THIS time last year faltering Leeds were heading for the Qualifiers but as Mitch Garbutt tells Peter Smith, things couldn’t be more different now for the Rhinos squad as they head to the business end of the season.
THE APPREHENSION of 12 months ago has turned into excitement for Leeds Rhinos as they stand on the verge of a return to the Super-8s.
This time last year Rhinos were preparing for a relegation battle in the Qualifiers.
By contrast, a win over visitors Hull tonight could potentially secure second spot at the end of the regular Betfred Super League season and Leeds are looking forward to a Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final meeting with the same opponents in 15 days’ time.
“It’s a different feeling,” front-rower Mitch Garbutt said of Leeds’ transformation in fortunes. “Everyone’s excited and looking forward to what’s to come over the next eight or 12 weeks.”
A big difference this year has been the way Rhinos have coped with injuries. Their treatment room hasn’t been as full as it was for much of 2016, but when players have been ruled out, usually, others have come in and done a good job.
Last week’s 50-24 win at Salford Red Devils – when Ashton Golding, Liam Sutcliffe, Rob Burrow, Brett Delaney and Brett Ferres were all unavailable and Kallum Watkins was injured in the first half – was a good example.
It was Rhinos’ second highest score against top-flight opposition this season – after the 52-24 away win over Hull – and came against what was up until then the third-best defence in Super League.
“We’ve got good depth,” Garbutt said. “Last year a lot of players got games they wouldn’t normally have got and that has obviously helped.
“Their development is probably a few years ahead of where they would have been otherwise so that’s one positive to take from last year.”
We’ve got good depth. Last year a lot of players got games they wouldn’t normally have got and that has obviously helped. Their development is probably a few years ahead of where they would have been otherwise so that’s one positive to take from last year.Leeds Rhinos’ Mitch Garbutt
Second place going into the Super-8s will be Leeds’ if they beat Hull and third-placed Salford lose at leaders Castleford Tigers.
Whatever happens at the Jungle, a Leeds victory would seal a top-four spot and an extra home game over the final quarter of the season.
Hull have just as much to play for. They will drop out of the top-four if they lose and Wakefield Trinity, who are just a point behind, win away to Widnes Vikings.
“It’s a big game,” Garbutt said. “Every game at this time of year is big. We’ll be hoping to get another two points so we can consolidate our place in the top-four.”
But the most important objective for Rhinos is to build on last week’s nine-try performance.
“We played well,” reflected the Aussie forward. “The dry track helped and I thought we were really good in the first 40 and we sapped Salford’s energy.
“We were happy overall, but there was a 10-15 minute period when we went back to dropping a bit of ball. We just need to keep building on what we are doing.
“We are starting to play the type of footy we want to play and obviously it worked for us last week.”
Hull have lost their last two games, to Castleford and St Helens, but Garbutt stressed nobody in the Rhinos camp is reading anything into that.
“They are obviously a really good side and I think they’ll be happy with their season so far,” he warned. “We are expecting a tough game and I wouldn’t say we are overly confident, but we are confident in what we can do.”
Of Hull, he added: “They probably have been a bit inconsistent, but on their day they can beat anyone. We will be ready for whatever they throw at us. They’ve got a big, strong pack, I enjoy playing against big sides and they are one of the biggest in the comp. Their outside-backs are quite big and powerful too so we are in for a big one.”
Props Liam Watts and Scott Taylor are two players Garbutt has been impressed with since he came to England in 2015.
He said: “Taylor has really stood up for them and he’s getting the rewards for being consistent over the last couple of years.
“I think Watts is a bitunder-rated. Whenever I have seen him he has been really impressive.”
This evening’s victors could grab a psychological advantage going into the Cup semi-final, but Garbutt insisted: “You have to look at them as separate games.
“At this time of year you have to take every game as it comes.
“The Cup is something we are all looking forward to, but we don’t want to look too far ahead. We just have to focus on what’s in front of us. They are both important.
“We are happy with where we are at. We’ve lost a few games we thought we should have won and that’s probably taken us out of the race for the league leaders’ shield, but we are just focusing on being consistent and doing what we are good at.”
On a personal note, Garbutt had a disrupted start to the season, but has played in Leeds’ last six fixtures.
“I have played a few in a row, which is good,” he said. “I am happy with how I am going. Anthony Mullally has been good for us the last eight weeks, he has probably played the best he has for us.
“Singo [Brad Singleton] and big Keith [Galloway] have been great too and Cuthbo [Adam Cuthbertson] is back to his best. I am just slotting into the rotation, so it has been good.”