WITH their squad decimated by injuries, many are already dismissing Leeds Rhinos’ chances of lifting the World Club Challenge on Sunday.
However, head coach Brian McDermott remains confident that whoever steps in for the game against NRL champions North Queensland Cowboys – and three players who have not featured yet this year could get a shot – they will be good enough to handle the occasion.
As the likes of Australia great Johnathan Thurston, the Cowboys captain and current Golden Boot holder as the world’s best player, arrived for yesterday’s World Club Series launch, all anyone wanted to ask McDermott about was his injury latest after their calamitous loss at Widnes Vikings.
Not only did the reigning Super League champions succumb 56-12 but they also lost two England internationals – Carl Ablett and Tom Briscoe (both ankle) – plus young full-back Ashton Golding (foot) to injuries.
Given the West Yorkshire club are already without captain Danny McGuire plus hooker Beau Falloon and second-rows Stevie Ward and Jamie Jones-Buchanan for Sunday’s Headingley date, you can understand concerns that the World Club Challenge could become distinctly one-sided.
North Queensland intend on playing all 17 of their squad that defeated Brisbane Broncos in October’s Grand Final while Leeds are likely to field just 11 of theirs with Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai all long since departed, too.
On those injuries McDermott – who guided Leeds to a 2012 WCC victory over Manly – admitted: “All three of them are doubtful still. Ashton Golding was going to get near a bench spot anyway so it’s a real shame for him he’s got a potential broken bone in his foot.
“Even if he hasn’t, the damage in his foot is significant enough. He’ll be a while.
“Carl Ablett and Tom Briscoe’s injuries are hard to tell yet; they are very sore. We’re not going to write them off yet, but I wouldn’t put money on it.”
The likely replacements, though, include Josh Walters, the 21-year-old back-row who came off the bench to score against Wigan in the Grand Final, plus Ash Handley, the winger who turns 20 today and contributed 13 tries in 20 games last term when Briscoe was last sidelined.
McDermott, whose side are winless after also losing their opener at home to Warrington, added: “It’s a real bad news story about the blokes that aren’t playing, but it’s great for the guys that could come in instead of them.
“Josh Walters has been 18th man for the first couple of weeks; Ash Handley has been in the 19-man squad and managing those players while they’re not playing is always difficult.
“You’re telling them the truth and saying an injury could just be around the corner and they say ‘Yeah, right boss, you said that last year’.
“And then all of a sudden it happens. While it’s heartbreaking for the lads who might miss out, it opens the door for someone else to grab a shirt and play in a massive game and we know what they can do.”
Asked how long he will give the trio to prove their fitness and how such uncertainty might affect preparations, McDermott responded: “I could cut them all off now, to be fair.
“But until I get the confirmation I wouldn’t do that. It’s not ideal to manage this situation, but it is what it is. It won’t prevent us from preparing; we’ll give ourselves the best chance of beating them, but we’ll obviously have to be very good.”
Handley and forwards Mitch Achurch and Jordan Baldwinson, who will also hope to earn a call-up, played for Featherstone Rovers in Sunday’s 14-12 Championship win over Batley Bulldogs.
Their next game could see them up against Queensland State of Origin legend Thurston, the gilded stand-off who memorably kicked Cowboys to their golden-point extra-time win over Brisbane.
All eyes will be on the 32-year-old, the only player in the history of the game to win the Golden Boot three times, as North Queensland look to lift their first World Club Challenge having secured a maiden NRL Premiership.
“It’s right he’s mentioned,” admitted McDermott.
“Whether Thurston gets the ball in his hands or not, on any particular play or part of the field he makes other people play well.
“He’s a class act. He’s going to be influential but North Queensland are – and I mean this with the greatest respect – a very workmanlike team.
“They grind out some wins whether they’ve been great or not and that’s a real quality for any side to have.
“They are very formidable opponents.”