LAST YEAR’S unexpected relegation battle is becoming a distant memory for Leeds Rhinos, who are guaranteed a place in the Super-8s – and the top-flight next season – after their 18-16 derby win at Wakefield Trinity.
They are third in the Betfred Super League table and hot favourites to secure a place in the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-finals when they play host to Kingstone Press Championship partner club Featherstone Rovers on Friday evening.
It is a startling contrast to this time in 2016 when Rhinos were bottom of the table, out of the Cup and had just ended a seven-game losing run.
Forward Stevie Ward, who missed all but the final four games of last year due to injury, reckons the hard-fought win at Wakefield proved Leeds are heading in the right direction, though he admitted they have a long way still to go.
“There’s been some toing and froing and some peaks and troughs to get to where we are and that’s what makes it all the more exciting and good to look back on,” said the second-rower. We’re by no means the finished article yet, but we are progressing and working towards it.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in the year, in the long-run. We we trying to improve and grinding that win out last week can only stand us in good stead.”
Ward was Rhinos’ opening try scorer against Wakefield in his 12th appearance of the season. He had an injury scare later in the game, but played on and said he is available for Friday’s Cup tie.
“I am all right,” he said. “I got a bit of a knock on the head and saw Looney Tunes for a few seconds, but I knew where I was and I could get up and carry on.”
Ward missed Rhinos’ previous game, against Leigh Centurions, due to a one-match ban, but reckons the lay-off could prove a blessing in disguise.
“It was disappointing, but it did give me a rest,” he said. “Hopefully I came into the team with some kind of presence and impact after that little spell on the naughty step.
“I obviously don’t want to be missing games, but it is a long year and I want to be in there for the back end as well.”
A win on Friday would keep Rhinos on track for a sixth Wembley appearance in eight seasons.
They have been drawn at home to the lowest-ranked team in the competition for a second successive round, but Ward insists Rhinos are taking nothing for granted.
“They have got some really dangerous players,” he said of Rovers, who are fourth in the Championship.
“Their forward pack is good and they can get a roll on.
“I imagine that’s going to be a focus for us this week, to try and stem that flow and play the best rugby we can.”
Rhinos’ Jordan Baldwinson and Jack Ormondroyd both played on dual-registration for Featherstone in last Sunday’s win at Bradford Bulls.
They are ineligible for Rovers this week, having featured for Leeds earlier in the competition and Ward admitted inside knowledge could be useful.
“We are going to try to get as much background on how they are going to play, to best suit our game,” he said.
“I think in games like this it’s about how we perform and how we combat what they are going to do, so that’s going to be a big focus for us.”