NEXT WEEK’S big game 10,500 miles away makes tonight’s clash with Hull KR a must-win, according to Leeds Rhinos captain Kallum Watkins.
The build up to the World Club Challenge against Melbourne Storm in eight days’ time will begin when the final whistle blows at Elland Road.
Most of Rhinos’ squad will head directly to Manchester Airport for an overnight stay ahead of an early morning flight tomorrow.
And Watkins stressed it is crucial they go into the eagerly-anticipated showdown against the NRL champions in good form and with two Betfred Super League wins under their belt.
The week before their last World Club Challenge, against North Queensland Cowboys two years ago, Rhinos were thrashed 56-12 at Widnes Vikings and lost three players to injury.
Their season never really recovered from that and Watkins described tonight’s round two game, which comes a week after a 16-12 victory at Warrington Wolves, as “really important”. He said: “If we can start with two wins it will give us good confidence going into the Melbourne game.
“It will give the guys time on the field as well and that’ll help prepare us.
“It is important for us to play as well as possible, though it’s early in the season and you’re not going to be at your absolute best yet.”
Newly-promoted Rovers were hammered 28-6 at home by Wakefield Trinity last week and Rhinos will go into tonight as hot favourites.
But Rhinos have regularly struggled in games they are expected to win and lost to bottom-four clubs Warrington and Widnes last year.
They were also beaten by visitors Huddersfield a week after Giants suffered an embarrassing Ladbrokes Challenge Cup exit against part-timers Swinton Lions.
As champions, Leeds are the team everyone wants to beat and Watkins admitted they need to handle that pressure.
“The result last week was great for us and we played okay,” he said.
“We hadn’t won there in a long time so it was good to get the result at Warrington, but there’s plenty to work on and we need to improve.
“We need to be better this week against Hull KR, who didn’t get the result they wanted last week, but will want to put that right against us.
“They will want to react, but we want to improve every week. It was good to get the result last week, but our focus is on Hull KR now.
“Last year we were sometimes pretty poor against teams we were probably expected to beat and sometimes we didn’t get the result, but at the same time we reacted straight after a defeat.
“That shows a bit of consistency in terms of winning. For this year our focus is on taking each game as it comes. The boys have worked hard, we started with a good result and we will take confidence from that.”
Rhinos will go up against club legend Danny McGuire, last year’s Grand Final-winning captain, for the first time tonight.
“It is going to be strange,” Watkins said. “He is a fantastic player. I have played with him for almost 10 years and he was phenomenal for this club.
“But he is at Hull KR now and the challenge is to play the best we can against him. We know the quality he has got and we are looking forward to it because he is a winner and it is always good to battle players like that.”
There will be a minute’s applause in memory of the late Leeds winger John Atkinson before tonight’s game.
During the tribute, the former player’s 12-year-old grandson Oscar McInnis will bring the match ball on to the pitch escorted by two of Atkinson’s friends, team mate Alan Smith and Leeds United legend Eddie Gray.
Atkinson, who died in December, is Leeds’ second-highest try scorer with 340 from 1966-82.