pundit and coach John Kear is tipping Leeds Rhinos to underline their status as “the best team in Super League” on Friday.
Rhinos, the current table-toppers, take on Wigan Warriors at Headingley Carnegie in what is being billed as one of the games of the season.
Leeds, who will slip off top spot if St Helens beat visitors London Broncos tomorrow, are on a five-match winning run in all competitions and hold a three-point advantage over Wigan, who have a game in hand.
Wigan are the defending Super League champions and Challenge Cup holders and have won their last eight matches, since a shock, last-gasp defeat at Castleford Tigers on March 9.
That was their second loss in the opening four rounds of the campaign, but coach Shaun Wane’s much-changed squad have begun to find their feet and will arrive at Headingley in confident mood.
However, Batley Bulldogs boss Kear – who keeps a close eye on Super League through his role as a Sky TV expert – believes Rhinos will prove too strong and he said: “I think Leeds will win.
“I think they have been the best team in Super League. Obviously Castleford and Saints have been up there as well, but overall Leeds have had a more difficult time in the knockout competition and they are the most accomplished team at the moment.”
Rhinos won the Super League title from fifth spot in 2011 and 2012 and have developed a reputation as a slow-starting side who come good at the end of the year.
Assessing the difference this term, Kear feels a defensive improvement has been at the heart of their good start. Leeds have conceded only 82 points in 10 league matches and Kear observed: “There has been a massive commitment from the group to defence.
“They are still conceding line-breaks, but they are so quick then can cover them, get back, scramble and reorganise and win the next play.
“Some of the last-ditch efforts from people like Zak Hardaker have been first class. They have got that element of youth and pace and they have also got great commitment to the cause.”
Rhinos boss Brian McDermott will need to come up with a plan to cope without half-back/hooker Rob Burrow, who suffered a fractured collarbone in last Saturday’s Challenge Cup win over St Helens.
Kear said: “They will lose a bit of threat, because Rob has been in the form of his life and he will take some replacing. With Paul Aiton also missing, probably Kevin Sinfield will go to Nine and Liam Sutcliffe will get chance to establish himself, but he will have to play pretty well to maintain the standards set by Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow in midfield.”
As for Wigan, Kear reckons the club where he had a spell as assistant-coach are showing ominous signs of form.
“They started shakily because of the World Club Challenge,” he said. “They invested a lot of emotional and physical energy in trying to win that and came up short.
“That counted against them, but we saw the real Wigan when they played St Helens on Good Friday. One thing in their favour is they played Hunslet - no disrespect to Hunslet - last week and Leeds played St Helens. Obviously they had a game which was not as intense or physical as the one Leeds were involved in.”
Looking at Friday’s key men, Kear predicted: “Sinfield and McGuire will have a lot on their shoulders, with Burrow being out.
“Everybody talks about Leeds’ three-quarters, but I think you need to give a pat on the back to the likes of Jamie Peacock and Brett Delaney.
“They are working very hard and providing the go-forward for the pretty boys in the three-quarters to play off.
“For Wigan, Matty Bowen is hitting a bit of form, but I have been really impressed with Joe Burgess, who has shown great maturing and is performing week on week in Super League.”