THE LOSS of skipper Danny McGuire is a huge setback for Leeds Rhinos, but young gun Liam Sutcliffe has pledged to meet the challenge.
cGuire suffered a knee injury in last week’s First Utility Super League round one defeat by Warrington Wolves and is expected to be out of action for up to two months.
With Kevin Sinfield having switched codes to join Yorkshire Carnegie at the end of last season, Sutcliffe – at just 21 – is now Rhinos’ only available senior stand-off.
The former Hunslet Warriors junior missed the second half of 2015 following a knee reconstruction and will play just his second competitive game since last June when Rhinos visit Widnes Vikings on Sunday.
Sutcliffe admitted he is desperately sorry for McGuire, but insisted Rhinos can and will cope.
“It is a massive blow for the team and for Danny as well,” Sutcliffe said.
“Obviously to get hurt in the first game of the year and then be out for a couple of months is really disappointing.
“It’s not good for him, but we have got to kick on.
“These things happen in a game and whoever Mac (coach Brian McDermott) chooses to play in the halves – whether it is me, Jordan (Lilley) or Rob (Burrow) – hopefully we can do a good job and lead the team around.”
Sutcliffe is still at the learning stage of his career, but with 60 senior appearances for Leeds under his belt he is confident he can handle the task of steering the treble-winners’ ship.
“It is a big responsibility,” he said.
“But I have been around this group of players for a few years now.
“Everybody helps out and gives advice, it is not just me on my own.
“There’s other experienced players around me, helping me so that’s really good.”
McGuire was hurt in Rhinos’ first game since Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai left the playing staff.
The team are still adjusting, but Sutcliffe added: “We’ve still got people like Rob, Abbo (Carl Ablett) and Jonesy (Jamie Jones-Buchanan) who have been around for a lot of years.
“Cutho (Adam Cuthbertson) is a real leader and there’s Brett Delaney, who has been around a long time.
“We’ve got loads of leaders, we are not short of that.
“The contribution JP, Kylie and Kev made was massive, but we have got other experienced players who can take us forward.”
Sutcliffe admitted he was below his best last week, but feels he will improve every time he takes to the field.
“It was just good to get a full 80 under my belt, finally,” Sutcliffe said.
“It was a bit of a rusty performance by me personally.
“Having been out that long my timing was a bit off and some of my decisions were off as well, but it was good to play the whole game and match fitness will start to come now.
“That’s the way to get fit, by playing more games.
“Hopefully I will start to get fitter and my timing, passing and running will come together.”
Tomorrow will be only Sutcliffe’s third game since his injury.
He made his comeback off the bench in Ablett’s testimonial match against Bradford Bulls three weeks ago, but conceded the Super League fixture was a step up in class and pace.
“It has been a long time since played a game at that intense level,” he added.
“I was surprised how fast and how physical it was last week, to say it was the first Super League game of the year.
“I was expecting it to be a bit slower, but it was fast and everyone was straight into it, so it was a bit of a shock to the system.”
It is likely to be similar tomorrow, on Widnes’ artificial, all-weather surface.
“It is always fast on 3 or 4g pitches,” Sutcliffe said.
“Widnes are really good at home as well.
“Last year they beat us at their place and I remember that being a really tough game.
“We are expecting nothing less from them.
“They had a good win at Wakefield last weekend, but we have trained hard this week and hopefully we’ll put together a good performance.”
Tomorrow’s fixture is Rhinos’ last before the Dacia World Club Challenge meeting with North Queensland Cowboys at Headingley in eight days’ time.
Sutcliffe said it is important the champions go into that on the back of a strong performance and a win.
“You want some confidence going into a massive game like that,” the stand-off insisted.
“In the game last week we played pretty well and it was a close game.
“Hopefully we can step up a notch this week and have another good performance and then come the World Club Challenge we will be ready to go.”
Widnes Vikings from: Hanbury, Thompson, Bridge, Runciman, Marsh, Brown, Mellor, O’Carroll, White, Dudson, Sa, Farrell, Cahill, Dean, Manuokafoa, Houston, Heremaia, Leuluai, Whitley.
Leeds Rhinos from: Hardaker, Brisce, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sutcliffe, Burrow, Galloway, Lilley, Cuthbertson, Ferres, Ablett, Delaney, Garbutt, Singleton, Keinhorst, Golding, Handley, Walters.
Referee: George Stokes (Wigan).