St Helens v Leeds Rhinos - Kruise Leeming tips winners to go all the way in Challenge Cup
It is only the third round, but today’s Betfred Challenge Cup tie at St Helens will feel like a final to Leeds Rhinos.
The holders face the toughest-possible start to their defence of the trophy they won just six months ago, away to the back-to-back Super League champions.
The job has been made harder by a lengthy injury list, with at least nine of their 32 strong senior squad ruled out - eight of them backs.
But Leeds are at full-strength in the pack and hooker Kruise Leeming reckons this afternoon’s winners will have a real chance of lifting the silverware at Wembley on July 17.
“We’re looking forward to it and I think if we knock these out, we’ll go a long way to winning it,” Leeming insisted.
“This is almost a Cup final and it could work both ways, if you play them later on, some teams could have hit form or others might not; or you can play them early on when nobody’s found their form.
“Hopefully we can hit our form against them.”
Five of Rhinos’ 21-man squad for today are aged 20 or younger, with a total of just 16 first team games between them and Leeming admitted: “It’s just a bit unlucky with the injuries we’ve got.
“That’s not nice, we’d like to have our full team out because we know if we do, we can challenge anyone.
“But the young lads are doing really well, we just need to get the best team we can out there and we’ll give them a good go.”
Saints are unbeaten in two Super League games so far this year and have conceded only one try.
Rhinos lost to Castleford Tigers eight days ago, but began their season with a narrow win over Wakefield Trinity.
They haven’t yet put an 80-minute performance together, but Leeming reckons there have been positive signs.
“That’s what happens at the start of the season,” he said.
“You have trained a long time in pre-season, but there’s nothing like playing.
“It is a bit clunky and we haven’t had our nine, seven, six and one out there so it’s hard for us to get any combinations going.
“But injuries are part and parcel of rugby league and everybody has to be ready to play.
“If you are in the first team squad you need to get your body and fitness and skills in shape and ready to play.
“We are confident in what we’ve got, it is going to be a tough ask, but that’s what the Cup’s all about.
“If it was easy, everyone would win it.”
The prospect of a return to Wembley is a huge incentive, especially with supporters likely to be allowed into this year’s final, after the 2020 showpiece was played behind closed doors.
Leeming said: “I have done it once, I have experienced it and I know what it’s all about.
“Hopefully we’ll have fans back and I’d love to do it in front of the Leeds faithful, but I am not thinking so far ahead, it’s just game by game, like it was last time.
“We had the Wigan game, we chalked that off and then started thinking about Salford in the final.
“In the Cup it’s about taking every round as it comes and hopefully knock them all out.”
Leeming also faces the toughest possible challenge today in his personal head-to-head with Saints’ veteran number nine James Roby.
“I am relatively happy with home I am going,” the England Knightshooker said of his start to the campaign.
“There’s still a bit of ring rust, but things I have been working on - my kicking, my fitness - are starting to come together
“I can see some good glimpses and I’ve just got to keep working hard and keep doing what I know has been working for me and hopefully it should all come together.”
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