LEEDS RHINOS boss Brian McDermott insists he hasn’t been shocked by Castleford Tigers’ form this year.
Tigers travel to Headingley Carnegie tonight in fifth spot in First Utility Super League, but knowing a win over second-placed Leeds would lift them top of the table.
Coach Daryl Powell’s side finished third from bottom last year and were some pundits’ tip for relegation, but McDermott said they are where they are on merit.
“I think the surprise this year was the first four or five games,” said McDermott, whose team are bidding for a league double after a 22-14 win at MAH Jungle in May.
“When you looked at how they played, it wasn’t against poor opposition and it wasn’t against teams that were playing poorly. They were winning some big games and playing some good stuff as well. They have continued that on and they are a good team.
“They have got a good coach as well. Daryl has done a great job. As a new coach to the competition it is relatively easy to have an impact – change a few things, get them to defend a certain way and get them to put on a couple of different plays. You have an instant impact and you get a couple of headlines. But the quality of him is indicated by how he has kept that going throughout the year.
“They are still knocking off some good teams and that was a big win against Huddersfield last weekend.
“Last time we played them it was a tough game. We regard that as one of our good wins, because it was against good opposition and we didn’t have everything our own way.”
McDermott described tonight as “probably the biggest Leeds-Cas clash since I have been coach”.
He added: “They are in the best form they’ve had for a few years. They have got a lot of very good players, Luke Dorn, the half-backs they’ve got – Finn, Ellis, Sneyd – who are becoming superstars.
“If they continue this for another season or so they will be up there with anybody. Shenton is a very good player, the winger Carney is brilliant.
“Daryl Clark has been a very good player for a few years. He is a really dynamic player, I don’t think everything goes through him, I don’t think they rely on him to be good, but when they are good he makes them even better.”
Clark’s dummy-half clash with Rob Burrow, who scored two tries on his return from injury, could be one of tonight’s highlights.
Assessing the danger Clark will pose, McDermott added: “He’s got the ability to turn a game and our game’s about getting away from your own try-line more than it is scoring tries at the moment.
“You try get away from your own area. It’s hard to defend your tryline. Everyone is very good attacking-wise and if you spend a lot of time near their tryline invariably you win.
“And how do you get away from your own tryline when you’re stuck in there?
“Sometimes you need some game-breakers and momentum-breakers to do that.
“Rob is definitely one and Clark definitely is too.”
Rhinos have lost four of their last eight games in the league, but will be boosted tonight by full-back Zak Hardaker’s return following a five-match ban for allegedly aiming a homophobic remark at referee James Child in the defeat at Warrington Wolves two months ago.
“It has been tough for him,” McDermott said. “He hasn’t enjoyed any of it and the controversial circumstances has probably added to that as well.
“Zak’s got on with it and probably realised that he made an error. What he has got out of it is that what he said was wrong.
“He maintains that he never meant true hurt by it, but we all realise that type of terminology is not acceptable any more and that’s a good thing that’s come out of it.”
Both McDermott and Hardaker spent an evening during the ban coaching at Manchester Canalsiders, which is this country’s first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rugby league club.
Hardaker bounced back strongly after last year’s early exit from England’s World Cup squad and McDermott predicted he will do the same again.
Said the coach: “He was one of the best full-backs in the world before he got suspended and his incentive is to get back to that form again. That’s a good carrot dangling in front of him, to get back to being one of the best players in the world.”
McDermott will select from close to full-strength tonight and that is a boost for Leeds with just two points separating the top-five in the table.
McDermott said the tight battle at the top of the league is ideal with the play-offs looming.
“I wouldn’t like to be six points clear or untouchable,” he said. “It’s good that people are nipping at your heels. The peloton is catching isn’t it and we’ve just got to make sure we stay on the bike.”