Leeds Rhinos centre Kallum Watkins savours the prospect of playing in his fourth Cup final. Peter Smith reports.
AT JUST 24, Kallum Watkins has already had a glittering career, but the Leeds Rhinos and England powerhouse insists this year’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup showpiece means just as much as any of the other big games he has played in.
Now rated the best centre in the British game – and tipped as a candidate for the prestigious Man of Steel award – Watkins was a member of the Rhinos side which beat Castleford Tigers at Wembley 12 months ago.
Remarkably, that was his third Cup final appearance, after he had collected loser’s medals in 2011 and 2012.
Watkins made his debut in 2008 and played 14 times the following year, when Rhinos lifted the Super League leaders’ Shield.
He featured in the 2009, 2010 and 2013 World Club Challenge defeats and was a member of the winning team in 2012.
He collected a Grand Final winner’s ring the same year, so – now in his eighth season at senior level – Watkins is preparing for his ninth trophy-decider.
That is a staggering record and most players go through an entire career with only a fraction of that success, but Watkins said the hunger for more honours remains as strong as ever.
Last year’s Wembley triumph ended 15 years of hurt – and a club run of six successive Cup final defeats.
It completed the set of available honours for many of Rhinos’ senior players, including Watkins, but he said that doesn’t make Saturday’s clash with Hull KR any less special.
“It means as much this year as last year – of course it does,” Watkins said.
“It is always a dream come true and I have been very, very fortunate to be there on a number of occasions.
“We have got to keep our feet on the ground and be really excited for it.
“It is an opportunity for us to get some silverware and we’ve got to be willing to play well and hope things can come good.”
Despite his Wembley experience, Watkins said it is important to enjoy the occasion.
“You have got to make the most of it and you can’t take it for granted, whoever you play,” he observed.
“When you get to a final teams are going to be in different situations in terms of confidence and form and that is a key factor in it, but at the end of the day you have just got to perform on the day and – before it – make sure you do everything you can to be in the best shape going into it.
“You have got to be ready for the game, because that gives you a bit of an advantage.
“That is really important for us.”
Like a year ago, Rhinos are hot favourites against a team with only limited Cup final experience.
Bookies are offering odds of 3/1 for Hull KR to win the final, but Watkins is adamant everybody in Rhinos’ camp is well aware nothing has been won yet.
“People will have their own opinions,” he said of predictions it could be a one-sided final.
“A lot of people will see us as favourites, of course, but Hull KR have got all the way to the final and done it the tough way, by beating big sides.
“They can beat anyone when they are good on their day.
“We have got to be really good and be really prepared.
“We know we are going to see the best of Hull KR, but we need to perform to our best as well.
“It is really important we do that, especially in a final when anything can happen.”
The lesson for Leeds from their defeats in 2010, 2011 and 2012 was that you have to play well on the day.
Watkins reckons it will take eight, nine or even 10 out of 10 performances from Rhinos’ players for them to retain the trophy.
“In previous times we haven’t done that,” he conceded. “That’s why we haven’t won it more often.
“Having the team prepare well is important as well.
“Preparation is always vital and we’ve got to get that spot on.
“Confidence is also going to be a key factor and how we’ve been playing in the Super-8s will have a bearing.
“It is exciting times for the club.”
Of the side who beat St Helens in this year’s semi-final, only Adam Cuthbertson and Mitch Garbutt have not played in a Wembley final.
Watkins said it is important Rhinos use that experience to their advantage.
He added: “Last year we prepared well, we came up with a plan and we stuck to it – and it worked.
“This year we will be similar in terms of our preparations. The week before the final is exciting, that’s something to look forward to and we know we are going to be in for a tough game.
“We’ve got to do everything possible to make sure we play well and if we do that, we’ve got a good chance of winning.”
Rovers finished ninth in Super League at the end of the regular season and were beaten by Leeds home and away.
While Leeds are battling in the Super-8s for a place at Old Trafford, in the Grand Final, Hull KR have been taking on Super League’s other bottom four teams and the leading quartet from the Kingstone Press Championship in a fight for top-flight survival among the qualifiers. Leeds finished nine places and 15 points above Rovers in the regular season.
But Watkins warned: “Both times they’ve played us this year it has been very tight, very close and very difficult games.
“I remember the first game of the year was a very high-scoring game and twice we were behind and we had to battle to come back.
“They are a good team, who can throw the ball about and play off the cuff.
“They have got a lot of players who have got a bit of flair and get their side around the pitch.
“They are big and tough up front and they are a really exciting team when they are playing good.
“They have shown that this year and we know we have got to prepare for the best of them and for a great team that will attack and go for it, because it is a special event.”
Hull KR have pacy outside-backs, who Watkins reckons will keep him and Leeds’ other three-quarters on their toes.
“They are playing well in their back-line,” he observed. “Kris Welham has had a great season and been playing fantastic.
“They’ve recruited well and [Josh] Mantellato and Ken Sio have been brilliant for them.
“It takes time to get comfortable, being in a new environment, but they’ve taken it with both hands – especially with Albert Kelly coming into the side as well.
“He is a fantastic player and he’s very, very dangerous.
“We have got to look to cope well around those players and do a good job on them, Kieran Dixon as well – who is very quick and dynamic.
“They have got a lot of threats, so we’ve got to be prepared to play at our best.”