Leeds Rhinos can hurt star-studded Melbourne Storm

 

The big-match expertise that has made Leeds the dominant team in Super League faces perhaps its biggest test at Headingley tomorrow night.

The Rhinos play the Australian champions, the Melbourne Storm, in the World Club Challenge and, if they are the best team in Britain, few would argue that, week by week, the Victorians are the best side in the world.

Melbourne, who beat Leeds at Elland Road in the equivalent fixture three years ago, still have the spine of three of the game's greatest modern-day players – Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith. Those who have watched them train since arriving in England have described their preparation as the most intense they have seen, which could be a reflection of their approach to this game as well as their overall philosophy.

Leeds, however, have the advantage of having played three competitive matches so far this season – one of them the sort of shock defeat by Castleford that tends to pepper their form early in the year. They will also have a packed Headingley behind them in a fixture that traditionally raises the emotional temperature.

Australian sides have complained in the past about an excessively physical approach from their British opponents. "The British teams have a reputation for being more physical," said the half-back Cronk. "The Australian teams have a reputation for being a bit more athletic."

One thing Cronk and his team-mates will not have to worry about is the damage that can be done by a shoulder-charge. The Rugby League this week followed the lead of Australia's NRL and the code's International Federation in banning that technique, starting tonight.

The Castleford stand-off Rangi Chase is serving a ban for a high shoulder on the Rhinos' Zak Hardaker, although it is a fractured thumb that keeps the Leeds man out tonight. That has forced his coach, Brian McDermott, into a reshuffle in the backs. Kallum Watkins moves to full-back, a position he has not played in senior rugby, with Carl Ablett coming out of the pack to take his place in the centre.

That leaves McDermott to decide between the Australian backpacker Joe Vickery, who paid his own way to Leeds this winter looking for a chance, and the half-German student Jimmy Keinhorst on the right wing.

In the forwards, he is without the injured Ryan Bailey, a player who will miss the shoulder-charge more than most, but Jamie Peacock, someone who particularly relishes these occasions, will be back after being rested last weekend.

The Leeds chief executive, Gary Hetherington, is the most vocal advocate of expanding the World Club Challenge into a six-team format. Most of the full house at Headingley tonight would probably be of the opinion that it works pretty well in its present, condensed form.

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