Payback time for Wolves against Leeds?
The last time these two sides met was one of the most significant games in Super League history. When Leeds defeated Warrington in the playoff semi-final it marked a fantastic achievement for the Rhinos to reach the Grand Final, and subsequently win it, from 5th place.
For Warrington it was an embarrassing result which meant their dominance in the league counted for nothing. While the players and coaching staff will no doubt point to this as being ‘just another game’ it’s hard to imagine the Warrington side not seeing this as a chance for a little bit of payback.
The good news for Warrington is that international back row Ben Westwood should return after missing last weeks game against Bradford. The bad news is that they have lost Brett Hodgson through injury, Chris Bridge through suspension and Michael Monaghan is still absent after a knee problem forced him to have surgery.
With Michael Monaghan missing there will be a lot of pressure on the shoulders of Mickey Higham. The 31 year old was man of the match against Bradford and will need to produce more of the same against a Leeds side that’s expected to provide a much tougher test.
When it comes to replacing Brett Hodgson, head coach Tony Smith has options. Stefan Ratchford has been used at fullback previously while Chris Riley is just as capable at fullback as he is on the wing.
The home side have Ryan Bailey returning after a two week absence with an Achilles injury and he replaces hooker Paul McShane as the only change from last week.
Games between two heavyweights like Leeds and Warrington almost always hinge on who dominates in the forwards. England’s two veteran props, Jamie Peacock and Adrian Morley, will be the men expected to lead from the front and give it their all. Their ability is unquestioned but it’s their experience which makes them the ideal men to have in big games. They’ve been there countless times before and know how to push themselves that little bit further.
The Leeds pack includes some strong props in Leuluai, Bailey and Griffin while Carl Ablett and Brett Delaney have been in impressive form in the back row. The Warrington forwards look just as good with the experience of Carvell, Wood, Waterhouse and Westwood complimented by the impressive Mike Cooper and Chris Hill. On paper the packs look pretty evenly matched.
Another important battle will be between the two stand offs. Lee Briers has been the man who makes Warrington tick for so long and yet he’s still just as influential as ever. While his advancing years may have taken away some pace he has more than made up for it by constantly improving his ability to read the game.
For Leeds it’s likely to be Kevin Sinfield who lines up at stand off having become settled in the role under Brian McDermott. There’s not much you can say about a man who has led his team to as much success as Sinfield. His organisation and kicking game are invaluable to the Rhinos and now that he’s moved out of the pack he has a lot more time on the ball. When Leeds play well Sinfield is usually the one pulling the strings.
Those who like their rugby to be expansive and free flowing have plenty to look forward to given the abundance of exciting talent in the outside backs. While Warrington are missing Chris Bridge they still have more flair players than you can shake a rugby ball at. Ryan Atkins, Stefan Ratchford, Rhys Evans, Chris Riley, Joel Monaghan; it’s an embarrassment of riches. It’s no surprise that Wire have scored some of the most outstanding tries already this season but what is surprising is the omission of Atkins from the England squad. Maybe that snub will be used as motivation come 8pm on Friday.
Meanwhile Leeds can boast four of the best young backs in the country. Ryan Hall is now widely regarded as one of the best wingers in the world while Ben Jones-Bishop is deadly when given space to run. In the centres Kallum Watkins looks like an early frontrunner for young player of the year and Zak Hardaker has continued to go from strength to strength since his signing from Featherstone. All four were included in the England Elite Training Squad announced this week. Throw in experienced fullback (and occasional quarterback impersonator) Brent Webb for good measure and you’ve got another set of impressive and exciting players in the backline.
It’s a difficult game to call, especially when it’s still early in the year. The losses of Michael Monaghan and Brett Hodgson would perhaps give Leeds the edge as they have their ‘triple threat’ of Sinfield, Burrow and McGuire fully fit and in fine form but Wire have shown in the last year or so that they can rip teams apart if they are given an opening.
If the game is played down the middle it should benefit Leeds as their attacking players do a lot of damage around the ruck. Against Widnes last weekend Burrow, Sinfield and McGuire linked up countless times in the middle of the park. The pace of Burrow and young Liam Hood could really cause problems from dummy half and given how important hookers are in the modern game it could be a significant advantage.
Warrington without Monaghan might find it harder to fashion opportunities down the middle and will probably try to focus their attacking play out wide, either directly to the backs or through offloads from Westwood and Waterhouse. The Wolves have no fear in throwing the ball around early and if they can find a mismatch out wide they will expose the weakness with ruthless efficiency.
There’s little doubt that Wire will stick to their usual high risk strategy but as ever the players will have to make sure the crucial passes stick. In a tight game their greatest strength could also be their biggest weakness, especially when Leeds have the pace to be deadly in broken-field situations.
It’s going to be a huge test for both of these sides and for the viewers it promises to be a full-blooded encounter. Whether you like your rugby aggressive or with flair, you’re likely to get exactly what you want this Friday night.
Rhinos: Brent Webb, Ben Jones-Bishop, Kallum Watkins, Zak Hardaker, Ryan Hall, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Kylie Leuluai, Jamie Peacock, Carl Ablett, Kevin Sinfield, Brett Delaney, Ryan Bailey, Ian Kirke, Chris Clarkson, Darrell Griffin, Richard Moore, Jay Pitts, Liam Hood.
Wolves: Ryan Atkins, Matty Blythe, Lee Briers, Garreth Carvell, Mike Cooper, Rhys Evans, Simon Grix, Mickey Higham, Chris Hill, Tyrone McCarthy, Joel Monaghan, Adrian Morley, Richie Myler, Stefan Ratchford, Chris Riley, Trent Waterhouse, Ben Westwood, Rhys Williams, Paul Wood.
Referee: Richard Silverwood
Video Ref: Ian Smith
Photo credit: SWpix
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