AS FAR as big-spending Salford Red Devils are concerned, Kallum Watkins is one who got away.
The Leeds Rhinos and England centre supported tonight’s hosts as a youngster and even got involved on matchdays, before crossing the Pennines to begin his professional career.
Watkins, who scored a brace of tries on Rhinos’ last visit to AJ Bell Stadium 11 months ago, still regards games against Salford as special, but admitted all he will be focuing on tonight is claiming the two points to keep alive Rhinos’ hopes of finishing as league leaders.
“When I watched rugby when I was younger, I liked Salford,” Watkins confirmed.
“I was a ball boy at Salford. That’s where I got into rugby really, in terms of watching it.
“I played a lot of rugby round there as well, so there’s a big connection. It is a special game for me in the sense that I grew up watching them and it’s close to home as well.
“It is quite special, but in terms of us, we need to be good. We are playing against a team that are confident and really coming into form now, so it will be a tough game for us.”
Salford have won their last three matches and a victory tonight would leave them just two points outside First Utility Super League’s all-important top-eight.
It has been a tough year for the Red Devils, who signed 14 players in the off-season.
Super League’s big-spenders parted company with coach Brian Noble early in the campaign and then slipped as low as 12th in the table, before finally showing signs of improvement under former Leeds skipper Iestyn Harris, who was recruited from champions Wigan Warriors where he was assistant-coach.
“They will be on a high,” Watkins warned. “The signings that have come in have progressed pretty well and settled in now. For us we have got to be on our game. The next couple of weeks are important for us so we can get some confidence going in the Challenge Cup semi-final.”
Rhinos have just two more fixtures – tonight and next Friday’s home clash with already-relegated Bradford Bulls – before the Cup showdown with Warrington Wolves on Saturday, August 9.
The fact Leeds are third in the table, two points behind leaders St Helens, gives tonight’s clash added importance.
Defeat would be a major setback to Rhinos’ hopes of claiming the league leaders’ shield for the first time since 2009 – an achievement which was crowned away to Salford, at the old Willows ground – and Watkins said: “It is really tight in the table, from one to five.
“We have got to consistently play well and consistently get a win and that will keep us in the hunt to finish top.
“We are going to face a lot of hard games and get a lot of pressure put upon us and we’ve got to be able to deal with that.
“We have had a patch when we haven’t been too good, but we recognise that and we’ve worked hard in training.
“We’ve seen in the last couple of games that things are getting better.”
The return of players from long-term injury has given Leeds a lift, Watkins says.
Though Kevin Sinfield is suspended tonight and Mitch Achurch is back on the casualty list, Watkins reckons Leeds are stronger for the return of Rob Burrow, Zak Hardaker, Kylie Leuluai, Paul Aiton and Jamie Jones-Buchanan.
“They are big influences,” Watkins stressed.
“It is good to have players back.
“It gives us a bit more edge and a bit more firepower, but a lot of the young players have been fantastic for us.
“They’ve come in, without having much experience playing first team or training with the first team, but they’ve held their own and they deserve a lot of credit. But it is good to see the experienced players back and we are looking good.”
There are six rounds remaining in the regular season and Watkins said this is now the “business end”. He stated: “You need to go into the play-offs very confident.
“It is going to be tough and tight in the league. Who is going to finish top we don’t know, but we have just got to keep winning and see how it goes in terms of other teams’ results. We want tough games now, because we are going to be getting that in the play-offs. We want to be playing games that are similar to what you get in the play-offs, leading into them.
“It is really important that we play that way, rather than waiting for other teams to play like that.
“We recognise that and that’s what we are preparing to do.”
Salford Red Devils from: Ashurst, Caton-Brown, Chase, Evalds, Fages, D Griffin, J Griffin, Hansen, Johnson, Locke, Morley, Owen, Puletua, Rapira, Sa’u, Tasi, Tomkins, J Walne, Walton.
Leeds Rhinos from: Hardaker, T Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sutcliffe, McGuire, Leuluai, Aiton, Peacock, Ablett, S Ward, Delaney, Bailey, Burrow, Jones-Buchanan, Singleton, Walters, Minchella.
Referee: Richard Silverwood (Mirfield).