The Heinz Big Soup World Club Challenge could have a huge bearing on Leeds Rhinos’ season.
Captain Kevin Sinfield admits it will be difficult to recover if Leeds are beaten on the world stage for a third successive time.
But he reckons a win over NRL champions Manly Sea Eagles would provide a springboard for a big year as Rhinos defend their Stobart Super League title.
Sinfield will be playing in his fifth world title match.
After victories over Canterbury Bulldogs (2005) and Melbourne Storm (2008), he had to watch the opposition celebrate in 2009 when Manly won 28-20 and after the following year’s defeat to Melbourne.
“We are looking forward to this one,” said the 31-year-old, who will be skippering Leeds in a record-extending 15th final.
“I don’t think the fact we have won two and lost two matters. It’ll be the best team on the night that wins and hopefully that’ll be us.
“It is a bit of a strange competition. After the Grand Final you have a bit of time to reflect and think about what has gone on, but you are straight into the next league game after this one.
“It is not a great feeling losing big games, but when we have lost the last two it hasn’t been great for any of us and having to pick up the pieces in the league campaign after that is difficult.
“But it can help the campaign when you win. We were disappointed with our performance last week, it was a perfect time for us to go to Wigan and play well in preparation for this game and pick up two points on the way.
“That wasn’t to be, so we have got some things to fix. In any game at this stage you are looking to improve and gain some momentum.
“Although we lost at the weekend there’s some positives we can take and we’ll be better for it on the night.”
Rhinos’ four previous World Club games were all staged at Elland Road.
A smaller but sell-out crowd of around 21,000 is expected tonight and Sinfield admitted that Leeds have to make the most of any advantage.
“I hope it’ll have a bearing,” he said. “In my time here the fans have been fantastic, even though we’ve had some rough patches along the way.
“On nights like this one – and by that I mean big games – they have always come up trumps for us and been almost an extra player.
“To have that vocal support again will be fantastic. I am sure that at some stage in the game we will come up against some adversity and some tough patches.
“hopefully the fans will stick by us and we can come through the other side and put in a great performance on the night.”
Leeds will need to play well against a Manly side including nine of the players who beat them three years ago.
“I think they’re currently the best team in Australia and they proved that last year,” Sinfield said of the NRL Grand Final winners.
“They are a team full of stars and it’s going to be a very tough one for us.
“I am a massive fan of the World Club Challenge. As soon as you win the Grand Final you start thinking about this game.
“There’s been quite a bit of talk in the media about where this game could possibly have been played and at one stage the possibility of going to Australia for pre-season and to play this game there came up.
“That would have been our first choice, but a close second would have been to have it here at Headingley.
“I’m delighted to have a game of this magnitude on this great ground. In terms of the concept, it is great.
“For us as players to challenge ourselves against the best is great and to have an opportunity to be a world champion is something that doesn’t come around very often.
“I am looking forward to it, I am sure the Manly guys are too and it should be a great game.”
Meanwhile, Sinfield could be only weeks away from setting a new Leeds scoring record.
The skipper’s current total is 2,865 points, 55 short of equalling Lewis Jones’ mark which has stood since 1964.
Sinfield averages around nine points per game, which would see him break the record either away to St Helens on Sunday, March 25, or at home to Huddersfield Giants the following Friday.
The Huddersfield game will be played on the 48th anniversary of Jones’ final game for Leeds, though he scored his last points on February 22, 1964 – away to St Helens.