Sunday, February 21, 2016

Conquering The Cowboys - Keys To A Leeds Victory

The first two games in the 2016 World Club Series have resulted in convincing, chastening defeats for the Super League sides against last year's NRL minor premiers and Grand Final runners-up. So how do an injury hit and evolving Leeds Rhinos stop the rot and restore some pride to the northern hemisphere tonight against the North Queensland Cowboys?

Here are four key points they need to focus on.

Start Fast, Stay In The Game

In both games so far this year, the home side has been almost out of it inside half an hour. Against the well drilled Cowboys defence, Leeds aren't likely to post a bunch of points in a hurry so can't afford to get behind early in the game and be forced to play catch-up.

A good start also helps to keep what is likely to be a vociferous home crowd involved. Langtree Park and the DW Stadium were almost funereal in atmosphere during the second halves on Friday and Saturday. The Kiwi players involved in last October's warm-up game will tell you what a special atmosphere Headingley can generate on big nights under lights, and it's important the Rhinos give their fans something to stay with as they did on that occasion.


If the Rhinos lose the penalty count (and they don't have the greatest of historical relationships with tonight's man in the middle Richard Silverwood), the error count or the missed tackle count, they're not going to win. They need at least an even share of both possession and field position to be in the contest, which means not turning the ball over close to their own line or early in the tackle count. They have shown the ability to get into arm wrestles in big games, grind their way through and come up with the win. Tonight is going to demand that again.

They also can't afford to lose their defensive structure as often as Wigan and Saints did by having players flying out trying to make speculative reads and leaving massive holes. NRL sides structure their attack in such a way that they put a lot of runners at the ball carrier's disposal, and defenders need to remember that the ball is the danger. There's no point haring out to close down a runner if it leaves a big gap on your inside shoulder for someone else to stroll through. 

Doing the simple things well under pressure is what separates the two competitions, and to be successful Leeds will have to match the Cowboys at that both with and without the ball.

Use The Underdog Card

It's not often the Rhinos have gone into a big game as such huge underdogs, in some places as big as 5-1 to win the game. There's a host of good reasons the odds are so long as well - the transition after losing three big players including two massive leaders, the injuries to half a dozen potential starters, the young half-back pairing playing only its second game together at this level. Pulling off a win would rank right up there in the great nights of the club's recent history.

So they need to use the fact that everyone is writing them off to their advantage. There are players coming into this game with points to prove, whether they are established veterans looking to show they can still do it, players who should be at the peak of their careers but have yet to crack it at representative level or youngsters wanting to find out whether they can live with the very best in the world.

So use the fact that many pundits expect you to get a hammering to your advantage, by making it your motivation to run that little bit faster and hit that little bit harder.

Get Thurston

You don't win a Grand Final by being a one man team, in either hemisphere. Having spent so long witnessing at first hand what Kevin Sinfield could do to carry his Leeds Rhinos team to wins in big games though, the home side tonight will know more than most how important it can be to target the opposition's key man.

Thurston makes this Cowboys side tick. He's their leader, both in terms of game management and emotionally. If he's allowed to play the game with a tuxedo on because he's given too much awe and respect, he's a good enough player to carve Leeds to pieces.

I'm not advocating trying to take his head off with the first play of the game, but if he wants to play close to the line don't be afraid to put a shot on him just as he passes the ball. When he kicks, take him to ground afterwards. Don't let him lead the chase and put everyone else onside. This is Thurston's first competitive game of the season, so test how much petrol he has in the tank by having him make twenty tackles in the game as well as pick himself up off the floor continually.

He's very much the battery which powers this North Queensland side, so let's see how he and they respond when those energy levels get low.

Leeds are going to need to produce the performance of an era to win this game in the face of a whole host of reasons why they shouldn't. If they can do these four things though, it will go a long way towards providing what could be a magical night for the club and a shot in the arm for Super League.

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