After edging a tight, nervy affair at Widnes last Sunday with a 16-6 win over the Lancastrians, Leeds Rhinos’ winger Tom Briscoe admits the club are looking to finish top of The Qualifiers. The reigning Super League champions’ Super League status looks healthier after that victory over the Vikings but there is still the chance that the club, currently with three wins from four matches, could be drawn into the Million Pound Game.
This Friday’s crunch clash at home to Salford – the only team boasting a perfect record after four matches – could prove pivotal and, with the Red Devils missing their talismanic half back Jackson Hastings through suspension, the Rhinos will fancy their chances of joining their visitors on eight points. The absence of Salford’s Australian star is a huge blow for Ian Watson’s men and it could be argued that Hastings has had the biggest impact of any of Super League’s mid-season signings this year and has improved his team’s fortunes immeasurably. Now, though, the ban handed to the former Manly pivot for a late red card due to a high tackle in his team’s home victory over Toronto, has dampened some of the optimism at the AJ Bell Stadium club.
Optimism, however, is something that will creep back into Headingley after the announcement of David Furner as the team’s head coach from 2019. A man who Leeds fans have been suggesting as a future incumbent of the role – even before the dismissal of Brian McDermott – Furner will be hoping that the team, under the stewardship of Kevin Sinfield and James Lowes, can maintain their Super League status before his arrival. While a win against Halifax is highly likely, a victory over Salford would be huge for the Rhinos. If they were to win their next two, it is probable that their top flight status will be secure ahead of their final match at home to Toronto. However, should they lose either of their matches before the visit of the Canadians, that match could prove to be a play-off to avoid the Million Pound Game and, while Leeds are usually at their best under pressure, that hasn’t been the case in 2018.
Few would have foreseen the Rhinos’ struggles this year and injuries have hit them hard. That, however, hasn’t stopped Hull FC easing into the top eight nor has it hindered Castleford’s charge to another top four finish and, possibly, a second consecutive Grand Final. Furner will be hoping, upon his arrival that the club can return to more familiar territory at the top end of the table in 2019 – but there is still work to do before they can focus on that endeavour.