Leeds coach Brian McDermott is hoping his players’ new-found freedom will take them back to Wembley.

The Rhinos ended a 15-year wait to get their hands on the Challenge Cup with last year’s final victory over Castleford and McDermott says that enabled them to go into this year’s competition with the shackles off.
imagesource (3)
Their confidence will be put to the test in a mouth-watering first semi-final against reigning Super League champions St Helens at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium on Friday night.

“There is less pressure to not lose but there is equal desire to win,” McDermott said.

“And in actual fact we’re in a better position now. We’re more confident than we were last year. We look forward to it more.

“Relaxed is probably the wrong word but the pressure that the group felt – and I certainly felt – to get the job done was immense leading into the final against Castleford.

“I think relief overrode most other emotions.

“And I think that has helped us this year. We’ve almost gone into the competition with the shackles off.”

While Leeds, playing in a record 46th semi-final, are aiming to reach their fifth final in six years, Saints have their sights set on a first Wembley appearance since they completed a hat-trick of triumphs in 2008.

Keiron Cunningham, who was a member of the team that won all three major trophies that year, has already enjoyed a remarkable first season as head coach and would love to top it off with a long-overdue trip to Wembley.

“I was fortunate enough to win the Challenge Cup seven times,” Cunningham said.

“Perhaps back then we took it for granted that we would always be there and in with a chance.

“If you haven’t been there for a while you kind of think that you should be – but it isn’t as easy as that.

“It would be nice to get there and lift the cup but we have the small matter of taking on the best team in the comp first.”

Leeds pipped Saints to top spot at the end of the regular season and will go into the first semi-final having done the double over Cunningham’s men, but McDermott believes previous results are meaningless.

“The Challenge Cup games have very little bearing on what you normally do week in, week out in Super League,” McDermott said.

“The game will look different and it will be played at a different tempo, the ball will be in play for longer minutes than normal.

“There is a lot of pressure this week and it almost suits the way Saints are at the moment.

“They have a lot of strike but they are also able to grind out a win when they’re not particularly good.

“I think you can put us in that category for a number of weeks as well where we haven’t played that good but we’ve got the win but Saints are the masters of that this year.

“They find a way of winning and that’s an element that you’d like to have as a coach.

“You can’t really coach that either. There’s a bit of hunger and desire in there. I think they’re a very dangerous team.”

Cunningham has been pleased with his side’s recent form which has seen them pick up impressive wins over Warrington and Hull KR but he says they will need to start well on Friday night.

“Leeds are packed with danger men,” he said. “You can pick a number they are all great players and would probably walk into any side.

“They have had the wood over us this season. I have no doubt they will head into the tie confident but we should too.

“We are playing well and, if we play as well as we did against Hull KR, then we will give ourselves a chance.

“The teams that have beaten Leeds this year have hung on in there for the opening 20 minutes and then took their chances. It goes without saying we need to start well.”