THE EXCITEMENT of the play-offs is what Leeds Rhinos need to re-start their season, six-time Grand Final winner Jamie Jones-Buchanan says.
Rhinos go into today’s elimination tie at home to Catalan Dragons in their worst league form for 14 years, but Jones-Buchanan reckons there’s the scent of something special in the air.
“It’s the play-offs and there’s a trophy up for grabs, so the mood is pretty excited.” said the second-rower. “If I was going going to pick one word to describe it, I would say ‘enthusiastic’.
“The league is over and done with now and it’s all about the play-offs. They are here now and we are going to put our best foot forward and see how far we can progress in this competition.”
Rhinos have not won a First Utility Super League match since their trip to Salford Red Devils on July 25. Five successive league defeats followed, though that sequence was broken by wins in the Tetley’s Challenge Cup semi-final and final.
“I know that’s not great,” Jones-Buchanan added of Rhinos’ worst run in the league since 2000. “But we just need to flick the switch. If we were a naive young set of lads who have not been in the play-offs before, it would be pretty tough.
“You might need a bit of form to give yourself that affirmation and a bit of confidence, but not with this group. I have been involved in years when we’ve gone into the play-offs flying and we’ve come unstuck, confusing ambition with ability.
“But certainly coming into this we know we need to raise our game, but even so we have not been a million miles off. There are just a few things we need to tweak and be better at for longer periods of time. There’s no better opportunity than starting this week against Catalan at Headingley.”
Finishing outside the top-four means Rhinos will be playing sudden death rugby from the start and will have to win two games away to teams above them in the league table, if they get through this evening’s opener.
It is a tough route to Old Trafford, but Rhinos overcame similar obstacles to win the Grand Final after finishing fifth in 2011 and 2012.
“If you are going to get to a Grand Final you have got to be playing nine or 10 out of 10,” Jones-Buchanan said.
“That applies to everyone, right across the board – and it doesn’t just apply on game day.
“It starts on Monday morning and it’s what you do with yourself, your body and mind, all week.
“The lads are committed to doing that for each other. I believe in everybody in this team and I know they will do whatever they need to do to turn up nine or 10 out of 10 on the weekend.”
Rhinos have excelled in knockout rugby in recent seasons, reaching four of the last five Challenge Cup finals and Old Trafford seven times in the 10 seasons before this one.
Jones-Buchanan feels Rhinos are at their best when being written-off and he added: “That’s why sport’s sport – you have inspirational talks and people talk about Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile and how people said it could not be done.
“People said it (winning the Grand Final) could not be done from fifth, but we’ve done that twice.
“Wigan went and followed us last year and did it from fourth, so winning it from outside the top-two is becoming a regular thing – and why not do it from sixth?
“At the end of the day we have got to win four games to win it and I think any of the top-eight are capable of doing that.
“If there’s no chance of doing it from eighth even, there’s no point in having top-eight play-offs.
“It is a great challenge and it gives us something to be motivated about.”
Catalan finished seventh, three points behind Leeds and Jones-Buchanan said there is no chance of Rhinos having an easy game to kick-off with.
“They gave us a tough game when we were in form and playing well,” he said of June’s 32-31 home win. “We are under no illusions, we saw what they did to Castleford – who are a great side – last week.
“They are a big, strong side and we can’t take them lightly, because they aren’t light at all. They are a big, heavy side, very aggressive as well and if you don’t turn up with the right attitude you will get bullied and they can do some damage.
“There’s no excuses for turning up below-par.”
Jones-Buchanan is relishing a personal battle with Dragons’ Dream Team second-row Elliott Whitehead.
“I spent a bit of time with him in the England mid-season camp,” the Leeds man said.
“He’s a great player and a regular try scorer. He’s a class act and he will be dangerous.
“He can get on the end of kicks, he runs good lines and he’s got a good offload, so he’s a threat.
“He thoroughly deserves his place in the Dream Team.”