Leeds Rhinos' James McDonnell on Wigan Warriors threat and why he's not a half-back in waiting
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Having missed the defeat at Huddersfield Giants two weeks ago because of a back spasm, he returned in impressive style when Rhinos won 28-12 at Hull FC last Saturday, when he showed off some eye-catching skills on top of hard work in defence.
His break and clever kick led to Luke Hooley’s opening try and he also provided the offload for David Fusitu’a to touch down at the start of the second half.
Even so, he stressed: “I know we’ve not got an awful lot of half-back options, but I don’t think I’ll be getting the nod any time soon!
“The kicking is something I like to add to my game and it’s something I do practise. If I was to put kicks in games and not practise it in training and it didn’t go well, I’d probably be getting an ear full.
“As long as I am practising them on the training field they seem to be coming off in games, so I think I have retained my kicking licence for another week.”
McDonnell confirmed he got through last week’s match unscathed. He recalled: “I had the week off with a bit of a back injury and it was good to go through the procedure and get that to heal during the two weeks I was doing non-contact and modified training.
“I went into that game [at Hull] off not doing a whole lot for two weeks and it was good to play well and come out of it not feeling too bad on the recovery side of things. My body is feeling good so I am really pleased with how it went.”
Saturday’s fixture is one Wigan-born McDonnell has been looking forward to all year. He accepts it is a huge challenge for Rhinos, but feels they can be confident, despite missing a host of first-choice players.
“It is typical Wigan, when it comes to the business end of the year they really start to turn out performances and finish strong,” he said of the table-topping visitors.
“But we had a good performance [last week], it was a real team performance. We had a lot of our one-13 in squad numbers missing and some people playing out of position, but it was a real solid performance, the way the boys turned up for each other.
“The little things you need to win those games, we showed in buckets so it was really positive.”
Rhinos have struggled all season to back up their good performances and now they are effectively playing knockout rugby, that’s something they need to put right. McDonnell admitted: “We have had some unreal performances and some really disappointing ones and we’ve had a mixed bunch against Wigan.
“We had a really strong performance against them in the league, then the following week it was the Challenge Cup and we didn’t play poorly at all, but we didn’t come away with the win. That was disappointing so we will be looking to get one back this week.”
Leeds will need to win their remaining three games to snatch a place in the top-six, McDonnell reckons.
“That’s our goal, because that’s what we can control,” he said. “There’s no real point looking elsewhere and looking at what results will help us and what results won’t.
“All we can control is winning our next three games and our performance in them. That is the focus, there hasn’t been a lot of energy spent looking elsewhere.”
Rhinos have a tough finish to the year with a trip to Catalans Dragons next week followed by a home derby against Castleford Tigers, who might need to win to stay in Betfred Super League.
“We do seem to turn up against what you’d say are the better teams and the teams at the top of the table,” McDonnell noted. “We have played pretty well against them all year so hopefully that trend continues and we take that into the next few games.”
Rhinos have beaten all the top three this year, but also lost twice to second-bottom Tigers and once against 12th-placed Wakefield Trinity.
McDonnell reckons Rhinos may have focused more on certain individuals in the leading sides, but insisted: “There’s never been a week in the year where we haven’t prepared well against a specific team.
“When we’ve been playing a bottom of the table team there hasn’t been any difference in preparation.”