ENGLAND CENTRE Kallum Watkins reckons it is time Leeds Rhinos’ pack was given more credit.
Rhinos have arguably the best outside-backs in First Utility Super League, but Watkins stressed they can only do their thing if the forwards get on the front foot.
Rhinos have suffered a spate of injuries in the pack in recent weeks, with back-rower Chris Clarkson being the latest casualty due to an Achilles problem.
Second-row Jamie Jones-Buchanan returned in last weekend’s win at Widnes Vikings – after missing 12 games because of a torn biceps – but damaged a calf and will be sidelined again when Catalan Dragons visit Headingley Carnegie tomorrow.
Hooker Paul Aiton is now back after three months on the casualty list due to illness and back-rower Mitch Achurch (knee and ankle) will return tomorrow following three games out, while props Jamie Peacock (knee) and Kylie Leuluai (calf) are also in contention after resting minor injuries six days ago.
Catalan field one of the biggest and most physical packs in the competition and Watkins predicted: “Our forwards have got a big job on their hands.
“Hopefully they can do the business. They have been good this year, they lay the platform. It is hard work being a forward, I guess. They do a lot of carries and a lot of tackles and you have got to be willing to do the tough stuff when you are tired.
“That’s what the guys are trying to do, week in and week out. We have got to given them all the credit in the world. They work hard and give us backs the platform to do our stuff. I don’t think our forwards get the credit they deserve.
“They have got a lot of experience, the likes of JP [Peacock] and Kylie and we’ve got some good young players coming through like Singo [Brad Singleton] and Josh Walters, who has just come into the team.
“It is good to see the young lads getting a chance. They have got a lot of hard work to do, but they are getting experience from it and they will be better for it.”
Rhinos have a young backline, but ageing pack - with Leuluai, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ryan Bailey and Ian Kirke all now in their 30s. Replacing players with that amount of ability and experience will be a near-impossible task, but Watkins said the likes of Singleton, 21, Walters, 19 and hooker Robbie Ward, who is just 18, all have a big part to play in the club’s future.
“It is going to be tough whe the time comes,” he conceded. “But we have got faith in our younger fellas and they are really playing well at the moment.
“They will continue to play well and train hard and hopefully they can come up with the goods.”
At 6ft 1in and 14st 2lbs, Watkins would not be out-muscled in the pack, but he admitted a switch up front is not part of his plans.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “But at times you do find yourself playing as a back-rower in defence and I will play anywhere, that’s my attitude. As long as I make a contribution to the team, it doesn’t matter where I play. It is about how I perform.”
One of Watkins’ predecessors Chev Walker began his career as a centre at Leeds in the late 1990s and is now plying his trade at prop-forward in Bradford Bulls’ pack. Watkins said: “It’s crazy – he is a little bit smaller than he used to be!
“When he was a bit bigger he was playing in the centres, when he was here. He has lost a bit of weight and now he is playing in the forwards, but that’s how it is nowadays.
“Some of our forwards are smaller than our backs. Ryan Hall could play in the forwards with ease, with his size. In our backline, the younger players anyway, they are a pretty similar in size and weight to the forwards.
“In terms of how we play, the backs take a lot of hard carries anyway, to try and help the forwards out and to give them chance to recover and rest.”
Winning tomorrow’s forward battle will be crucial to Rhinos’ hopes of building on last Sunday’s scrappy 38-28 victory at Widnes Vikings. Watkins said: “We can improve on that.
“In patches we were all right and in others we weren’t. Going into Sunday’s game we can build on that and go in with a bit of confidence.
“It was a step forward from the past couple of weeks, when we didn’t play too well. It was good to get the win in the end and we built on what we’ve been doing well.
“Each week we’ve been trying to improve and get better, leading into the back end of the season.
“Catalan have got some tidy players and they have been playing well at home. In terms of form and confidence they are on a high at the moment.
“We have got to be prepared, physically and mentally.
“It should be a tough game, but we are looking forward to it.”