Leeds will welcome Hull FC to Headingley on Friday night as the two sides get set to battle it out for a place in the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford next Saturday. It will be the second semi-final meeting between the two this season, but Leeds will be hoping for a very different outcome this time around.
The Challenge Cup semi-final in July is a dark moment in Leeds’ year. All their focus and energy went into that game during the weeks building up to it, so much so that Brian McDermott effectively sacrificed any chance of picking up points in his side’s game away at Wigan by fielding a team of teenagers in order to rest his first team, only for Hull to blow Leeds away a week later in what was an anticlimactic and embarrassing day out in Doncaster as far as the Rhinos are concerned.
Hull were fantastic that day. The ‘Airlie Birds’ executed a clearly well thought out game plan almost to perfection and had far too much for a Leeds side left with no answers to their opposition. That game will undoubtedly be playing on the minds of Rhinos players and fans alike as they head to the game on Friday evening, while it will also give FC reason to be confident they can finally record a win at Headingley.
Having said that, Leeds do know how to get the better of Lee Radford’s team. They did the league double over them in 2017, while also coming out on top when they met in the Super 8’s just under a month ago.
However, it is the knockout nature of the game that is likely to suit Hull more than Leeds. The Black and Whites are the ‘Cup Kings’ having won the Challenge Cup two years in a row, so will back themselves to win these ‘one off’ games.
That’s not to say Leeds are strangers to knockout rugby league, far from it. It’s worth remembering that before Hull won the Challenge Cup in consecutive years, Leeds did exactly the same in 2014 and 2015 and also have a good history of finding form and peaking for this stage of the season. But, the only time we have seen the current crop of Rhinos players take to the field together in a big knockout game was the afore mentioned cup semi-final, so nobody is too sure about how they will perform.
That is why Leeds will need to be smart on Friday. Although a lot of the Leeds squad have won several trophies, there has been a lot of change since their last success, so players such as Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow, who are making their final appearances at Headingley after glorious careers in Blue and Amber jerseys, will need to use their experience of what is required to win semi-finals. This Leeds team can struggle to manage games and comfortably close them out at times, so will need guidance throughout Friday’s encounter.
This will be the fifth meeting between Leeds and Hull in 2017, so they should know each other well by know, and Leeds using what they have learnt in those meetings will be crucial to ‘shutting Hull down’.
For example, the forwards will need to be ready for the task of ‘winning the forwards battle’ against Scott Taylor, Liam Watts and Gareth Ellis etc., which has proved to be a very difficult thing to do. There is also Marc Sneyd’s kicking game, Albert Kelly’s footwork and flair and Danny Houghton’s in-game intelligence that the Rhinos will have to be cautious of and alert too.
All of those players mentioned above were able to find their rhythm in the cup semi-final, which allowed Hull to play quick, aggressive rugby and set the platform for the likes of Mahe Fonua, Fetuli Talanoa, Jamie Shaul et al to take advantage of a tiring and disjointed defence. Once they get going, Hull are very difficult to stop so Leeds will have to stop them from building up a head of steam and playing their game. If the Rhinos can combat some of the threats some of those individuals pose then their opponents will be much less dangerous, but how they go about doing that will be interesting to see.
One other thing Leeds will have to look out for is one of their teammates being targeted, just as Tom Briscoe was by Marc Sneyd at the Keepmoat. The winger struggled to deal with high balls and kicking towards him was a tactic that worked wonders for Hull FC as they earned repeat sets, received penalties and scored a few tries off the back of them too. Briscoe received little help from those around him, but if a similar tactic is implemented this time, the Leeds players must do more to support the player under pressure and not allow an obvious weak spot to develop.
Friday night’s game will show us if Leeds have learnt from their mistakes and have improved enough to overcome a side with a good recent record in the games that matter most. Hull FC are a champion side with top quality players, and with the determination they have shown to return to Old Trafford for the first time in over 10 years, Leeds are going to have to dig deep if they are to turn the tables and progress to the final on this occasion.