James Lowes has heaped praise on his Leeds Carnegie players ahead of the latest assignment in a month that could define their history.
Carnegie head to Oxford tomorrow with a seven-point lead to protect against bookies’ favourites London Welsh.
Defending though, is not the name of the game for Lowes, who wants his players to seal their place in the two-legged promotion final with the same flair in which they have attacked the season.
Should they reach the promotion decider, then before that they have the final of the British and Irish Cup to contest against Leinster A in Dublin next Friday night.
Successive games of such importance is not a bad return for a club that took the gamble last summer of appointing a head coach steeped in rugby league tradition.
Not that Lowes – the former Bradford Bulls and Leeds Rhinos stalwart – allows any credit to fall on his own shoulders.
“I rely on a lot of people,” said Carnegie’s first-year head coach.
“I’ve come in here and suggested a few ideas but the staff and the players wind me in, or they’ll say ‘well let’s have a go’.
“I still lean heavily because you’ve got to do that. It’s a team game and you rely on your team, irrelevant of how long you’ve been in the game or how short a time you’ve been in the game.”
The players, who have opened up this opportunity for themselves, receive the bulk of Lowes’ praise.
“I’m very confident in this group of players, and thankfully they’re strong believers in themselves,” he said.
“The boys have been incredible and I’m extremely proud of what they’ve achieved.
“Our squad, apart from maybe three or four players, is the squad we started pre-season with, so this is a fantastic achievement and I’m full of admiration for that.
“They go out on the field and they play. As long as you manage the boys well – and I like to think I do – then the rest is all down to them.
“The players have worked hard right from pre-season. They’ve had some good people around them; players and staff, but let’s make no mistake about it, they’ve had to do this week in, week out.
“They’ve not had the biggest of squads, and I like to think we’ve managed them well through the strength and conditioning side of things.
“Whatever happens over the next month, it’s down to them.”
That man-management side of his impact will be seen tomorrow in the dressing room, when Lowes sends his players out to attack Welsh rather than sit on the lead they worked so hard to achieve last Sunday.
“We’re not worrying about that first game, it’s done, we got the victory,” said Lowes.
“We’re treating this as the next round and we’ve been pulled out against London Welsh again.
“We’re not bothered about the lead. I’m glad it’s close because if you had a big lead going into something like this then I would imagine complacency sets in. Welsh are a good side who can score points – so I’m glad it’s tight. We’ve always been focused on it being two games rather than worrying about the aggregate score.
“First job is done, winning at home, so if we now go down there and win again, then the score’s irrelevant.”
Asked what his mindset will be in the dying seconds if Welsh hold a four-point lead and are trying to force a penalty to level matters and take the tie into extra time, Lowes quipped: “Either we’ll score a fantastic try to win it and go out with a big smile on our faces ... or, we’ll hold out.”
THE amount of changes made by the respective head coaches of tomorrow’s promotion semi-finalists underlines which team felt like winners last week, and which were the losers.
After opening up a seven-point lead against London Welsh, Leeds Carnegie head coach James Lowes has made just one change for tomorrow’s second leg at the Kassam Stadium with James Doherty coming in at No 9 in place of Craig Hampson.
Hampson has an ankle injury and may have played his last game for the club ahead of his summer move to Bristol.
By contrast, London Welsh chief Justin Burnell has changed six of his starting XV.
In the backs, Alan Awcock replaces Alex Davies at full-back and Seb Jewell comes in for James Tincknell at centre. Tyson Keats starts at scrum-half in place of Chris Cook.
In the forwards, Nathan Morris and Peter Edwards come in for Nathan Vella and James Tideswell respectively while Peter Browne replaces Daniel Browne at blindside flanker. Burnell said: “We know how good Leeds are, but Sunday has to be all about ourselves.
“The seven-point deficit isn’t going to affect our game. We’re not going to be running from our own 22 and we’re not going to be just kicking for the corner – we’re going out to win the game.
“We just want to keep the scoreboard ticking over.”
Two of Leeds Carnegie’s academy members have been named in England’s Under-20s squad for the Junior World Championships in new Zealand next month. Prop Paul Hill, 19, and hooker Jack Walker, 18, are the only two players picked from a club outside of the Premiership.
England kick-off their title defence against Italy on June 2, before facing Australia on June 6 and Argentina on June 10.
Head coach Nick Walshe said: “The great thing about this England Under-20 side is that we have strength in depth and we have every confidence that this squad will perform well in the competition.”