ENGLAND BACK-ROWER Jamie Jones-Buchanan says tonight’s game at Wigan Warriors is a “must-win” for Leeds Rhinos.
The Challenge Cup holders have slipped to sixth in First Utility Super League with just two games left in the regular season. And Jones-Buchanan admitted: “We want to finish as high as we can and given that the league’s as tight as it is, it’s a must-win.
“I don’t think we’ve got any other choice if we want to finish in the top-four. Results last weekend probably went for us, apart from our game. Wigan lost and there was a draw between Warrington and Huddersfield. Everybody’s stuck in the mud a little bit at the minute and there’s an opportunity for things to happen in the next two weeks.”
Rhinos have won the Grand Final twice from fifth spot and the league leaders have failed to reach Old Trafford in each of the past three seasons.
But Jones-Buchanan insisted: “I would have loved to have finished first this year. When you look at our results, seven of the games we’ve lost have been by a converted try or less. We could have been out in front by a long way and that’s credit to the team and the defence we’ve had this year.
“We just need to score one or two more points and
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keep defending the way we are. But at the end of the day, it’s not where you finish.
“The league system as it is at the minute is like qualifying rounds in Formula One. At the end of qualifying you get your place on the grid and the race is on from there, which is for the big prize at Old Trafford.”
Last Friday’s 13-12 loss to St Helens – after Joel Moon was sent-off in the first half – was Leeds’ third successive league defeat.
But Jones-Buchanan said: “It has made us more determined to fight for a place in the Grand Final.
“It was a good performance, especially backing up from the Challenge Cup final, which takes a lot out of you emotionally and physically.
“To play a team like St Helens, who are top of the league and perform like we did is credit to the boys, but we’re not done yet.
“It has just motivated us to go even harder. Looking back, the Catalan game in 2011 pops into my head, when everybody lost a bit of their rag and it just turned things for us.
“I think Friday night will be one of those times. Afterwards, in the changing rooms, the boys looked at each other and felt that bit more determined to keep working hard and get through these next few games.”
Wigan were stunned 24-10 at Widnes Vikings last week, but Jones-Buchanan warned: “If you look at what Shaun Wane is really good at as a coach, it seems to be getting his team to respond to adversity.
“This year there’s been plenty of times when they’ve lost a game or not performed how they’ve wanted to and the week after they’ve gone out and hammered teams.
“They are a tough team to play and DW Stadium is a tough place to play. It is a fast pitch, the crowd gets on your back and the floodlights are almost blinding.
“It’s a weird stage to play on, but those are the games we get excited about and look forward to playing in.
“Going into the play-offs you need to be on the front foot, up to speed and with a bit of confidence.
“If we can keep playing like we did last week and individually each be five or 10 per cent better, there’s no reason why we can’t go a long way in this competition.”
Wigan Warriors: from Bowen, Charnley, Gelling, Sarginson, Manfredi, Green, Smith, Dudson, McIlorum, Crosby, Bateman, Farrell, O’Loughlin, Pettybourne, Clubb, Flower, Hughes, S Powell, Tomkins.
Leeds Rhinos: from Hardaker, T Briscoe, Watkins, Keinhorst, Hall, Sinfield, Sutcliffe, Bailey, Aiton, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Delaney, Leuluai, Achurch, McGuire, Burrow, Kirke, S Ward.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).