Diccon Edwards fully expects Leeds Carnegie to face their toughest seasonal test so far at Bristol tomorrow – but is confident his troops can prosper in the Memorial Stadium cauldron (3pm).
With the opening half of the regular season gone, the West Countrymen lead the way, albeit on points difference ahead of Bedford Blues.
Liam Middleton’s troops have won nine out of 12 Championship games so far this term and boast a perfect six of the best on home soil.
Bristol also certainly haven’t been lacking on the support stakes, with a raucous 6,044-strong crowd roaring them on to victory in their previous home game, a thrilling 37-33 victory over Cornish Pirates, which saw them rally from a 33-17 deficit.
Given Carnegie’s status as both a form side and pre-season promotion favourites, another bumper and partisan attendance is expected tomorrow, with Bristol skipper Iain Grieve having urged the home faithful to act as their “16th man” again.
But Edwards – whose buoyant troops are eyeing an eighth successive league win – insists his men aren’t fazed at the prospect of entering the lion’s den, while not being exactly short in the confidence stakes as well.
Leeds have also been boosted by the arrival of former England under-18 international Kane Palma-Newport from Bath Rugby on an initial one-month loan
Edwards said: “Bristol have won the most games in the league and have an unbeaten home record and I’d guess on paper that it’s our most difficult game of the season so far. I’ve no doubts that it will be that.
“The local support and the experience of playing at such a passionate rugby place means it will be as demanding as any venue that we’ll go to this season.
“But it should be a great contest and undoubtedly another massive test – a good opportunity to see how far we have come and how far we are progressing.
“Bristol is a real traditional club and one of the big ones in the game.
“They have been in the Premiership and have a real desire to get back there.
“in the summer they made a number of signings to make a big statement about their intention to get promoted.
“We know we are still some way from where we need to be, but we’ll relish the prospect of facing the top team in the league.
“It will be a good test of our defence and they are undoubtedly one of the top points scorers in the competition.
“But we’ve worked incredibly hard over the last few weeks to get our defence organised and have brought an increased physicality to that.
“While in attack, we’re making good progress and creating more and more opportunities.
“When we start taking them, I feel we’re going to cause waves in the division. Sunday will be a good opportunity to do that.
“We’re in a good place mentally and very confident.
“We’re realistic about where we’re at, but we feel our performances are getting better and there’s genuine competition within the squad now with a number of players getting fit.
“training is intensive and that will only help us.”
Edwards has made three changes to his side to travel to Bristol.
Teenager Pete Lucock is on the left wing while Craig Hampson is in at scrum-half, with Mo Mustafa replacing David Young at prop.
There are three new faces also on the bench for Leeds.
New signing Palma-Newport is joined on the bench by hooker Scott Freer, who comes in for the suspended Phil Nilsen.
Experienced centre Scott Barrow returns on the bench for Leeds.
LEEDS CARNEGIE (away to Bristol): Bell, Stephenson, Thornley, Barker, Lucock, Ford, Hampson, MacDonald, Titterrell, Mustafa, Denton, Hemingway, Burrows, Walker
Rowan. Reps: Freer, Lockwood, Palma-Newport, Beck, Paul, Shaw, Barrow.