St Helens v Leeds Rhinos - Richard Agar focussing on who's in his team for Challenge Cup tie not those on injury list
Leeds Rhinos boss Richard Agar has painful memories of the last time St Helens lifted the Betfred Challenge Cup - and is hoping that isn’t an omen for this afternoon.
Rhinos, the holders, visit Saints in the top tie of the third round, extending a rivalry in the competition which began 110 years ago.
Leeds have won 11 of the 20 Challenge Cup meetings between the two sides, who are second and third - behind Wigan - on the knockout tournament’s roll of honour.
Last October was the 14th time Leeds have got their hands on the trophy, two more than Saints, but five fewer than Wigan who were Wembley winners in eight successive seasons from 1988 to 1995.
Seven of Saints’ wins have come in the summer era, which began a quarter of a century ago, but they have been on a barren run since a third successive victory in 2008.
That year Saints, including current Rhinos assistant-boss Sean Long, beat a Hull side coached by Richard Agar, who is now in charge at Leeds.
Such a long time between drinks will only add to Saints’ motivation today and Agar admitted: “I am surprised it is a while since they’ve won it, given the success they’ve had.
“I was the losing coach at Wembley that day, so I hope that’s not an omen going into this week.”
Long won the trophy five times with Saints, three of them as man of the match and was assistant-coach there for a spell after hanging up his boots.
He returned to league, after a stint in union with Harlequins, last year and this afternoon is the first time he has been part of Rhinos’ coaching setup against his old club.
But Agar insisted: “I don’t think the Saints connection has been too much part of our build-up.”
He said: “Clearly, he knows some of their players and what plays they prefer and what plays they don’t, but we will be concentrating on ourselves a little bit more. It is important we try and get our own jobs right.
“Over [Super League] rounds one and two we have seen it at times, but we would like to be a bit more consistent and cleaner over the 80 minutes in our own areas.
“We have prepared as normal, it has not been a case of Sean giving us everything he knows about St Helens.
“It is important we do our jobs a little bit better than we have over the past two weeks.”
Rhinos are battling an early-season injury crisis which has ruled out eight of their 32 full-time players, including five of Rhinos’ seven first-choice backs, based on squad numbers.
Former Saints star Kyle Eastmond has again been left out and the five youngest members of today’s 21-man squad have just 16 first team games between them.
With no academy, reserve grade or dual-registration opportunities, they have played only a handful of times over the past year and Agar admitted it is “very difficult asking them to come in and come up with faultless displays”.
But the coach is confident whichever Rhinos rookies are selected today, they will only benefit from the experience of facing the best team in the country over the past two seasons.
“We aren’t worrying about who’s not in the team,” he stressed. “Let’s worry about the guys who are playing and try and get them better week by week and try and get the best out of them for what’s going to be a massive challenge this week.”
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