By Alan Domville
In what seems no time at all since the 2019 campaign started we travel to the redeveloped Emerald Headingley Stadium on Friday for final match of the regular Betfred Super League season.
It’s the return fixture for that which the campaign opened – against Leeds whom we defeated 26-6 on a Saturday evening in February.
That game saw debuts at the Halliwell Jones for Blake Austin, Jason Clark and Danny Walker and all have exceeded our expectations as the season has progressed – and we have never been out of the play-off places.
Leeds, the eight time Super League champions , have had a difficult season, spending most of it near the foot of the table and they have only just cemented their place in the big league for next year following their victory in London two weeks ago.
Last Friday they went down to high-flying Salford at home 20-12 which enabled the Red Devils to hold on to joint third place in the table with us but with an inferior points difference of just 13.
While we will be striving for victory at Leeds there is action at the AJ Bell Stadium with Salford entertaining Hull Kingston Rovers, one of the four sides on 20 points and each desperate to earn the win that would mean Super League survival.
It’s all to play for then in this 29th and final round ahead of the five team play-offs at the top – and for one side the dreaded drop to the Championship.
Debutants in blue and amber at the HJ on that opening night of the season were loose forward Trent Merrin, the Australia and New South Wales State of Origin star who now wears the captain’s armband, the outstanding Tongan centre Konrad Hurrell signed from the Gold Coast Titans, stand off Tuimoala Lolohea who has represented the Kiwis and Tonga and forward James Donaldson, recruited after being released by Hull Kingston Rovers.
There have been a number of comings and goings since then including a Tui-Lui swap deal. Tui recently moved to Salford in an exchange deal involving Robert Lui.
Australian and ex-Leeds star David Furner was in charge of the Rhinos for the first time that night but with results not going the club’s way he departed in mid-season, being replaced by our former team coach Richard Agar.
In the same week that Lui arrived Leeds also welcomed Papua New Guinea international second row forward Rhys Martin who had previously been with Canterbury Bulldogs and hooker Shaun Lunt on loan from Hull Kingston Rovers. Shaun replaced Matt Parcell who moved in the opposite direction to the Robins.
Long-serving international entre Kallum Watkins left the club in July to join the Gold Coast Titans in the NRL.
Leeds will be without winger Tom Briscoe; he was ruled out for the season with an ACL injury. Until he was hurt playing at Huddersfield he had figured in every Rhinos game this season. In his place is his younger brother Luke.
Playing on the opposite wing is Ash Handley who, despite the Yorkshire club’s disappointing campaign, is Super League’s leading try scorer with 22 touchdowns. Ash has now made more than 100 appearances for Leeds.
Hurrell is the club’s top metre-maker this term – to date almost 3,000 while Merrin is credited with more than 900 tackles.
Nineteen-year-old centre Harry Newman has made one of the centre spots his own after having spent time with Featherstone on dual registration along with loose forward Cameron Smith.
Ex-NRL Prop Ava Seumanufagai scored his first try for Leeds last Sunday while another front rower the Polish-born Mikolaj Oledski is back in the front row after loan spells with Bradford and Featherstone. Other danger men in the pack are England international Brett Ferres, now in his 14thseason as a professional, the master of the off-load Adam Cuthbertson and Ireland-capped Brad Singleton.
Jack Walker, who scored a hat-trick on his debut for Leeds against Doncaster in 2017, is now the first-choice full back. He displaced the Jamaican Ash Golding who is now loaned to Featherstone.
Versatile Liam Sutcliffe has been with Leeds since 2012 and became a regular member of the side after Kevin Sinfield retired four years ago. He kicked 47 goals this season before Martin took over the duty.
The home game against Leeds signalled a return to the HJ for scrum half Richie Myler and hooker Brad Dwyer who have both been in sparkling form throughout the season. But on that night we had more or less sewn up the game by half time.
Tries from Stefan Ratchford, Josh Charnley and Daryl Clark converted by Stefan who also kicked a penalty went unanswered by the visitors and we turned round put us 20-0 ahead at the interval.
Blake Austin scored his first try for us in the second half, also converted by Ratchford, and Leeds just managed to avoid being nilled when Stevie Ward touched down and Lolohea added the extras.
Some of the most magical moments in our history have involved Leeds – and our emphatic victories over the Rhinos in the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley in 2010 and again two years later were the biggest in recent years. They were a long delayed pay-back time for the 1936 final won by Leeds 18-2.
Leeds have enjoyed the upper-hand in Championship and Grand finals; they gained their first league title against us at Odsal in 1961 winning 25-10. They also stunned us at the Halliwell Jones in 2011 when we were denied a Grand Final appearance by a 79th minute penalty by Kevin Sinfield, Rhinos winning 26-24. A year later at Old Trafford the Rhinos dashed our title hopes again winning 26-18.