A SECOND, unscheduled pre-season has given veteran Leeds Rhinos prop Kylie Leuluai a new lease of life.
The 37-year-old has been in strong form since returning from a 13-game injury lay-off and he reckons that enforced break will help him end his Rhinos career on a high.
Leuluai was among the try scorers in last Friday’s 46-18 win over St Helens, which was his 250th Rhinos appearance and fourth game back after recovering from biceps and shoulder injuries.
“I had three months off, but that was an extended pre-season, with Jason and Blacky (conditioners Jason Davidson and Chris Black),” said Leuluai.
“To be honest, I am fitter than I was after pre-season, because of it.”
The former Samoan Test front-rower will hang up his boots at the end of this season to take up a new role on Rhinos’ backroom staff.
He said: “My personal goal is to finish on a high, but I just want our team to do well.
“We want to finish as high as we can in the league, hopefully on top.
“There’s three games to go and then we’ll see what happens after that.”
Two wins from their final three regular season matches, at Wigan Warriors tonight and home to Salford Red Devils and Catalans Dragons, would guarantee Leeds go into the Super-8s as league leaders.
First Utility Super League’s leading eight teams are set to enter a new seven-game competition and the top four at the end of that will play off in knockout semi-finals for a place at Old Trafford in the title decider.
The top two in the table after the Super-8s will be given home advantage in the semi-finals and with points from the regular season carrying over into the new mini-league, Leuluai said Rhinos need to keep their foot on the accelerator.
“We are three points clear at the moment, but we were six points clear earlier in the season,” he said.
“You can’t rely on that cushion, it’s not that much. It is two games and if you lose two games, you’ve lost it.
“We will just attack it like we do other games. With the new format every game counts, so we need to get some form going into the Challenge Cup (semi-final against Saints at the end of the month) and the eights.
“The goal is to be league leaders and then try and get to the Grand Final and win it.
“We are just focusing on going forward. We still have a lot of areas to improve on.
“We made a few errors at the start last week and we’ll be working on trying to rectify those. If we can do that, I’m sure we’ll be all right this week.”
Tonight will be Rhinos’ third meeting of the season with Wigan and there will be at least one more to come, in the Super-8s.
Rhinos won 26-14 at Headingley in March, but Wigan were 27-12 victors at the Magic Weekend, in Newcastle, two months later.
Wigan are four points behind Leeds and suffered a 17-6 defeat at Warrington Wolves last week.
Leuluai said: “They are a big club and a great team.
“Come the business end they will be in with a shout, along with the other top teams.”
Tonight could be Leuluai’s final trip to DW Stadium. Rhinos will have to come to terms with the departure of their most successful overseas player at the end of the year, but the front-rower is confident Leeds’ squad will be strong enough to carry the baton in 2016.
Jamie Peacock and Kevin Sinfield are also in their final season at Headingley, but Rhinos have already signed Huddersfield Giants’ Anthony Mullally and Mitch Garbutt, from Melbourne Storm.
“There’s some great players coming through and I am sure they will add to the squad,” Leuluai said.
“They will do and that is always the case at this club.
“It is the cycle, out with the old and in with the new.”
Mullally will not join Leeds until pre-season, but Garbutt is set to make his second appearance tonight and Leuluai reckons he will prove a good addition.
He said: “He is a skilful prop, big and strong. He did a good job at the weekend and I’m sure he’ll carry on like that.”
Jimmy Keinhorst has also impressed, after switching from centre into the second-row. Leuluai said: “He is strong and fast and he’s tough. He is doing a great job.”
But Leuluai admitted the loss of second-rower Stevie Ward, facing up to six weeks out due to an ankle injury, is a blow.
“It’s a shame, because he has been my player of the year,” he said. “He has been really tough. Defensively and offensively he is strong and his shoulders are as strong as an ox.
“It’s a shame he’s had this injury, but come the back end of the season he will be ready to go and we’ll need him in that period.
“He will be fresh and it’ll be like getting a new player.”
Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Evening Post understands Chris Clarkson will be released from the final year of his Leeds contract, after completing this season on loan at Widnes Vikings. Alex Foster is unlikely to return to Rhinos following a year at Featherstone Rovers, but Jordan Baldwinson – who is also at Featherstone this year – could be re-signed.