Leeds Rhinos – including full-back Zak Hardaker – will be fully focused on the job at hand when they visit Wigan Warriors tonight, coach Brian McDermott says.
The RFL have launched an investigation after Hardaker was accused of making a homophobic comment during last Friday’s defeat by St Helens – and Rhinos chief execuitve Gary Hetherington has hit back by accusing the governing body of a “witchhunt” against the England star.
McDermott, who said he backed Hetherington’s remarks, described himself as disappointed by the fall-out from last week’s match and admitted Hardaker is upset by what has happened, but insisted it will have no bearing on tonight’s crucial game.
“We won’t let it be a distraction, but it’s something that obviously needs to be dealt with,” he said. “Zak’s dealing with it really well. He’s a pro’, a fierce competitor and while it’s something we don’t want to be dealing with and Zak doesn’t want to be dealing with, he’s determined to get it right (tonight) and he’s in a great frame of mind.”
The loss to Saints, which came after Joel Moon was sent-off in the first half, left Rhinos sixth in the table and facing their lowest league placing for 18 years.
But McDermott insisted: “The only thing we can do is look to the last two league games to see where we finish. No matter where that is, we have an intention of getting to Old Trafford and we want to win the Grand Final.
“We make no apologies for making mention of that. We have had a busy campaign again this year and we’ll go into Friday night’s game with a huge amount of determination. Wherever we finish we will find a route through, but if we get some results and other results go our way, we will certainly finish in the top-four.”
Just six points separated the top-six at the start of round 26, with only two between second spot and sixth. McDermott observed: “I’ve never known a season as tight as this one, not since Super League started.
“It is great to see. Wigan, Saints, Leeds and Warrington are up there and with a more than competitive Huddersfield and Castleford, there’s a genuine top-six there. Widnes and Catalan are also in the top-eight and they can beat anyone on their day so it’s a great play-offs and there are great contenders this year.”
Despite three successive league defeats, McDermott reckons Rhinos are in good shape heading into the most crucial stage of the season. He said: “You want to be healthy and you want to have some momentum behind you.
“Win or lose, you want enough things going well for you. It would be hard to argue against our performance last Friday night and say we’ve got to sharpen up in this area or that area.
“There’s a few things we’ve always got to be on top of. You can’t be on top of them all and from week to week the importance shifts from one facet of the game to the next.
“That’s why coaches often talk about ‘there’s things to work on’.
“There’s an A to Z of rugby league and of what a team can be good at and you’re not going to be great at them all.
“But come play-off time you need to be good at a few things – keeping hold of the ball, defending, playing with intensity and having a good kicking game.
“We get ticks in a few of those categories.
“A bit of loose ball in the second half last week was ultimately, along with the sending off, our downfall, but in terms of where we are at and where our preferred 13 or preferred 17 is, I think we are in good nick.”
He added: “The London loss and the Bradford loss were expensive, but we rested a few people and that needed to happen. To have the Challenge Cup semi-final and final so close to each other, that was an expensive period of time for us.”
Rhinos have lost eight Super League games this year, the heaviest defeat being 24-6 at Warrington Wolves. Of the others, one was by a point, two by two points, three by four points and one by six points. McDermott said: “That’s not frustrating at all, it’s an indication of how competitive we’ve been and just how much the games mean.
“You break the Bradford game down just recently – it was played in horrible conditions and we couldn’t get a foothold in the game, but we wouldn’t let them get a foothold either. It came down to a freaky play from them, where it was a very lucky offload and very lucky bounce of the ball that got them a try right at the death. At London, we fielded a lot of juniors and we made them fight right to the death.
“The only time we’ve been done by a couple of tries was Warrington away. Other than that is has always been down to one try, two points or a drop goal. It’s crazy – and we’ve had a couple of draws this year as well. For me they are just indicators of how competitive we’ve been this year, win or lose.”