It is tough to think that a year ago Leeds were just four wins away from securing the League Leaders’ Shield, but I suppose there was always going to be a transition year (or maybe two) somewhere down the line.
The great thing about the new system introduced last year is that it gives those passionate and aspirational Championship clubs the chance not only to compete for Super League, but to host and attempt to challenge some of them too.
Leeds head to Post Office Road on Saturday to face Featherstone Rovers, for whom this could be a big payday and a great advert for their club, the Championship, and British rugby league. There are not many better things than a traditional old rugby league ground packed to see a Championship team test themselves against the reigning champions boasting reputable international players like Ryan Hall and Kallum Watkins.
The aim for Leeds in the Qualifiers in my opinion should be to go unbeaten, the way that Hull KR did last year. After what has been a tough 2016 it would be nice to finish with some good form and hopefully a fully fit squad to take into 2017.
I predict that the Million Pound Match will be contested by Hull KR and Leigh and that Leeds, Huddersfield and Salford will qualify comfortably. Salford would have been in the top eight had it not been for their points deduction, but despite this they have strengthened their squad in recent weeks. How they have done this and kept under the salary cap I do not know.
The same applies to Leigh, who out of the Championship clubs pose the biggest threat to get promoted. They have a squad blended with players who could walk into Super League teams as well as experienced heads and some young players working their way up the system. However, they are another team who have a strong 40 player squad and are somehow within the salary cap.
To get off to the best possible start in the Qualifiers, Leeds must simply pick up where they left off a fortnight ago and play with the confidence that they picked up after the last three wins.
This week Leeds are in unfamiliar territory battling it out to remain in the top flight of the competition.
No-one would have predicted that the Rhinos would be in this position, but as Gary Hetherington has said, the Leeds fans should make the most of it.
It is a rare opportunity to play teams like Featherstone and Batley who will be itching to try and down the champions.
While it has been a far from ideal season, the players will likely be better for it (especially the youngsters who have had an extended run of games) and with a few tweaks in the off season the Rhinos will be at the right end of the table again this time next year.
Leeds’ games in the eights will not be easy, especially as every team will want to beat them more than anyone, but Leeds have a squad full of talent and knowledge and it is difficult to imagine us being troubled by a majority of the teams.
On Saturday we travel to Featherstone for what I can only imagine will be a bruising encounter.
Featherstone will be desperate to put a good show on against the Rhinos and I can see the score line being close till near the end of the match, although I believe Leeds will have too much for Featherstone to handle.
Saturday’s game is not going to be easy at Featherstone Rovers. They did keep Bradford Bulls scoreless last time out, so we should not underestimate them. I want to see us deliver a professional performance and treat Featherstone with the respect they deserve.
So we get back to it this weekend following the Cup semis and it is the start of the unknown.
Hopefully the two-week break has allowed the team to freshen up, get over any injury concerns and focus on Super League survival.
First up in the Qualifiers is a trip to Featherstone.
They have had a similar end to the season to Leeds’ and will play with no fear and plenty of confidence.
Whether they can cope with 80 minutes against a professional team remains to be seen.
I predict a close first half or so, but Leeds to be too fit and strong for them and win comfortably in the end.
It should be an interesting contest between the Briscoe brothers too.
Rest, recoup, regroup and resurge for the Rhinos. We now enter the MOST important games of these players’ lives. Forget about winning trophies – these matches are about survival! The Championship teams will see their games with Leeds as cup finals. Only a win at Featherstone will do.
We should be feeling refreshed after a week off, and confidence will surely be high following three wins on the bounce.
As long as we go into this week’s game with a solid game plan and we make sure not to underestimate our opposition, I can’t see why we won’t start our Qualifiers campaign with a victory.
We’ve shown the kind of performances we are capable of and have definitely come a long way in the last few weeks.
Now that we’re almost back to full strength, we just need to focus – there’s no time for complacency as there is still a lot of work to be done between now and the end of the season.
Let’s hope I’m celebrating a birthday win on the way back from Featherstone this Saturday!