) from dummy-half.
“Leeds will know that, Brian McDermott is fully aware of the quality of the man and the play he creates with his short pass.
“If you allow him to take that two or three-step run, it gives the defence a bit of uncertainty. It’s in and around that ruck area that St Helens will be able to beat Leeds, though if you look at the three-quarter talents, they are evenly-matched.”
With Kevin Sinfield rested, Leeds boss McDermott paired Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow in the half-back roles for last week’s win over London.
Stephenson said: “It would not surprise me if he puts Sinfield at loose-forward and leaves McGuire and Burrow at half-back. I think they might play like that at some time during the game. You could tell last week that McGuire and Burrow click.
“McGuire wasn’t being pushed out by Sinfield, it was turning back the clock. It was only against London, but I thought last week we were seeing the best of McGuire.
“We haven’t seen that for a while and it wouldn’t surprise me if McDermott does that. It might only be for 20 minutes, but that 20 minutes could change the game.”