Leeds Rhinos: Prop pitching into an artificial debate

Ian Kirke.
Ian Kirke.
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Rhinos pack man Ian Kirke explains to Peter Smith why it is right to take the safety-first approach against Widnes.

GIANT PROP Ian Kirke is prepared to risk some micky-taking from his Leeds Rhinos colleagues during tomorrow’s Super League re-match at Widnes Vikings.

Kirke admitted he is not a fan of Widnes’ controversial artificial surface and he’s considering mounting a cover-up to avoid the risk of long-term consequences.

Critics of the 4g i-pitch claim it increases the risk of injury, something the host club have denied, though it will be a concern to Rhinos with a host of key players already on the casualty list.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ ex-Leeds full-back Richard Mathers famously posted pictures of his grazed limbs on the internet after the first Super League game there last year – and, in response, was told to “man-up” by Vikings coach Denis Betts.

Kirke said: “It is a contentious one, I’ve seen a lot of lads have tweeted pictures of their knees and what have you after having played on it.

“I actually wore ‘skins’ last year, I was the only one who did. I took a bit of hammer for it, but I am considering doing the same thing this time, because it saved my knees.

“The last thing you need is an open cut for the rest of the season, because it’s an infection risk.

“Some of the Widnes fans give people stick, but I don’t quite get that. I don’t think ‘manning up’ is not having skin on your knees.

“That’s a preposterous thing to say, I think it’s naive. I don’t rate the pitch, we train on it (an artificial surface at Rhinos’ Kirkstall base) when it’s bad weather, but everyone’s reluctant to do it.

“There’s a lot more twisted ankles and stuff when we do, so I am not a fan at all, to be fair. But on Sunday we have to get on with it. It’s the same for both teams. They play on it a lot more, but I don’t think that gives them an advantage particularly. It is just what they are used to.”

With props Ryan Bailey and Kylie Leuluai among those already on Rhinos’ injury list, Kirke has had to take extra responsibility during recent matches and that’s something he is relishing.

“It is a bit of a Catch 22,” he said. “It makes your job harder in some respects because you’ve not got some of the players who normally work around you, but, at the same time, it gives you an opportunity to do it yourself.

“I am enjoying parts of it, but obviously it is good having those players around you so it is a bit of a tough one.

“The lads who are coming in are going to be playing for Leeds for years to come.

“They’ve all got talent, but they probably just don’t have the confidence at the moment. During a game they probably look to you a bit to take a settle in carry or maybe suggest a call rather than them making a call, like maybe Kev (Sinfield) would.

“It’s not a conscious thing as such, it just happens at the time, but we have a lot of faith in the youngsters.

“Sutty (Liam Sutcliffe) has been playing really well, Jimmy Keinhorst has come back in and been playing well and Minnsy (Thomas Minns).

“There’s Singo (Brad Singleton) as well, though we don’t tend to think of him as a youngster, even though he is mega young.

“We’ve got so much faith in him we tend to think of him as a senior player.”

Kirke got a rare start in the 38-28 home win over Widnes 12 days ago – only his third of the season and his 58th in the 184 games he has played for Leeds.

“That was good,” he said. “I don’t really mind if I start or come off the bench, I am still going to do the same job either way, but it is nice, to start a game every now and again is good. It’s good to play extra minutes, because you want to play.

“I understand there’s hardly any props who are ever going to play 80 minutes. JP (Jamie Peacock) is probably the closest – he plays maybe 70 minutes every week. But it is nice to get a good stint in. Normally that means you are being productive for the team.

“If you aren’t being productive, he won’t have you on the pitch, so it’s a good sign.”

Facing Widnes twice in less than two weeks is an unusual situation, but something Rhinos are going to have to get used to.

“I don’t think it really matters,” said Kirke. “In a few weeks’ time we’ve got to play Wakey (Wakefield Trinity Wildcats) back to back. It is a bit strange, but it’s not a massive deal. They will fancy it, with us having some players out.

“Widnes have played some good games this year. They scored some good tries against Wigan the other week, they played very well against us and they beat Bradford on Sunday.

“They are going to look at us and see a bit of blood in the water and they’ll fancy their chances.”

Leeds are on the back of a 40-18 defeat at Huddersfield Giants six days ago. It was an encouraging performance by an under-strength team but Kirke said they can not get into a mindset where a competitive display is good enough.

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