Diccon Edwards says Leeds Carnegie will play without fear when they welcome red-hot promotion favourites Newcastle Falcons to Headingley Carnegie on Monday.
Carnegie finished 31 points adrift of the Falcons after the 22-game regular season, having lost nine games to Newcastle’s one.
But the playing field levels out in the knockout format of play-off rugby, with Leeds the form team having stormed into the play-offs on a six-game winning run.
Ahead of Bank Holiday Monday’s first leg at Headingley Carnegie (3.15pm), Leeds head coach Edwards said: “We’ve worked incredibly hard to get to this position so now we can relax and enjoy the opportunity we have created for ourselves and go in without any fear.
“We can go out there and give a good account of ourselves and show why we are in the top four, and that’s because of the rugby we have played over the last six games.”
And it is that form over the run-in that so heartens Edwards, whose side were beset by inconsistency for much of the season before finishing at a canter with wins over Bedford and Nottingham – the two sides who contest the other semi-final.
Edwards said: “What has prepared us for this is playing under pressure and that’s the beauty of the play-offs for us.
“We had to back up wins over the last nine weeks and six games to make sure we did that. We’ve played knockout rugby for the last six games so mentally we’re in a strong place.
“We’re the form team going into the play-offs, with all those things stocking up it means it’s going to be a really exciting game.
“It will be another step up in terms of intensity and competition and we know Newcastle are desperate to win promotion, but this is a new competition and we’re ready for it.
“We’ve generated momentum and a winning mentality. Teams like Moseley and Bedford have thrown the kitchen sink at us and we’ve come through that. We’ve mentally stayed strong and have been able to perform under pressure.”
Edwards has already named his team with full-back Stevie McColl back in the starting line-up after overcoming a shoulder injury.
Leeds are without hooker Joe Graham, who cannot play against Newcastle as part of his loan arrangement, and Rory Clegg, who has returned to Harlequins ahead of his summer move to Kingston Park. Matt Smith starts in the second row instead of Dominic Barrow while Craig Hampson returns to start at scrum-half for Leeds in what will be their 600th game.
Dean Richards has named his Newcastle team for the first leg. Tane Tu’ipulotu returns to the starting line-up after been side-lined since the turn of the year with a knee injury, while Ryan Shortland starts on the wing after recovering from a hamstring injury.
Shortland’s return means Alex Tait switched to full-back.
Richards said: “We are in a good position at the moment with a number of key players coming back from injury, but at the same time we will be taking nothing for granted against Leeds.
“It is crucial that we maintain our performance for the full 80 minutes, and the final six minutes of last weekend’s game proved that.
“It will be a difficult challenge for us.”