DISPLACING St Helens at the top of the table has given Leeds Rhinos a huge boost ahead of Saturday’s Tetley’s Challenge Cup clash, according to star back Zak Hardaker.
The BBC-televised fifth round tie at Headingley Carnegie will see Rhinos take on the only side to beat them so far this year.
Saints, missing nine first-choice players, snatched a dramatic 14-10 win at Langtree Park last month.
But the Merseyside outfit suffered their first defeat when they were beaten at home by Wigan Warriors last Friday – and then surrendered top spot in First Utility Super League following a shock loss at Widnes Vikings two days ago.
Hardaker admitted Saints’ win over Leeds in March will give them confidence, especially with a stronger line-up set to feature this weekend.
But he insisted: “They have beaten us, but they have also lost their last two and we are above them in the league now.
“I think we will both be confident going into the game, which should make it a really exciting contest and one that’s good to watch on TV as well.”
Hardaker added: “Being top is something we set out to be, especially at Easter when it is a tough period for all the teams.
“We’ve had two wins and two really good wins. We’ve only had 10 points scored against us and that’s very good to take into the Challenge Cup.
“It is going to be a good game, all the boys are focused for the Challenge Cup and it’s something we want to do well in and win this year.”
Rhinos were not at their best in Monday’s 32-4 win over Salford Red Devils and were fortunate to go in at the break two points ahead.
But they shut out the visitors in the second half, while scoring five tries themselves and Hardaker feels the manner of their victory was impressive at a difficult time in the season.
“It was a tough first half,” he said. “We had a few words at half-time and we went out and delivered.
“We scored some good tries in the second half, but I don’t think we will review Monday’s game too much.
“It is only a short turnaround and we have got to put all our focus on to Saints on Saturday. We’re really going to go out and give it our all.”
The Cup tie will be Rhinos’ third game in 10 days and Saints’ third in nine, but Hardaker said: “We’ll be okay, one thing about this team is we are really good fitness-wise and physically.
“Everyone got through Monday all right and we rested one or two as well, which is always good to do over Easter.
“I think we’ve got some fresh bodies to come in, so it’s all looking good for us this week. You have to be at your best every week, but especially in the Challenge Cup.
“Anything can happen and if things go wrong you are out. Everyone’s got to turn up on Saturday and be ready to really give it some.”
Coach Brian McDermott confirmed Rhinos came through Monday’s game with no major injury problems.
Said the coach: “Mitch Achurch went into the game ill, so he had to have a long spell off before he went back on again.
“Magsy [Danny McGuire] has got a cut lip after an outstanding try-saver, along with Ryan Hall, but there are no injuries that will mean people have to have time off.”
Kallum Watkins and Ian Kirke were rested against Salford, but will be in contention for Saturday.