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McDermott looks for lift from Headingley factor


The Headingley factor and the defiance Leeds cultivated last season can restore British fortunes in the World Club Challenge tonight.

A competition that used to be dominated by Super League clubs – not least because it is played over here before the start of the Australian season – has drifted away from them over the past three years. NRL clubs have come to England and won since 2009, starting with Leeds' defeat by tonight's opponents, Manly, that year.

Their last meeting was a tough affair and the Rhinos' coach, Brian McDermott, is prepared for it to be that way again, although he would prefer a more open spectacle. "We like to throw the ball around and play a bit," he said yesterday. "When we do that, we win."

But there is another Leeds, the grimly determined, us-against-the-world Leeds, who came from fifth place and an undistinguished regular season to win the Grand Final last year. All Leeds' success over the last decade has been built on the unity of a solid core of players who have stuck together through thick and thin. That strand of their collective personality has been strengthened by last year's experience.

The Rhinos have sacrificed a potentially bigger crowd at another venue, like Elland Road, to bring the WCC home to Headingley. What they lose in numbers, they could gain in atmosphere.

Compared with their previous appearances in this competition, Leeds have a young, inexperienced back line, with Ryan Hall at 24 very much the senior member. The even younger men around him, however, have already shown they have the self-confidence to go with their freshness and flair.

McDermott has addressed the loss of Danny Buderus, who has returned to his Australian club, the Newcastle Knights, by turning Rob Burrow into a full-time hooker. The converted scrum-half will be hoping for better memories than in 2009, when he took an early blow to the head and could remember nothing about the game.

Those who can remember that night would have to concede that Manly were the better side on that occasion. There are also areas this time where they look ominously better equipped.

One is in the centres, where they have the silky skills of Jamie Lyon, still a legend in St Helens from his time there, alongside the steel and spite of Steve Matai, one of the roughest customers ever to play the role. Those two will be a major test for Zak Hardaker and Kallum Watkins, who are gifted young lads by comparison, unless McDermott chooses to start with the more battle-hardened Carl Ablett at centre.

The Sea Eagles have a young pair of half-backs in Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans, so that is one department where Leeds, with proven match-winners in Kevin Sinfield and Danny McGuire, have the edge in experience.

Manly's front-line props, Jason King and Brent Kite, are giants and behind them comes as damaging a trio of running back-rowers as any club has recently put on to the field. Glenn Stewart, Anthony Watmough and Tony Williams have all made a mess of British defences in the recent past and the latter two have a distinctly mean streak.

That is part of the Manly personality that has often been overlooked amid the beach culture vibe of the club and is why they should start as favourites. But who expected Leeds to come from fifth to win Super League last season? With a packed Headingley behind them, they could just defy the odds again.

Leeds Webb; Jones-Bishop, Hardaker, Watkins, Hall; Sinfield (capt), McGuire; Bailey, Burrow, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Ablett. Substitutes Leuluai, Clarkson, Griffin, McShane.

Manly Brent Stewart; D Williams, Lyon (capt), Matai, Oldfield; Foran, Cherry-Evans; King, Ballin, Kite, Watmough, T Williams, Brett Stewart. Substitutes Rose, Galuvao.

Referee A Klein (Australia).