Leeds Rhinos: Boss Richard Agar says 'we have to meet fire with fire' in Super League semi-final showdown with St Helens
The prize on offer is huge, but Leeds Rhinos coach Richard Agar is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge facing his team in tonight’s Betfred Super League semi-final at St Helens.
Rhinos are one win away from a first Grand Final appearance since 2017, but defending champions St Helens stand in their way at TW Stadium, three weeks after Leeds were hammered 40-6 there in a league clash.
Saints have beaten Leeds in the sides’ last eight meetings and finished second in the table, three places ahead of Rhinos.
Agar admits Leeds will need to be “as good as we can be” from the off, but reckons they are fresh and highly-motivated for their biggest game since Wembley last year.
“Saints have won the comp’ twice on the trot,” Agar noted.
“They are the current Challenge Cup holders and are conceding on average 11.5 points per game.
“Over the last couple of seasons, in terms of big-game experience and how to win semi-finals, they have been clearly the standout team.
“Saints away is a tough tie, but we are in a semi-final to get to a Grand Final and you wouldn’t expect anything else.”
However, being involved in the Friday evening semi-final - 24 hours after Hull KR faced Catalans Dragons in France - gives Rhinos extra time to prepare and St Helens is considerably easier to get to than Perpignan, for both players and fans.
“It’s a positive that we’ll have a sizeable travelling support for the game,” Agar insisted.
They could become more of a factor the longer Rhinos stay in the contest.
Saints charged out of the blocks in the league encounter three weeks ago, scoring five tries inside the opening half an hour.
Leeds stemmed the tide after that, but the damage had been done and they can’t afford a repeat of that start this evening.
“Our defence has got to be bang on,” Agar warned.
“They make you work very hard for your points and scoring chances in a game like this probably will - and certainly should - be hard to come by.
“Defensively we have got to be as good as we possibly can be and make sure our kick-chase is as good as it has been all year and get ready for a really tough physical battle.
“The key against Saints is their opening 20-25 minutes is usually very good.
“I think meeting fire with fire in those opening minutes is going to be really important for us.
“We have to make sure our start is as good as it possibly can be.”
Other than injured duo Theo Fages and James Bentley,, the hosts will be at full strength.
Dewsbury-born former Batley Bulldogs prop Alex Walmsley was the destroyer in chief in the previous encounter, but Agar feels - with Mikolaj Oledzki and Zane Tetevano back in the side - Rhinos are better equipped to handle him this time.
“We got some real close up, first hand lessons from it about how Saints start the game and where they are strong,” he reflected.
“As a coach, I am disregarding plenty of our performance that night.
“I think we are coming into this game with a little bit more momentum and with some highly experienced, quality players who are going to start for us in the middle of the field.
“We had a fair amount of inexperience in the team that night and it’s going to be different [tonight].”
Agar conceded Rhinos will “have to do a job on big Al”, but stressed Saints are far more than a one man team.
“He is a world class player, but I don’t think it’s a case of cutting the head off the snake and you deal with Al and you stop Saints,” he said.
“I think Tommy Makinson and [Mark] Percival, at both ends of the field, do a good job for them.
“Jonny Lomax and Lachlan Coote are very experienced pivots and ball players who are exceptionally good at asking questions of your defence and really testing you.
“We know the threats, knowing them and stopping them are two different things.
“We know the levels we are going to have to play at for the opening 25 minutes and the levels we are going to have to get to for 80 minutes for us to be in the contest in the late stages, but we are confident we can get to those, too.”
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