DIRECTOR OF rugby Kevin Sinfield admits Leeds Rhinos have a fight on their hands, but says they are going into it in a “positive” mood.
Rhinos begin their Betfred Super-8s Qualifiers campaign at home to Toulouse Olympique this afternoon.
Leeds’ ninth-place finish in Super League saw them dragged into a second relegation battle in three seasons and this year threatens to be a far tougher challenge than in 2016.
London Broncos have already shown the strength of the Championship by winning at Widnes Vikings two days ago and Rhinos are going into the new competition having won only one of their last 12 games.
Five victories from their seven matches should be enough to keep the 2017 champions in the top-flight next year, but Sinfield insisted they will be taking it week by week – and a good start is vital.
“Every game’s a must-win,” said the former Leeds captain who rejoined the club at the start of July.
“It has been like that for the last month. It has been a tough four or five games, but I think we’ve got the answers.
“We have got to have a positive approach towards the eights and we are looking forward to being back at home with some home support behind us after being on the road for the last two games.
“We’re looking forward to playing in a new competition and we want to be the best we can be.”
Today will be only the second time Rhinos have played Toulouse and the French side’s first visit to Emerald Headingley. The teams’ previous meeting was in a Challenge Cup semi-final 13 years ago which Rhinos won 56-18.
Toulouse finished third in the Betfred Championship, behind London on points difference, having lost only six of their 23 league fixtures.
They scored 900 points – more than runaway leaders Toronto Wolfpack and only seven fewer than London – but had the poorest defence in the top-five.
Star man is Cook Island international stand-off Johnathon Ford, but they have other players with top-flight experience in Super League or the NRL.
French international scrum-half William Barthau had a spell at Catalans Dragons – and has also played on loan for Dewsbury Rams – and prop Sam Rapira joined Toulouse this year after two seasons with Huddersfield Giants.
Samoan international back-rower Con Mika began his career with Newcastle Knights and was at Hull KR for two years before moving to Toulouse in 2016.
Sinfield said Leeds have been able to do their homework on Toulouse, despite them playing in the Championship and not featuring on British television and insisted Rhinos will not be taking them lightly.
“They are a decent side,” he said.
“They’ll be looking forward to coming to Headingley and we’re looking forwards to hosting them.
“They’ve got some experienced players and I am sure they’ll come and ask us some questions.”
Rhinos’ poor recent form – including last Sunday’s 48-12 Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final drubbing by Warrington Wolves – will make them a target in the Qualifiers.
Sinfield added: “Teams will be coming at us, we are aware of that and we are ready for it.
“We’ll see what [today] brings, but we’re looking forward to it and giving a really good account of ourselves and starting off the eights in the right manner.”